Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority Launches SANDBOX, A New Founder-Focused Program For Early-Stage Startups

The new program will look build upon the wealth of experience that Dtec already has through hosting startup programs like Silicon Oasis Founders, Intelak, and Dubai Smart City Accelerator.

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Every startup has high-growth objectives, and every founder looks for a network of founders, investors, experts, and partners to help them achieve their goals. In reality, that search is often a challenging task. This is accentuated even more in periods of volatile investor sentiment and market stagnation, when even those mandated to support early-stage ventures record a decline in activity. This is something that has been recently seen in the MENA region, with a MAGNiTT report noting that startup accelerators accounted for only 10% of all active investors across the MENA region in 2020, a 28% drop from 2019. 

Dtec Ventures.

This is not a preferred situation for any startup ecosystem to be in, notes Julien Plouzeau, Senior Investment and Portfolio Manager, Dtec Ventures, the venture capital arm of Dtec, a wholly-owned incubation center by Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA). “The lack of programs creates a bottleneck that often leads to missed opportunities for a variety of stakeholders within an ecosystem,” he says. “This has an undeniable impact on the quality of deal flow for early-stage investors, from angels to VCs alike. Geographically speaking, the MENA’s tech community is still developing, hence startup programs play a critical role in this development and through accelerating the learning curve of founders, which has a direct ripple effect on the trajectory of the ecosystem.”

In a vibrant tech ecosystem, Plouzeau says that startup programs help put founders in the spotlight, in addition to equipping them with the tools to develop their ventures. And that’s exactly what Dtec is aiming to do with SANDBOX, a founder-focused program announced by DSOA for talented UAE-based early-stage tech startups. According to Plouzeau, the new program builds upon the wealth of experience that Dtec -one of the MENA region’s largest tech hub and co-working spaces that acts as a base of operations for more than 1,000 startups from 75 countries- in hosting startup programs like Silicon Oasis Founders, Intelak, and Dubai Smart City Accelerator, all of which have also emphasized the importance of providing more support to early-stage startups.

 Julien Plouzeau, Senior Investment and Portfolio Manager, Dtec Ventures. Source: Dtec Ventures.

“We believe that long-term, founder-centric programs are essential to develop a sustainable ecosystem,” he says. “Our team at Dtec Ventures consists of ex-founders, so we are aware of the ups and downs that startups experience along the way. In my opinion, SANDBOX confronts you to the reality of this journey, equipping you with the necessary tools and discipline to have a winning chance. In addition, this is a great opportunity for Dtec Ventures to collaborate closely with incredible entrepreneurs and make potential investments in the promising startups joining SANDBOX.”

In terms of its structure, Plouzeau explains that SANDBOX was developed by making use of a “tear up the playbook” approach, and thereby coming up with a truly founder-centric program from the outset. “We recognize that every founder has his/her own journey, so we designed a flexible structure that accommodates the reality of what it takes to be a startup founder, offering a-la-carte workshops, 1:1 mentoring, renowned keynote speakers, and community events,” Plouzea says.

In line with that, SANDBOX is a 12-month program with rolling applications, thereby allowing founders to apply whenever they feel they are ready. It targets startups with a minimum viable product or at seed stage that are considering raising institutional funds within the next 12 months. “We are looking for problem-solving founders, with a customer-centric mindset, building a highly scalable tech startup,” Plouzeau says. “Our application process is very selective. Typically, founders will apply on our website (sandbox.dtec.ae), complete an application form, and provide their pitch deck. If shortlisted, they will receive a phone call with the Dtec Ventures team. From there, the top ones will pitch to a selection committee in-person at Dtec, composed of investors and industry experts. If accepted, participants can then set up and/or transfer their business license to Dtec, where they will be based for the duration of the program.”

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Participants enrolled in SANDBOX will benefit from a heavily subsidized license setup fee, and over US$150,000 worth of perks and in-kind credits from Dtec’s partners, as well as legal and financial diagnostics. When it comes to its curriculum, SANDBOX is based around six key pillars: product development, traction, scaling, financial diagnostics, well-being, and legal support. “SANDBOX will host over 200 workshops on the six key pillars, and each startup will have access to more than 100 hours of 1:1 practical mentorship that can be availed across UX/UI optimization, sales automation, digital marketing, pitch deck review, and so much more,” Plouzeau says.

 Source: Dtec Ventures.

He adds that the content will be delivered by top industry experts, a vast majority of whom are also startup founders or ex-founders and who understand the importance of maintaining good mental health for any startup founder. For that reason, SANDBOX will give a particular attention to the founders’ well-being. “Being a startup founder is incredibly stressful,” Plouzeau says. “This comes with a burden of high expectations, financial uncertainties, and it can feel like everything is on the line, all the time. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a deteriorated mental health.”

The Dtec team is thus openly addressing this issue through SANDBOX, and building a support system for the enrolled founders that will be centered on proactive care and developing healthy habits. “We are bringing in wellness experts to run mental and physical coaching sessions, assist with goal-setting, and also provide tools to deal with stress, conflicts, and unpredictability,” Plouzeau says. “At the end of the day, business operations are only as good as the mental state of the team operating it. SANDBOX will help founders build resilience for themselves and their teams.”

 Julien Plouzeau, Senior Investment and Portfolio Manager, Dtec Ventures. Source: Dtec Ventures.

Julien concludes by pointing out that due to the program’s strong investment focus, Dtec team will also be evaluating the participants for Dtec Ventures investment deal flow, as well as connecting them with some of the region’s most prominent VCs, angels, family offices, and so on. “Upon joining SANDBOX, the startups will sign an equity warrant with Dtec Ventures, so they will naturally become part of our future deal flow,” Plouzeau says. “Our team will provide guidance to the startups that are going through a funding round and organize investment-focused workshops. In addition, our portfolio companies are involved, offering perks, mentoring, and, of course, founder-to-founder advice. We will also host regular events where SANDBOX participants will gain exposure to our network of investors in the region.”

So, what are you waiting for? Apply to SANDBOX today! 

The Executive Summary: Dtec Ventures’ Julien Plouzeau advice for startups applying to SANDBOX

1. Be genuine and transparent "We don’t expect you to have everything figured out already. It is important that we can accurately understand which stage you are at, and where you intend to go."

2. Be concise with your pitch deck "At this stage, 10 slides or so should be enough to tell a compelling story. We have plenty of resources here to help you build your pitch deck."

3. Show us your product, but… "We like to play around with products or see demos, but again, keep it to the point. We want to see how intuitive your product is, and how well it solves the problem."

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Tamara Pupic

Written By

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.