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Artificial Intelligence Is Integral To Saudi Arabia's Ongoing Digital And Economic Transformation, Says Tonomus Chief Commercial Officer Yousef Khalili As a company that started out in 2021 as the technology and digital lead of Saudi Arabia's ambitious mega-project, NEOM, Tonomus came into its own in 2022 as a fully-fledged subsidiary that today bills itself as "a cognitive multinational conglomerate."

By Gina Bagnulo

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Yousef Khalili, Chief Commercial Officer and President of Professional Services of Tonomus

This article was co-written with Aby Sam Thomas, Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East.

To jump into a future of vast opportunity, one needs to have a clear vision. And Saudi Arabia-based Tonomus knows this all too well.

As a company that started out in 2021 as the technology and digital lead of Saudi Arabia's ambitious mega-project, NEOM, Tonomus came into its own in 2022 as a fully-fledged subsidiary that today bills itself as "a cognitive multinational conglomerate."

Tonomus' focus is thus on harnessing the power of cognitive technology -as opposed to smart technology- to fuel the future of cities. In fact, Tonomus has declared that it is "building the cognitive foundation and adopting hyper-disruptive solutions integral to the development of NEOM and its flagship initiatives, including THE LINE, Oxagon, and Trojena."

Entrepreneur Middle East spoke with Yousef Khalili, Chief Commercial Officer and President of Professional Services of Tonomus, at Vision Golfe, an event staged in June by Business France, a French government agency that aims to support the international development of the country's economy.

Vision Golfe, which was aimed at boosting the economic ties between France and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, played host to a host of government dignitaries and business executives, including H.E. Bruno Le Maire, Minister of the Economy, Finance and Recovery of France, H.E. Bandar bin Ibrahim Alkhorayef, KSA Minister of Industry and Mineral Resources, and others.

Khalili spoke at Vision Golfe in a session centered on artificial intelligence (AI), and how it has a pivotal role to play in the ongoing digital transformation of Saudi Arabia. "The Kingdom has a clear strategy around economic and digital transformation, and AI is in the centerpiece," he declared.

Khalili noted that Saudi Arabia has pledged billions for investments in AI, with Tonomus being one of the key players in the country making use of this cutting-edge technology, especially in NEOM. "AI is embedded [into NEOM], and utilizing it is not an option for Tonomus," he said. "Everything we do in NEOM, whether it's in mobility, whether it's in urban planning, whether it's in sports, or media, or energy, or water, if it's around the interaction between the visitors of NEOM or the people living in NEOM, it is going to be AI-enabled, and it's going to be centered around cognitive experiences."

Related: Diriyah And The Giga Projects Defining Saudi Arabia's New Tourism Economy

Screenshot of the Tonomus website.

According to Khalili, such a goal means that Tonomus has to take a proactive approach toward the potential presented by AI, and anticipate its impact, rather than simply react to it. "That's what we call the transformation from smart to cognitive," he explained. "We believe that the future is cognitive, and we believe that this future needs to be designed today, where all processes and all interactions should be augmented by AI."

But this is not something that can be done by Tonomus alone, Khalili noted- it needs to involve an ecosystem of local and international partners, and especially with entrepreneurs working in this space. This is why Tonomus has been insistent on getting entrepreneurial minds to join its mission, with one of its efforts in this regard being the establishment of the Tonomus Venture Studio.

"We have pledged US$1.5 billion for the next five years to invest in entrepreneurship," Khalili explained. "And the Tonomus Venture Studio is an entity within Tonomus that is channeling investment towards attracting entrepreneurs to the Kingdom, but, more importantly, to export entrepreneurs from the Kingdom abroad, based on the intellectual property (IP) that we jointly create with them."

One of the ways that the Tonomus Venture Studio has been inviting entrepreneurial minds to help build its cognitive ecosystem is by running contests under the banner of Tonomus Venture Competitions. Khalili said that this initiative has been received with an incredible amount of enthusiasm and participation, especially from within Saudi Arabia, and he noted that this was indicative of the growing interest around entrepreneurship in the Kingdom as well.

"I couldn't say that we're short of ideas," he said. "Maybe we could do better in terms of being focused around high impact industries for the Kingdom and for the world, but we're never short of ideas, whether they're horizontal platform ideas, or vertical solutions with a certain use cases. I couldn't be more pleased to look at some of the ideas that came through the venture competitions we put out. I think the next step for the Kingdom, in terms of entrepreneurship, would be to drive [the development] of an ecosystem between talent, and upskilling of talent."

Related: A Look At How Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 Has Spurred Entrepreneurship In The Kingdom

Screenshot of the Tonomus Competitions website.

When asked for his tips for entrepreneurs in the Kingdom and beyond, Khalili started by advising them to think long-term, but to always aim to get their innovations out in the market as quickly as you can. "You can predict trends, but you need to show quick success," he said. "Gone are the days of showing traffic for the sake of traffic- show impact on lives of people. Show impact on process optimization. Show impact on productivity gains. Show impact on coming up with a solution to a problem that a human brain alone couldn't solve. So, [aim for] impact in the short term, while you think strategically."

Khalili also noted that getting a product out in the market also allows it to elicit customer feedback that can then be used to improve its subsequent iterations. "Don't be too worried about IP, or about security and secrecy- just get it out, let people try it," Khalili said. "Put it in the hands of people, and then, ask questions. Go to customers, and say, 'If I do it this way, would you want it? If I solve this problem, would you buy it?' Try to have it seeded in at least two customers, and then preferably 10, and then try to ask preferably 50 customers, even if through a survey, to understand whether your solution works. Don't be the victim of your own success in your own brain- just because your friends and your mom and dad told you it's perfect doesn't mean it has to be perfect."

Khalili also urged entrepreneurs to show that that they have skin in the game- and this means that they need to -literally- put their money where their mouth is. And if they eventually go on to seek external investment for their enterprises, this will prove to be an important factor that investors like Khalili will take into consideration. "If you come to me showing that you've actually sold everything you own toward your business, I will believe in you," he said. "If you come to seek money, and you show up with your Patek Phillippe watch, I'm sorry, that's not going to work for me."

Related: "We Got Funded!" With A Mission To Transform The MENA's Foodtech Supply Chain, KSA-Based NOMU Raises US$5 Million In A Seed Funding Round

Gina Bagnulo

Entrepreneur Staff

Editorial Intern, Entrepreneur Middle East

Gina Bagnulo is an Editorial Intern at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She freelances for the Washington DC-based news media outlet Al-Monitor and has previously written for Gulf News. She is a student of Middle East Studies at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. 

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