Revamped And Ready: SANDBOX, Dubai's Only Venture-Backed Startup Investment Program, Welcomes Applications For Its Fourth Cohort As SANDBOX gets set to welcome its fourth cohort, the accelerator run by Dubai Integrated Economic Zones now has the support of Oraseya Capital, making it Dubai's only venture capital-backed startup investment program.
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In 2021, under the umbrella of Dubai Integrated Economic Zones (DIEZ), the UAE saw the birth of SANDBOX, a founder-centric accelerator program for pre-seed to seed stage tech startups. Having completed three editions so far, SANDBOX has attracted well over 2,500 applications, out of which over 30 startups have been enrolled and supported by the program to date. Having thus cemented its spot as one of the most sought-after accelerator programs in the country, SANDBOX is set to onboard its newest cohort in February 2024 - only this time, there is a new entity backing it.
Meet Oraseya Capital- launched in November 2023, it is the venture capital (VC) arm of DIEZ, an authority that consolidates and integrates the products and services of Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZ), Dubai CommerCity (DCC), as well as Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO). DIEZ launched an AED500 million VC fund under Oraseya Capital for the purpose of investing in tech startups -in the pre-seed to Series B stages- that are expected to benefit UAE's economy. Commenting on this development, Hassan AlFarsi, Vice President Corporate Finance and Treasury at DIEZ, and Director at Oraseya Capital, says, "The AED500 million fund represents a substantial commitment towards the UAE startup ecosystem. What excites us most is the potential to scale our impact and help create economically impactful ventures. Immediate plans include deploying the fund strategically, exploring new investment opportunities, and expanding our network of partnerships to create a robust support system for the startups in our portfolio."
Along the way, it was obvious to the teams at both Oraseya and SANDBOX that their visions were in congruence with each other. And so, now, SANDBOX has been officially deemed a landmark initiative under Oraseya Capital. "I see this move as a reaffirmation of our commitment to amplifying what we initiated a decade ago: investing in and supporting the early-stage startup ecosystem to contribute significantly to our economy's development," AlFarsi notes. "Over the past 10 years, our region has demonstrated a robust appetite for innovation, and the pivotal role played by government initiatives in nurturing this ecosystem cannot be overstated. Demonstrating our dedication to our ecosystem is paramount, and our aim is to help high-growth potentials scale."
For those who have been a part of the team behind SANDBOX from the start, one of them being Elliott Denham, who is now the Head of Programs at Oraseya Capital, aligning the program's itinerary with Oraseya Capital's goals has been an organic transition. "Being the VC arm of DIEZ, Oraseya Capital aims to invest in startups spanning pre-seed to Series-B stage," explains Denham. "So, in this context, SANDBOX uniquely serves as a proprietary pre-seed and seed stage deal flow for Oraseya Capital. Supporting high-potential entrepreneurs at the early stages of their journey inevitably leads to higher quality deal flow for investment considerations."
Julien Plouzeau, Senior Partner, Oraseya Capital. Source: Oraseya Capital
As the startup program now opens submissions for its fourth cohort (with the application deadline being December 31, 2023), it's worth noting that SANDBOX is no longer a year-long program, but a five-month-long one. That said, it will continue to enroll companies that have a specific interest in the UAE (i.e. strategically expanding into, trading through, or selling to people in the country), which means that startups that have headquarters, offices, or operations outside of the nation are welcome to apply.
"With SANDBOX now being a part of Oraseya Capital, the program is more investment-focused," Denham adds. "And so, for 2024, we've also introduced a two-phase structure whereby, notably, startups shortlisted into Phase Two of the program will receive a US$150,000 investment ($110,000 cash + $40,000 program fee) from Oraseya Capital through a simple agreement for future equity (SAFE) agreement [a type of equity financing that is often used as an alternative to convertible notes]. Our commitment to founder-centricity remains steadfast, and we are backing that up with capital. The diversity of content and the invaluable exposure to investors remain key. This ensures that, while the program evolves, it continues to empower and support entrepreneurs in a truly relevant manner."
Julien Plouzeau, Senior Partner at Oraseya Capital, adds here that SANDBOX will aim to find innovations that are centered on -or will have an impact in- the UAE and the wider Middle East region. "We actively seek outstanding founders who are developing scalable solutions to address significant challenges in large, untapped, or frag- mented markets," says Plouzeau. "Oraseya Capital's primary focus therefore is on the UAE, meaning we invest in startups that have a connection to the country- either through the founders being based here, or by commercially serving the UAE's economy. Our evaluation process varies based on the stage of the startup; for instance, we assess pre-seed startups applying to SANDBOX more on the strength, experience, and knowledge of the founding team. In contrast, when in investing at later stages, companies in the Series A or above phases are expected to demonstrate a proven track record, and a clear path toward sustainable profitability and growth."
Hassan AlFarsi, Vice President– Corporate Finance and Treasury, DIEZ, and Director, Oraseya Capital. Source: Oraseya Capital
Plouzeau's statements offer a great segue to a topic that is perhaps on the mind of every startup founder reading this: who makes the final cut? "SANDBOX is designed to accelerate pre-seed to seed stage startups, prioritizing resilient, ambitious, and coachable entrepreneurs," Denham shares. "Whilst business model, traction, and defendability are important, articulation and humility really stand out. Applicants ought to be building proprietary technology, and, where applicable, illustrate evidence of traction (revenues or otherwise) that validate their proposition. Since our program is in-person, it is important that the startup has a nexus to UAE. Preference is placed on co-founders, although solo founders, who will be willing to bring on a co-founder, are also welcome to apply. Nevertheless, applicants must certainly highlight their motivation for joining SANDBOX, and clearly outline plans for utilizing a $150,000 capital injection."
As has been customary at SANDBOX, this new cohort too will offer a mix of in-person workshops, community sessions, meetings with VCs, and networking opportunities with industry experts. And at the core of all these events remains a tenet that has been fundamental to SANDBOX since day one: founder-centricity. "The founder's journey is at the core of our ethos, because we recognize that behind every successful startup is a team of visionary founders with excellent execution capabilities," Plouzeau says. "By understanding and supporting their journey, we not only foster a culture of empathy, but also ensure that our resources and mentorship are tailored to the unique challenges they face at the various stages of their development. It is important to understand venturing is a non-linear trajectory with many ups and downs, and being an empowering partner means being able to roll up our sleeves to help founders cross a hurdle, or to get to the next step."
Denham mirrors Plouzeau's sentiments. "There are no two ways about it– growing a startup is hard," Denham says. "We recognize that being part of a community with whom you can lean upon, share lessons with, and -from time to time- vent to, is crucial. Whether considering which content to host, identifying which guests to invite in, or determining which sprints to run, all our decisions are made with founders at the core. Is SANDBOX intensive? Yes, as a founder, you'll absolutely be challenged. But an unparalleled appeal of SANDBOX is how supportive the program is. A founder once told me that 'joining SANDBOX is like having 20+ domain experts join my team full-time,' all advocating and contributing to one's success."
Elliott Denham, Head of Programs at Oraseya Capital. Source: Oraseya Capital
That said, entrepreneurs who apply to SANDBOX shouldn't expect to be a shoo-in for it either- the program has, so far, had a sub-2% acceptance rate, which can be seen as a testament to its quality as well. The focus is on quality over quantity, Plouzeau says, and that's what has allowed the program to discover some very unique ideas from within the UAE. "In our journey, we've witnessed startups bringing forth groundbreaking solutions in each of these sectors," Plouzeau continues. "From disruptive fintech platforms transforming financial services to logistics solutions optimizing last-mile delivery, and healthtech ventures revolutionizing healthcare delivery, the diversity of innovative solutions is truly inspiring. This breadth of sectors reflects our commitment to being at the forefront of the dynamic and evolving landscape of the MENA startup ecosystem."
Such past results would undoubtedly have proven to be a major asset to Oraseya Capital itself- an entity that hopes to create a positive impact within the nation's entrepreneurial ecosystem. "Oraseya Capital aspires to be a cornerstone of the UAE's entrepreneurial success story," AlFarsi declares. "We aim to leave a lasting legacy by nurturing a generation of successful and socially impactful startups. Through our investments, mentorship, and accelerator programs, we hope to contribute significantly to job creation, economic diversification, and the establishment of the UAE as a global innovation hub."
Meanwhile, as the application deadline for Sandbox's fourth cohort draws closer, Denham reiterates that the program has, primarily, been curated to build a favorable ecosystem for startup founders. "Beyond financial metrics, our ambition is for Sandbox to become one of the most active and supportive VC-backed startup programs in the region, nurturing a thriving community of innovators," Denham says. "Our next cohort is scheduled to commence in February 2024, and applications are now open until December 31, 2023. Ambitious and determined candidates who are serious about taking their ventures to the next level -whilst receiving $150,000 in investment- can learn more and apply today at www.sandboxaccelerator.com."