Dtec's Founder-Focused Startup Program SANDBOX Aims To Create A New Community Of Innovators In Dubai
"When we designed the program, we started primarily with one question: 'How can we best service and resource early-stage founders in a timely manner?'"
"SANDBOX is not about Dtec; I want to make that really clear! SANDBOX is about founders." In this statement, Hans Christensen, Senior Director, Technology and Entrepreneurship, at Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus (Dtec), fully encapsulates the essence of the entity's latest startup program, SANDBOX.
Open to tech startups from a minimum viable product (MVP) to seed stage, SANDBOX is a 12-month-long in-person program being held at Dtec, the largest technology innovation hub in the MENA region based out of Dubai. It accepts applications from UAE-based teams who can promise scalable business models and defensible technology. "When we designed the program, we started primarily with one question: 'How can we best service and resource early-stage founders in a timely manner?'" Christensen explains. "That's the very simple basis upon which the whole program is built. The SANDBOX program is sector-agnostic, and the reason we've chosen to do so is, because diverse startups attract diverse founders, and a diverse set of founders means a diverse set of knowledge. Inherently, when one founder is doing well, he or she will pull the others up, and everyone improves. That sense of camaraderie is a super important element to the program."
For starters, SANDBOX has no cohorts- which simply means that there are no application deadlines; the program accepts applications on a rolling basis. "Startups and founders can apply whenever they're ready for us; without the pressure of an arbitrary deadline," Christensen explains. "You can see that we are reflecting how founder-centric SANDBOX is from the application process alone, not to mention the actual program itself. SANDBOX is not an accelerator. Rather, it is a founder-centric program that's been developed from the ground up by founders, by former founders, by venture capitalists, and by Dtec, which has been at the forefront of the founder ecosystem in Dubai for years."
Hans Christensen, Senior Director – Technology & Entrepreneurship, Dtec.
Noting that the acceptance rate of applicants enrolled into SANDBOX is just shy of 2%, Christensen adds that "the application process is deliberately tough. We're looking for quality founders, building quality tech startups. We're not driven by quota." Fortunately, rejected applicants can reapply to the program as soon as four months after their prior try. Christensen's advice to founders applying to SANDBOX is to "be genuine, be concise, and showcase your product no matter how early it is." Applicants need not be commercially active but ought to show evidence of initial traction and highlight why they are the right people –and now is the right time- to be building what they're building.
SANDBOX's founder-focused approach is keen on keeping the attention solely on quality and merit. "It's really a meritocracy, so to speak," says Christensen. "If the applicant is great enough, then they can come into the program. There's nothing stopping anyone from applying to the program. We are completely open!" Here, Christensen adds, "We really focus on the business and that's where we can truly help."
Once accepted into the program, the founders stand to receive a plethora of offerings. These include over 200 hours of workshops, over 100 hours of one-to-one mentoring from industry practitioners working in the startups, weekly legal support, as well as weekly access to accountants. The SANDBOX program also offers in-kind credits valued at more than US$1 million from partners, as well as opportunities to partake in multiple Dubai-based exhibitions such as GITEX and Step Conference. "Currently, there are 19 startups enrolled in the program, which is absolutely fantastic," Christensen reveals. "They are all early stage -typically pre-seed to seed stage- many of whom are with a proven product-market-fit already. Several are also revenue generating, which I'm pleased to share. Some of them are already venture capital-backed; others are at least angel-backed. So, there's a very diverse, eclectic mix of startups so far!"
For a program that runs all year long, however, it is only right that it remains tethered to certain fundamentals that can guarantee consistency in achieving growth. Six such pillars form the basis of SANDBOX: product development, traction, scaling, financial diagnostics, legal support, and, uniquely, wellness. "We've added each pillar because they are core elements to building a successful startup," Christensen explains. "We are arguably the program in the region that places an equal weighting on building a product, getting it out to market, sales and fundraising, as we do on wellness, founder wellbeing, mental resilience, fostering a winning team culture, and everything that comes with the wellbeing discipline."
Christensen then goes on to explain how SANDBOX has vetted and assigned local and global industry experts who contribute to each program pillar. "These experts and mentors are on hand as-and-when the founders need them. They contribute to each pillar in the form of workshops and one-to-ones, with their teams often working on or in the startup on behalf of the founders as well," he adds. But, access to expert mentorship isn't all that is up for grabs within these pillars. "What is unique about the structure of the SANDBOX program is that founders can pick and choose which pillar to focus on, based upon their priorities or key performance indicators in any given day, week, month, or quarter," Christensen adds. "That allows us to offer a program that accommodates to the needs of founders, not just the needs of startups, across lots of different disciplines at the same time."
And with the global business landscape facing what is being called the "funding winter," Christensen expects the two most utilized pillars of the program so far -financial diagnostics and legal support- to continue being in high demand. "Once a startup achieves product market fit, or is perhaps in its growth stage, it typically looks to raise funds, and so the founders often leverage the support of those two pillars to put them in the most optimal position to fundraise," Christensen adds. "It's also worth mentioning that fundraising is tricky and challenging at an early-stage across the board, across the world, throughout time. While the other pillars are also very well utilized, there's a lot of demand from the founders on these two pillars because, ultimately, they are not accountants or lawyers; they're entrepreneurs!"
But amid all the technical nitty gritties of building a startup that's being addressed by SANDBOX, one mustn't overlook its sixth and final pillar: wellness. 72% of the entrepreneurs sampled for a 2021 study by UC Berkeley suffered from mental health issues. Another study by Wamda and Microsoft showed that 55% of startup founders in the MENA region were stressed due to investment-related issues, and 35.9% of founders rated the state of their mental health as "bad." To address this looming issue, SANDBOX organizes regular team outings for its startups, as well as yoga and meditation sessions.
But there is one other event that Christensen believes has been key in catering to the program's community-building and wellness goals. "Every Monday morning, we host a breakfast whereby we invite one guest in," Christensen reveals. "The guest is typically a venture capitalist, an angel, or a Series A++/B/C entrepreneur from the region, and we have a roundtable discussion with no agenda, just an open conversation amongst founders to learn from one another. We've been humbly surprised by the level of uptake and engagement not just from the founders, but also from the broader Dubai community, for this initiative."
Here, Christensen adds that the in-person nature of the SANDBOX program contributes to better founder wellbeing. "Within just a few months of launching, it is so great to see these founders supporting one another; sharing their personal successes as well as lessons from failures," Christensen says. "It reduces the stress level of the individual founder when he/she has somebody to talk to, who's going through probably something similar or can pick the other person up during a low phase. That is something that's really working out well."
As the SANDBOX team now looks towards working with the 19 startups currently enrolled in the program, Christensen reveals that this is only one out of the many endeavors in achieving a much bigger picture. "We obviously want to create the innovation community of Dubai, that's our ultimate goal as Dtec," he says. "One bigger goal of Dubai Silicon Oasis would be to attract foreign direct investment into the country. So, SANDBOX is one program that is up and running, but we are already looking at other programs as well. It's too early to say what exactly, but we want to be the space where innovation and entrepreneurship is happening. And right now, we could not be more satisfied with what we have created with SANDBOX."
SANDBOX STORIES: A COMPLETE LIST OF THE 19 STARTUPS CURRENTLY ENROLLED AT DTEC'S SANDBOX PROGRAM
AHAD - A B2B marketplace for cybersecurity solutions
ASKWHO - A social network to meet new people and join local events
Bitocast - A platform to explore, listen to, and create micro podcasts
Delivers.ai - A platform that enables autonomous, robotic last-mile delivery
Distichain - A B2B marketplace solution for seamless global trade
DUDI - A sports social marketplace enabling sports enthusiasts to connect, book and play
EYouth - A platform providing online interactive learning programs for youth in MENA
Hifz - A startup addressing the issue of unsold food
Hulexo - A subscription-based low-code ERP solution for SMEs
Ingeniodata - An indoor wayfinding solution merging maps, augmented reality and Bluetooth beacons
iSchool - An Edtech platform that teaches coding, robotics and graphic design programs to children online
Konspot - A white-label video conferencing tool for any business workflow
MENAcashback - A cashback loyalty platform for consumers in the MENA region
MENAflow - A marketing automation platform to increase your eCommerce revenues by 30%
Oslo - Offering on-demand cloud-based pet insurance across MENA
Revent - A B2C marketplace specializing in pre-owned electronic devices
SanoCRM - A platform that enables healthcare providers to attract, acquire and retain more patients
SawaUp - A learning experience platform to build a future-ready workforce
Sketshare - A collaborative digital whiteboard with video call functionality