How Saudi Arabia's TAQADAM Is Powering A New Cohort Of Global Founders

With this year's bootcamp now wrapped, our latest TAQADAM cohort will now reimagine and reignite their work before diving into the accelerator program.

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This article was originally published on the KAUST Innovation blog.

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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship continues to soar in Saudi Arabia. Entrepreneurial activity in the Kingdom increased by 24% over last year, and during the past three years, we recorded a 65% increase in business ownership. What’s more: Saudi Arabia is now the only nation among 23 high-income GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) economies with higher startup rates for women than men.

Inspired and supported by Vision 2030, this nationwide flowering of ingenuity is partly due to the efforts of KAUST and our TAQADAM Startup Accelerator. With each cohort, this renowned program attracts an increasingly savvy, diverse, and international set of individuals and organizations committed to enterprise and innovation.

Now, TAQADAM is an annual six-month accelerator, designed to equip founders with the funds, tools, and resources they need to drive their business forward. As participants, founders have access to co-working spaces, work closely with industry-leading mentors, and receive 150,000 SR in zero-equity funding to develop their startups. During this period founders also participate in KAUST-led training in product design, team development, business model planning, and fundraising.

After mentoring TAQADAM startups for more than six years, I am proud and awestruck by the speed with which this program has evolved into a world-leading startup accelerator. Some of this evolution is the result of lessons learned during our first five years. For example: based on our observations of which accelerator participants later succeed, we’ve adjusted the selection criteria for the six-month program to ensure that the chosen companies are the ones most likely to thrive. After all, there’s a very fine line between vision and delusion.

One criterion that we place more emphasis on today is team harmony. We’ve come to recognize that the most promising companies are those whose members demonstrate an ability to collaborate and have a clear division of roles. Startups that exhibit team harmony are more likely to withstand challenges from prospective investors, as well as the “slings and arrows” of highly competitive marketplaces. By contrast, startups launched by people who are too full of themselves tend to crack under these pressures.

We’ve also refined our ability to gauge when a startup is not yet ready for the accelerator, but might be prepared in the near future. In August, we launched our sixth TAQADAM cohort, which kicked off with the immersive two-week bootcamp for selected founders. This year, just 63 of the 825 TAQADAM applicants were chosen for the six-month cohort, but we will closely follow -and advise- some rejected applicants to determine if they might soon qualify. In our experience, the ability to “stay on pause” for a year, while continuing to work on the company, is a key indicator that a startup has “the right stuff.”

The power of TAQADAM’s bootcamp experience

The bootcamp is a defining feature of TAQADAM, bringing together accelerator participants, KAUST faculty and staff, founders, and mentors for discussions, pitch technique workshops, case studies, and opportunities to share/refine business models. In addition to connecting and working through one-on-one challenges, participants also dig into topics that will be central to the TAQADAM experience and life afterward.

This year, for example, we dove deeply into customer development- specifically, how to understand if your product or service is a market fit. We also looked at ways to ensure that startup founders are effectively leading and managing their teams, with a special focus on the pain points that can plague a founder’s life.

We also touched on the fundraising experience, and immediately witnessed mentors and investor partners taking note of promising founders and startups. In this increasingly competitive market, the best investors are focused on early discovery. They want to come in early, talk to founders, build relationships, and track their progress, so they can make informed decisions about (in many cases) multi-million-dollar investments.

Our main goal is to help founders navigate fast-changing business landscapes and dodge critical mistakes. Although most accelerators last only three months, we chose six months because this enables us to develop much more personal connections with founders, especially those leading deep-tech companies, which often need extra time to deploy a pilot, demonstrate efficacy, and collect data for prospective investors.

In retrospect, it’s amazing how fast and thoroughly the program has changed. What started as an accelerator focused on universities became broader and bigger as we started accepting international founders. And while many accelerators hit the “pause button” in 2020, we hit the gas. We doubled not just the amount of investment; we also doubled the number of companies in which the money was invested.

Engaging and activating global investors

With this year’s bootcamp now wrapped, our latest TAQADAM cohort will now reimagine and reignite their work before diving into the accelerator program. Compared with six years ago, the average participant is more mature, and the growth in the number of applicants has been mind-blowing, thanks (in part) to word-of-mouth referrals. We’ve also noticed a significant reduction in the time founders need to close their funding rounds.

As we head into 2022, I’m excited to see how much faster these founders can finish fundraising and start the challenging work of building their companies.

Related: Entrepreneurship, Community, And Confronting The Fear Of Failure

Abdulrahman M. Aljiffry

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Abdulrahman M. Aljiffry is the Accelerator Manager at Kaust Innovation.