Follow The Leader: Faisal Al Hammadi, Co-Founder, YACOB Intelligent Health
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Every company founder ponders about scaling their small business, and then usually turn to analyzing customer preferences or onboarding skilled employees to help them devise and implement a growth strategy. However, Faisal Al Hammadi, co-founder of YACOB Intelligent Health, a food-tracking system encouraging healthy eating in schools, got to understand the intricacies of local market demand for his business (and drive its product development), thanks to the latest initiatives of the UAE government.
The UAE’s National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing recently launched the Community Design for Wellbeing initiative to promote wellbeing, including healthy eating habits, while one of the important pillars of the country’s Ministry of Food Security’s National Strategy concerns nutrition as well. These initiatives have been a much-needed boost for YACOB as a startup that aims to disrupt a traditional model of school canteens, targeting the US$2 billion worth market across the GCC, by improving the way parents, schools, and food vendors handle the nutrition of schoolchildren. “The UAE is such a great testing ground, because of the willingness of both B2B and B2C customers to try new technologies,” Al Hammadi says. “For example, since YACOB has already been operating in more than 50 schools across the UAE, we have gained the knowledge, confidence, and scalability capacity to soon expand into Saudi Arabia, a market that is ripe for positive transformation, especially in the education and health industries.”
Since launching in 2018, YACOB has grown from a point-of-sale platform to an AI-enabled nutrition recommendation engine for the school food ecosystemall under the leadership of Al Hammadi and his two co-founders, Tarig El-Sheikh and Wael Orabi. YACOB’s software, used by school canteens, has a built-in “parent dashboard,” which allows parents to monitor what their child has consumed as well as its nutritional value. The software was built on the YACOB team’s extensive research into why children make unhealthy eating choices, which included consulting pediatric nutrition specialists and behavioral scientists. YACOB, which awards children for making good choices with respect to their food, is not Al Hammadi’s first entrepreneurial attempt. “Being a Vice President at Mubadala Healthcare, the largest healthcare investment firm in UAE, and enabling hospitals and clinics to be built, has defined my career and personal direction towards health and education, and enhanced my passion for deploying technology in education to drive further efficiencies, accruing benefits to students and families,” he says.
His stint at Mubadala led to launching his first startup in 2012: Slices, an Abu Dhabi-based food startup that provided healthy meals at more than 50 schools across the UAE, which became a building block to today’s YACOB. As a platform, YACOB has now reached more than 18,000 users, with a constant growth of more than 400% year-on-year for the last three. Today, it processes more than $30,000 per day for more than 100,000 pupils. Al Hammadi expects that the startup will reach a market share of 7% across the entire UAE school market, including both private and public schools, by September this year. This success is due to his team, Al Hammadi points out. “It really comes down to how much time leaders spend with the people in their organization, and, based on this, how much they achieve the objectives of the company through harnessing the best skills of the people, which they can never find out if they don’t spend time with them,” he explains. “And doubling down on the importance of spending time with your team, I can say that an important experience that I went through with my teams at both Slices and YACOB is the management of internal communication. While in the early days of a startup, the founders and the first employees are all working from the same co-working space, coffee shop, or office, and they all talk in one WhatsApp group, and tasks are on one Trello board, and everything is clear and smooth, as the startup scales, one of the biggest challenges is what channels and technologies you need to select to keep the communication as smooth and efficient as in the glorious days of two founders and one employee all sitting at the same coffee shop table, and executing everything really fast. This is why, as the team becomes more specialized and smaller project teams and departments get formed, I decided to use communication and project management tools such as Slack or AHA for a more focused communication, while still being able to spend time with my team members, so that their feedback and ideas don’t get lost in the entrepreneurial brainstorm.”
Earlier this year, YACOB was one of 10 startups that graduated from the Techstars Dubai accelerator program, held in partnership with GINCO Investments and hosted at Dubai Future Foundation’s Area 2071, and to date, YACOB has raised $500,000 in funding and grants. When it comes to advice for his peers in the startup ecosystem, Al Hammadi says that entrepreneurs should always ensure they have good mentors on their side. “Focus on finding mentors who have been and who are entrepreneurs themselves, and learn from their stories and day-to-day execution, as those experiences can prove to be much more relevant and applicable to their startup’s current station, rather than any generic best practices.”