Dubai’s desire to capture and leverage innovative technological breakthroughs is manifest in the number of incentives offered for the world’s smartest minds and most dynamic start-ups. While there are a number of independent entities offering funding and incentives for forward-thinking enterprises, the emirate’s leadership has also developed a framework of agencies and organisations charged with attracting talent.
In February 2016 Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, announced sweeping pro-business changes to the federal government during the “Dialogue of the Future”, a three-hour question-and-answer session that took place on social media. That same year saw the creation of the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), an organisation looking to bring government and private actors together to shape the future of strategic sectors in the medium and long term. The DFF also administers the Dubai Futures Accelerator programme, chaired by the crown prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, which in October 2017 welcomed its third cohort of participants. In other activities, in 2017 Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Gergawi, the minister of cabinet affairs and the future, and managing director of the DFF, co-presented the first annual “Global State of the Future” report at Davos with Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. The report included key technological developments and their impacts on energy, education, transport, space, health and water.
Among other goals, the DFF was created to ensure the emirate adopted a strategic approach to its future. The foundation’s initiatives have included the world’s first 3D-printed office, completed in 2016 as part of the emirate’s commitment to 3D print one-quarter of its new buildings by 2030; an autonomous transport strategy, which envisages 25% of all journeys around Dubai in 2030 will be made by driverless vehicles; and the Museum of the Future, which will open to the public in 2019 to give visitors insight into the world they could be inhabiting in 2035 and the potential impacts they may see from artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain digital transactions and robotics. “3D printing is rapidly expanding at a global level. The DFF is doing a key job in developing this sector in Dubai,” Louay Dahmash, head of Autodesk Middle East told OBG. “Knowledge is one of the key advantages of Dubai over other markets as it has an important pool of human capital available that needs to be identified, nurtured and driven forward.”
The Dubai Future Accelerators programme, a flagship project of the DFF, provides established technology firms with a chance to use the emirate as a test bed through high-level partnership agreements with entities in both the public and private sectors. Over a nine-week period, the government hosts select companies tasked with finding innovative solutions to the most pressing global issues. More than 4000 firms applied to participate in the first two programmes, with government entities signing memoranda of understanding (MoUs) to develop 19 pilot projects with the first cohort and 28 with the second. The inaugural programme saw government entities approve $33.5m in deals with participating companies to create prototypes of their products in the city.
Mukund Menda, MENA director at Civil Maps, a Silicon Valley start-up that provides 3D mapping technology for autonomous vehicles, participated in Dubai Future Accelerators and believes the emirate is already benefits. “It is about bringing leading companies from around the world to Dubai, and many of those companies have set up operations in the city after attending the accelerator. Based on that, I am extremely optimistic about the ways in which these technology companies can help to shape the future,” he told OBG.
A Bright Light
Among the companies working on pilot projects, Solar Bankers, a Singapore-based technology company, will work with the blockchain firm ShellPay to create SunChain, a community where electricity consumers can locally produce solar energy and sell it to their neighbours using a cryptocurrency called SunCoins. Solar Bankers supplies its own solar panels and smart meters, and is working with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) to test the efficacy of its patented refractive foil in the emirate’s sunny climate. “We spent nine weeks on the programme and had the opportunity to interact with technology companies from around the world, which was fascinating,” Carlo Maragliano, chief technology officer with Solar Bankers, told OBG. “As a result of the programme, we have started a pilot project with DEWA, which is a fantastic opportunity to trial our technology. For us, this was what Dubai Future Accelerators was all about.”
Initiatives in parallel with the October 2017 cohort include a humanitarian accelerator programme sponsored by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to focus technological solutions on improving education and employment prospects for refugees, as well as water sanitation in developing countries.
The emirate is also keen to explore finance technology (fintech) applications. In January 2017 the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and consultancy Accenture launched the FinTech Hive, the region’s first fintech accelerator, focusing on the financial services industry. According to Accenture, fintech $50bn in global investment from 2010 to 2016, but at the time of the DIFC’s launch, just 1% of those funds were being allocated in the MENA region.
The FinTech Hive at DIFC ran a 12-week programme to explore the potential for applications in trade finance, peer-to-peer financing and sharia-compliant services. In August 2017, 11 start-ups began the first edition, including two from the UAE: Bridg, a consumer-to-merchant smartphone payment platform, uses bluetooth to send and receive money from offline smartphones, while the investment platform Sarwa uses automated technology to enable young professionals in the Middle East to manage diversified portfolios.
In June 2017 the Mohammed bin Rashid Fund for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs), the financial arm of Dubai SME, a resource centre for SMEs and part of the DED, announced an MoU had been signed with Beehive, a peer-to-peer lending platform focused on financing for SMEs. “The agreement with Beehive provides for a credit guarantee of up to Dh500,000 ($136,100) on SME financing for a period up to 36 months, with the fund acting as the guarantor,” Saeed Matar Al Marri, deputy CEO of Dubai SME, told local media. “SMEs will be able to utilise the funds thus secured to grow and compete with major companies in the domestic market, eventually achieving sustainability and expanding into global markets.”
In early 2018 a new workspace is due to open at Jumeirah Emirates Towers serving as a so-called experimental nucleus for technology companies. The government’s Area 2071 is described as the first step in the UAE Centennial 2071 objectives, which will showcase the long-term work planned to cement the country’s reputation as a world leader. The space will be used to host Dubai Future Accelerators as well as other private accelerator programmes. The government expects participants at Area 2071 will include freelancers, corporates, start-ups and national agencies that will work jointly on sponsored global challenges.
At the beginning of 2017 investment services company Dubai Holding announced the creation of Dubai Future Holding Investments to support the development and growth of innovative young businesses. When commenting on the initiative, Ahmad bin Byat, vice-chairman and managing director of Dubai Holding, told local media. “The MENA region is still in the early stages compared to more developed markets in terms of investment into new ventures, especially in the technology sector. This has to change if we are to help the next generation build the successful businesses that will support our future economies.”
For those start-ups pursuing seed capital, Dubai also has a variety of private venture capital funds and accelerators. Turn8 invites new businesses from around the world for a three-month programme and offers $30,000 to help seed technology to the market. It has a portfolio of over 70 global start-ups, including Bridg and 13 other UAE firms. Global equity crowdfunding platform Eureeca, meanwhile, connects individual investors and institutions to buy shares in growth-oriented businesses. Magnitt is an online directory and platform that enables entrepreneurs to connect with the MENA investment community in order to secure backing and support for their start-up businesses. Digital technology companies can find a co-working space at AstroLabs Dubai, which hosts 80 member companies at its complex in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers. Full members pay Dh2300 ($626) per month for an annual contract that includes licensing with the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre free zone, and provides the physical, market and financial infrastructure to facilitate international commodities trade.
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