Interview: Badr Jafar, CEO, Crescent Enterprises
Which sectors offer the best prospects for venture capital (VC) amid the widespread disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic?
BADR JAFAR: As we look to the post-pandemic world, health care, education and the supply chain represent promising and impactful areas for VC investors. Demand for these sectors has been driven primarily by changes in consumer habits, which will most likely persist beyond 2021. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses, tech innovation will continue to take centre stage. As such, CE-Ventures – the corporate venture capital platform of Crescent Enterprises – will continue to invest in high-growth tech subsectors, including supply chain, medical, education and food technologies. To date we have deployed $180m in start-ups and VC funds across the MENA region, the US and South-east Asia, and intend to double this figure over the next few years.
However, other segments are also likely to grow during the recovery, including some that endured hardship during the lockdown periods. For example, aviation, tourism and traditional retail are expected to experience expansion due to pent-up demand. Many retailers in MENA are dealing with a new operating climate that may require a hybrid approach, allowing for an immersive experience that facilitates both offline and online transactions.
In what ways can leading companies, start-ups and the government of Sharjah better engage with one another to foster innovation?
JAFAR: Businesses are adopting new models to tap into entrepreneurial innovation. For example, Crescent Enterprises created a dedicated platform, CE-Creates, to incubate start-ups and help them scale up. Another approach is to link companies and startups through acceleration programmes involving mentoring, co-working spaces, and shared services such as marketing, human resources and accounting. We also provide other forms of support to help start-ups expand into new markets, such as strategic advice on operations and business strategy, leveraging the diversity of sectors in which we operate.
Conversely, large companies can tap start-ups’ innovation to accelerate their own digital transformations. For example, Gulftainer’s Future of Ports Start-up Challenge helped identify start-ups from around the world with the ambition to transform port management and logistics. Long-term partnerships such as the one we have with the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa) have also proven to be effective in promoting innovation. In the second quarter of 2020 Sheraa and CE-Ventures disbursed more than Dh700,000 ($191,000) in equity-free grants to 11 start-ups, helping them remain afloat as they navigated the pandemic. Moreover, a greater emphasis should be placed on the role of the arts and humanities in driving innovation. Sharjah is in a good position to embrace this opportunity, with its thriving and internationally recognised art scene.
How can Sharjah best harness the benefits of technological advancement?
JAFAR: Sharjah can benefit significantly from technological development by acting as a centre for the flow of goods and services – both physical and digital – between the East and the West. Sharjah has been a regional pioneer in logistics, with the first international airport in the UAE, and the first container terminal in the Gulf at Khorfakkan. The emirate continues to have strong land, sea and air connections. The pandemic pushed logistics to become even more digitised, and with economic diversification, the UAE and Sharjah have transformed into strategic supply chain hubs. The education sector will also play crucial role in harnessing technological advancements, and the University City of Sharjah, and the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park are models for this.
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