A Launchpad For Success: How StartAD Has Bolstered Abu Dhabi's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

In three years, startAD has graduated 118 global startups that have raised US$50 million, secured over 50 pilots with corporations, generated $15 million in revenue annually, and created over 250 jobs.
A Launchpad For Success: How StartAD Has Bolstered Abu Dhabi's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
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Entrepreneur Staff
Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East
15+ min read

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When New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) opened its campus in 2010, it was a key step in the UAE’s strategy to move the country into a knowledge-based economy, remembers Ramesh Jagannathan, NYUAD Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship.

At the time, Jagannathan was among the small group of founding faculty members on the ground, having joined NYUAD after a three-decade-long career at Eastman Kodak Company, and “having witnessed firsthand its rise and fall as a giant in corporate innovation.” As the Associate Dean of NYUAD Engineering, he helped build the university, and was then invited by the Abu Dhabi government to be one of the five experts to certify its 2030 vision. “I was struck by the immense potential for the Abu Dhabi startup ecosystem to lead the UAE and the MENA region,” Jagannathan says. “We bootstrapped a pilot entrepreneurship program at NYUAD in 2015, and offered free weekly educational and training programs for the UAE community on lean startup, customer discovery, digital marketing, startup financing and legal, angel investment, and fundraising.”

In 2016, Jagannathan and his team managed to successfully raise significant funds for startAD, which was built as a model for entrepreneurial education and innovation for the GCC region by NYUAD and Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi-based government company that bills itself as one “that delivers projects enriching the UAE's social, cultural, and educational landscape.” Despite the then ongoing global oil crisis, Jagannathan remembers startAD finding favor with the ecosystem at large owing to the way it worked. “The model enables major regional corporations to innovate with global startups through an immersive program that is based on a disciplined, repeatable, and scalable process to efficiently de-risk the path to product/market fit,” he explains. Indeed, in a short period of three years, startAD has created a successful ecosystem platform of programs aimed at regional capacity building, youth entrepreneurship, research commercialization, and business acceleration for SME, corporate, and government innovation. It has graduated 118 global startups that have raised US$50 million, secured over 50 pilots with corporations, generated $15 million in revenue annually, and created over 250 jobs. Over 6,000 people have participated in startAD programs in these three years. “We strongly believe that startAD’s holistic approach, the processes and programs are directly applicable to scale and build MENA and other emerging ecosystems,” Jagannathan declares. "It is an unprecedented opportunity for the UAE to be the regional leader in the 21st century entrepreneurial economic transformation.”

However, this process has not been smooth sailing at all times. Robyn Brazzil, Director at startAD, says that working in an emerging ecosystem often included overcoming the lack of cultural acceptance of entrepreneurship and adoption of new technologies. “This was universal across the stakeholders we engaged with, from corporates, government entities, and even within the university,” Brazzil says. “The only remedy for this was time, and demonstrating the viability of entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path through regional successes like Careem and Souq.” Other challenges included finding people with the right mix of expertise and the right mindset to join the program as mentors, trainers and coaches. Today, she adds, their team of experts is their biggest strength, who are constantly developing new program offerings that do not currently exist in the market, which include a community based prototyping lab, a hardware-based accelerator, a UAE-wide youth incubation program, and most recently, a deep tech focused incubator targeting UAE research and faculty. Jagannathan adds that startAD’s strategy to build the regional ecosystem is based on the philosophy of demystifying and democratizing the entrepreneurial innovation process, especially in the digital smart space. To provide an example, Jagannathan explains that its Al Warsha program is based on a gender, education, and age neutral philosophy, where a grandparent in their seventies, or a construction worker, or an architect who is interested in transforming their career, or even an artist would learn how to build their own smart systems in a matter of hours. They would learn using open source platforms how to build prototypes, such as autonomous cars, smart vacuum cleaners, a smart watch, or a smart speaker, and interact with them using voice, gesture or facial recognition.

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Furthermore, the Al Warsha program helps startups and potential entrepreneurs to productize their innovations in Shenzen, China, by connecting them to startAD’s network partners. Most importantly, these programs are offered to people at no cost. “Our philosophy is to not just teach the community how to code, but give them the entire digital open source tool kit to build any smart system they could imagine,” Jagannathan says, explaining that the Al Warsha program is conceptualized as the foundation to catalyze and build the innovation infrastructure across the entire regional community, and as such, it has so far trained over 1,000 people and supported over 20 prototypes. “I am also proud of the community that we have built and the ‘give back’ mentality of our entrepreneurs,” Jagannathan adds. “For example, one of our youth program participants had an idea for a hardware-based startup and was running into challenges on how to scale his product to be production ready. He was able to access our lab facilities with the help of our team and prototype several versions of the product, and then we were able to connect him with other more experienced entrepreneurs we have worked with, both within the UAE and abroad, to answer questions about how to manufacture and grow a hardware-based business. At other times, we see a successful startup that takes on talent from another startup from the same cohort that was unable to continue. There are many such examples where an entrepreneur can truly start with an idea, and get the resources they need every step of the way through our network and community. These opportunities make me proud of the community that we have built.”

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Lenka Basweidan, founder and COO at Arabee, a multi-format online Arabic language program, confirms that taking part in startAD proved beneficial to them due to forging valuable connections with other startups and industry experts. “You get out what you put in, and this quote encapsulates our participation in the startAD program,” she says. “The startAD team has been key in ensuring we got the most out of the program. If we needed help in a way that was not part of the incubator, they went out of their way to help us in any way they could, but attendance and participation are key. You are given the opportunities to connect with fellow entrepreneurs, learn new skills, refine existing ones, acquiring knowledge you didn't even realize you needed to know. The one-to-one mentorship part was particularly helpful as it is tailored to your startup. So, the more effort you put in, the more benefit you will get out.” This sentiment is echoed by Nadim Habr, CEO of DesignHubz. “Being part of startAD enabled DesignHubz to accomplish in 10 days what would have taken us three months,” Habr says. “I would recommend any fellow entrepreneur to join startAD. The program is an intensive two-week sprint that gives startups access to customers, investors, and mentors. These are the top three priorities for any startup.” Prateep Basu, founder of SatSure, a spatial data intelligence startup, moved from India to attend the startAD program in order to learn about the MENA region’s construction market. “We learnt quite a lot about the cul- tural way of doing business in the UAE, and through our interaction with local firms, such as IMKAN, CCC, ADM, and ProTenders. The networking sessions with representatives of these companies, the mentors of the program, and the other entrepreneurs who were part of the cohort along with us gave us deep insights into technology trends in this sector, key market gaps which people are excited about solving, and potential partnerships that we could have in the region. Because of this wholesome experience and the fact that SatSure won the Imkan Innovation Award of $10,000 along with a paid pilot project, we have been actively seeking business in the region, and we have also identified a local partner, Abu Dhabi-based Digital Trinity, to establish a joint venture with in order to bring our automated satellite image analytics products to the region to help executives in the construction and oil and gas sectors address some of their key project management challenges.” The main benefit of the program, Basu says, is that it is very goal-driven. “To make the best out of this program, I would suggest coming prepared for 10 days of high energy, a good mix of academic and practical coaching on business modeling, lots of coffee, and very little sleep!” One of startAD’s key advantages lies in its collaborative model that involves many stakeholders across corporates, government, investors, and academia, both locally and globally, and across the entire startup life cycle, Jagannathan explains. “This means that we can support ventures from the idea- tion stage all the way through launch and exploring new markets,” he adds. startAD’s accelerator model is also a low-risk way to explore the market, since it takes zero equity while start- ups gain the tools necessary to develop a robust sales process, and understand pilots and partnerships while apply- ing them directly with its corporate partners. “We work with our corporate partners closely for months ahead of the accelerator cycle to align on desired outcomes, refine their problem statements, and match them with the startups,” Jagannathan explains. “The biggest value we give startups, besides customers and funding, is saving them time. Our program is designed to condense what can be a painful 12-18 month sales cycle into a matter of weeks and months. This is huge for a startup at the early stages where time wasted on big corporates that will go nowhere or who ask for endless customizations can kill a startup’s growth trajectory.”

Going forward, Jagannathan and his team do not intend to slow down. Some of the key milestones ahead of them, he says, include setting up the infrastructure and catalyzing the necessary stakeholders to support research commercialization. “While NYUAD is our home, we work side by side with world leading researchers and labs that are creating amazing innovations in deep tech that can be grown from the UAE,” he says. “This is a long-term process that we hope to see materialize in faculty spinoffs in the next five years from not just NYUAD but other UAE universities. We are also looking forward to supporting more students through our youth programs, which will focus more on future skills building and creating conscientious leaders that will create products that have a deeper impact on society. Lastly, we are proud to be a part of the vibrant Abu Dhabi ecosystem where month over month. new initiatives are being launched. I think given all of the recent activity in the past 12-18 months, we will start seeing results in the next few years, which, to me, would translate to more companies establishing in Abu Dhabi, and more Abu Dhabi companies securing post Series A rounds of funding.”

THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: startAD’s corporate partners sound off on the program’s growth and development over the years 

Samah Al Hajeri, Chief Innovation Officer, UAE Ministry Of Economy
“I believe that startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will lead the economic growth in the UAE and the GCC over the next few years. The UAE government has been aware of the importance of startups and SMEs in supporting the national economy and its crucial contribution to GDP; hence, there are many initiatives and projects to support and encourage both locals and residents to start up their businesses in UAE. The importance of having a program like startAD in UAE lies in its main role in stimulating the growth potential of the UAE in the region, being a hub to accelerate and support startups and innovation, as well as in developing the startup ecosystem in Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The startAD program actually contributes highly by removing the barriers to entry, providing tangible resources and providing the environment and ecosystem, so that the very best ideas and entrepreneurs are allowed to flourish. We have decided to associate with startAD due to their impact in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem as in just three years, startAD has welcomed over 6,000 participants and accelerated over 100 startups– 68 of which are based in the UAE. Moreover, startAD has it all in one; their experienced staff and the local expertise with international exposure and knowledge, the facility and space provided to startups from labs, spaces and prototyping facility, the quality and the content of the training courses as well as the programs and mentorship that are delivered. Furthermore, their strong international network being integrated with NYU is an important factor to support startups. Dealing with startAD’s professional and experienced staff made my experience with startAD was very pleasant. Our employees have learned a lot, and enjoyed the experience, which has resulted in some of the employees have decided to incubate their personal projects and ideas in startAD.”

Maan Al Awlaqi, Executive Director – Strategy & Transformation, Aldar Properties
“Innovation, technology, and supporting startups has always been at the forefront of the UAE’s agenda as the country transitions to a knowledge-based economy. As such, a program like startAD is perfectly aligned with national objectives and developing a supportive ecosystem for startups. The Manassah entrepreneurship competition, which was designed to support the UAE’s most ambitious retail and F&B entrepreneurs, is Aldar’s first retail startup program in partnership with startAD. Joining forces with this global accelerator is a fantastic way for us to build a community of entrepreneurs and harness their talent to energize our communities. Choosing them as our partner also came as a natural decision since they have already made great strides in that domain, directly contributing to the UAE’s economy by providing startups with the nec- essary tools to launch, develop, and scale their ventures. So far, this competition has given us the pleasure to meet with a number of creative and talented people developing innovative concepts, and we look forward to working closely with them. It is really exciting to see homegrown concepts become part of our thriving retail portfolio. Another reason why we are so keen to work with more startups is the mutual benefit. They benefit from working with a company such as ours that can offer scale and large company expertise, and we can learn from them. Specifically, we can learn how to be more dynamic, innovative, and agile– three of our core values at Aldar and areas we are constantly seeking to build upon. Innovation is something that is embedded in our corporate mission statement, and to increase our maturity in this area, we plan to inject more startup solutions into our business. We advise any interested startups to reach out to us in order to explore collaboration opportunities. We are very keen to support them take their plans to the next level, and identify the best ways for them to grow.”

Walid El Hindi, CEO, Imkan Properties
“We believe that the UAE is an environment where innovative and entrepreneurial spirit thrives with its excellent infrastructure and business-friendly economy. At the very core of IMKAN is an ethos to ‘do this differently,’ as we aim to redefine and foster new standards of modern community living and national development through innovation and forward-thinking. As a major push towards supporting Abu Dhabi as the creative and entrepreneurial capital of the UAE, we decided to partner up with NYU’s startAD program. We fully support and share their vision in advancing local industries through introducing global technology. Furthermore, we believe the startAD program truly unlocks the country’s potential by equipping students, startups, and corporates from across the globe with the necessary tools needed for homegrown innovation that serve a global need, while contributing to UAE’s economy through new business development and job creation. Last year, we embarked on a corporate innovation partnership with startAD, where we awarded the startup SatSure with the US$10,000 IMKAN Innovation Award. The geospatial data analytics company leverages advances in satellites, machine learning, and big data analytics, and supports local corporations in developing decision-making insights for planning and monitoring assets. This year, we officially launched the pilot program with SatSure as part of our agreement as Venture Launchpad sponsors. We are at the initial stage of the program, whereby the team is developing the software and installing the hardware onsite, and we are very pleased with our progress so far.”

Mouza Al Nasri, Acting CEO, Khalifa Fund For Enterprise Development
“Abu Dhabi has been and will continue to show economic gains by supporting efforts in value creation, knowledge transfer and diversification. Part of that effort is nurturing and growing the local entrepreneurial talent. Anchored at NYU Abu Dhabi and powered by Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi government owned company, startAD is a key player and a positive contributor within Abu Dhabi’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. startAD is an Abu Dhabi-based global accelerator steering technology startups to launch, develop, and scale their ventures. Accordingly, Khalifa Fund, an enabler and orchestrator of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, has chosen to work with startAD due to synergies and vision to foster the local entrepreneurial talent by bringing global perspective into local context. startAD are passionate and serious about their mission. They do not take shortcuts, are committed to success, and they deliver. startAD was able to adapt quickly to changes and needs, embrace collaboration, and have a proactive attitude to achieve the desired goals. Entities, private, public or semi-public, could easily benefit by working with startAD to foster both the entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial talent for a more vibrant economy. We strongly recommend working with startAD, and we plan co-create and deliver high-impact programs in the future. startAD are passionate and serious about their mission. They do not take shortcuts, are committed to success, and they deliver.”

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