Empowering The Next Generation Of Innovators: UAE Ministry Of Finance's Chief Innovation Officer Fatima Al Naqbi On The Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund

"By seeding innovation into the very fabric of the UAE and creating an ecosystem that can identify, support, and nurture innovations, the UAE continues to push the boundaries of progress."

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As anyone can tell you, being an entrepreneur is no easy feat, and having the right support, as well as access to finance and community, among other factors, is imperative to one's path to success in this field. In the UAE, one entity that is putting in the effort to cultivate such facets to support entrepreneurship is the Mohammed bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF), which was launched by the country's Ministry of Finance (MoF) in 2016. According to MoF Chief Innovation Officer Fatima Al Naqbi, who's also the MBRIF's official representative, the initiative came into being with the mission to make the UAE a hub for global innovation. And it's with that goal in mind that the MBRIF has set out to both identify and nurture high potential entrepreneurs within the UAE and around the world. "By seeding innovation into the very fabric of the UAE and creating an ecosystem that can identify, support, and nurture innovation, the UAE continues to push the boundaries of progress," Al Naqbi declares.

MBRIF

The MBRIF focuses on empowering innovators in seven different business sectors- these include technology, education, water, transport, clean energy, health, and space, all of which have been laid out in the UAE National Innovation Strategy. The enterprises that the MBRIF selects are then provided with access to tailored financial and non-financial resources, mentorship, networking options, and affordable funding, right here in the UAE. In fact, the MoF has appointed the Emirates Development Bank to host and operate the MBRIF with a provision of AED2 billion to fill the funding gap for entrepreneurs.

Its first key program is the Guarantee Scheme, which provides business owners with access to financial support through flexible government-backed loans and reduced collateral requirements. Open to all UAE-based entities, the program does not take any equity in return, with it seeking companies that have already commercialized its product or service, and is on the path to breakeven. Besides this, its criteria are simple enough: the business should fall under one of the seven UAE National Innovation Strategy priority sectors, is in a post-ideation phase of development, and have a strong market potential.

This is also the eligibility criteria for its second program- introduced in 2018, the Innovation Accelerator (IA) serves as the vehicle to identify high potential innovators worldwide. The nine-month-long program seeks applicants with a working prototype, which has either been launched in the market, or is ready to be launched. As a member-centric program, participants are then assigned a coach to access an array of services designed for the startup's most critical needs, which include tackling any kind of challenge with the help of the program's network of partners, experts, and other resources.

Fatima Al Naqbi, Chief Innovation Officer at the Ministry of Finance, and official representative of the MBRIF. Source: MBRIF

It is thus with a holistic mix of financial and non-financial support that the MBRIF hopes to help businesses propel their products and services to new standards. For Al Naqbi, the most appealing part of the MBRIF's offering is that it is always customized to cater to the entrepreneurs they support in each cohort. "The MBRIF doesn't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach and develops a tailor-made program to support founders and innovators, which makes it unique," she says. "For this reason, the MBRIF has carefully crafted programs to address the needs of every innovator."

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And the results speak for themselves. For instance, consider agritech startup Pure Harvest, which the MBRIF supported through its the Guarantee Scheme, and is now being seen as a success story with a rapidly expanding presence across the GCC. There's also on-demand services platform RIZEK (an alum of the MBRIF Innovation Accelerator program), which was the first company in the UAE to provide COVID-19 PCR test and vaccine services to customers at their homes. Meanwhile, another alum of the MBRIF, robo-advisor digital platform Sarwa, has recently closed its US$15 million funding round, and has launched Sarwa Crypto Portfolio in July, designed to enable users to invest in bitcoin, as well as Sarwa Trade in November, its commission-free stock trading platform.

These are just a few of the many companies that the MBRIF has supported through the years, with Al Naqbi noting that since its inception, it has attracted applications from over 67 countries around the world. In terms of impact, Al Naqbi points out that the MBRIF has onboarded and supported more than 85 businesses, which have been able to collectively raise over AED246 million in funds, and created over 100 new jobs, while also contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The MBRIF'S winter cohort announced in January 2020. Source: MBRIF

Applications have now been opened for the MBRIF Innovation Accelerator's fifth cohort, with Al Naqbi saying that participants will be able to access resources that will support their businesses in a world still grappling with the coronavirus crisis. "In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, our teams have been working with existing and new cohorts to navigate the challenges they are facing by providing them with the necessary tools and skills to become more agile and flexible in their offerings, in order to not just overcome their challenges, but to turn them into rewarding opportunities," she explains.

For entrepreneurs who get to be a part of the MBRIF family, Al Naqbi urges them to take advantage of every opportunity that they are provided with, given that they are all meant to enable an environment where creative solutions for local, regional, and global challenges can be developed. "Through the delivery of our programs, we have observed that innovators who are the most engaged, committed, and open to examine every aspect of their business benefit most from the wide network of mentors and market experts that are dedicated to helping them optimize their success through the MBRIF," she says. But what does it take for a startup to be a part of the MBRIF's programs in the first place? "For us, the ideal applicant is one that can continually contribute to the UAE's innovation ecosystem," Al Naqbi says. "In short, it is critical for innovators to become a part of the fabric of the country, its youth, and its residents to make a lasting impact on the UAE and create a culture of innovation within the society."

The Executive Summary: Fatima Al Naqbi, Chief of Innovation, UAE Ministry of Finance

What is your advice for entrepreneurs seeking to build business in our current circumstances?

"I believe every challenge is an opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly caused a great amount of uncertainty, but we do think it has also posed an opportunity for many entrepreneurs to transform their thinking to secure long-term sustainable growth. For example, one of the key trends we have observed during the past year is the acceleration of advanced technologies across different industries. This spells the need for entrepreneurs and businesses to create solutions accordingly. Similarly, there are other opportunities that exist for entrepreneurs in this market. My advice to innovators is to assess their existing business models, and ensure that their operations and plans are adaptable to withstand any future challenges."

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