The Recap: Enterprise Agility Forum 2022

Staged with the support of Dubai Startup Hub, an initiative of Dubai Chamber of Commerce, as well as Life On Screen, the Enterprise Agility Forum 2022 also played host to the finals of the Dubai Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, which saw three promising startups awarded a total of AED150,000 in prizes.

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The sixth edition of the Enterprise Agility Forum, which was held on January 20, 2022, under the Industry Intel banner of Entrepreneur Middle East at the Dubai Exhibition Centre in Expo 2020 Dubai, saw an audience of more than 200 people come together to discuss and debate key themes pertaining to the region’s startup ecosystem.

Staged with the support of Dubai Startup Hub, an initiative of Dubai Chamber of Commerce, as well as Life On Screen, the Enterprise Agility Forum 2022 also played host to the finals of the Dubai Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, which saw three promising startups awarded a total of AED150,000 in prizes.

Aby Sam Thomas. Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

With Entrepreneur Middle East Editor in Chief Aby Sam Thomas acting as the emcee for the event, the Forum was launched with a keynote address from Dubai Chambers Vice Chairman H.E. Faisal Bin Juma Khalfan Belhoul, founder and Chairman of Ithmar Capital Partners. Commenting on the location chosen for the finals of Smartpreneur 6.0, H.E. Belhoul said, “There is no better platform than Expo 2020 Dubai for our finalists to pitch business solutions that are challenging the status quo while transforming existing industries, as the mega event is showcasing cutting-edge innovations from around the world.”

Dubai Chambers Vice Chairman H.E. Faisal Bin Juma Khalfan Belhoul, founder and Chairman of Ithmar Capital Partners

H.E. Belhoul’s speech set the stage for a panel discussion titled “From The UAE, To The World,” which put the spotlight on entrepreneurs who launched businesses in the UAE, and are now making their presence felt around the world. Thomas moderated the discussion featuring Munch:On co-founder and COO Dana Baki and grubtech co-founder and CEO Mohamed Al Fayed, both of whom shared their particular perspectives on the intricacies of scaling a business from their respective bases in the UAE.

Munch:On co-founder and COO Dana Baki 

Looking back on her journey as an entrepreneur in the UAE, Baki highlighted the value that accelerators and incubators can bring to startups in their early days, while noting that Munch:On had gotten to be under the umbrella of in5, the Dubai-based enabling platform for tech, media, and design startups. “Being accepted into in5 opened so many doors for us,” she said. “The UAE’s startup ecosystem was very nascent at the time, so being part of an accelerator like that was truly a gamechanger for us. We did have a bit of an issue opening up a bank account, but otherwise, the ecosystem here has been incredibly supportive, and such a great launchpad for [us to grow] everywhere in the region.” 

Al Fayed agreed with this notion- even when he was just starting out his business in Dubai, he was clear that it’d be a springboard for his enterprise to grow into other markets. “From day one, it has always been a global plan for us, and Dubai is perfectly suited for that,” he said. “It has always been embedded in the company’s DNA that we stand for global footprint.” He further elaborated on how the forward-thinking attitude within the UAE’s ecosystem creates trends that are often followed in other parts of the world. “We were very fortunate to have been pioneers within our industry, and the UAE has been a great bedrock for that,” he added.

grubtech co-founder and CEO Mohamed Al Fayed

While discussing the hurdles that came with the decision of global expansion, both Al Fayed and Baki shared important pointers for other budding entrepreneurs wanting to follow in their footsteps. “Scaling regionally can be a challenge, because of different regulations in every country across the region," Baki said. "So that is something you need to keep in mind when you start scaling from anywhere in the MENA region. Even if you have a very scalable product, it will take you some time to establish it legally in every new country.” Baki also noted the challenges of fundraising within the region. “Attracting international investors can also be a challenge, but that will get better- we need to be aware that we are growing together with the market itself,” she explained. “It's still in a nascent phase, but the world has started paying attention, so it will be easier to raise money in the future."  

Meanwhile, Al Fayed touched upon the importance of having the right employee fit before deciding to scale. “Recruiting the right talent can be a challenge in Dubai,” he noted. “Digital talent is scarce as it is, and everyone is looking for it. So, that can get expensive very quickly! And now with the COVID-19 crisis, you have to get very comfortable with working remotely, and sometimes never getting to meet a developer or product manager or any of the members of your team. But you need to ensure there are cohesive fabrics that keep everyone aligned and aiming for the same North Star.” But Al Fayed also pointed out that these issues were not exclusive to the UAE or the Middle East. “It is a bumpy ride, but it's meant to be bumpy, and it would have been like that if we started anywhere else in the world!" 

As the panel discussion drew to a close, both speakers also shared the lessons they’d learnt through the mistakes they’ve made in their respective entrepreneurial journeys. “You’re always going to make mistakes!” Baki reminded the audience. “If you are a tech startup, always do a manual test before building any tech. The other important point I’d like to share is that if there is a looming decision that needs to be made, it is better to get it done now and deal with the repercussions, rather than putting it off for later.” On the other, Al Fayed cautioned entrepreneurs against constantly risk-mitigating. “Instead of always thinking of the worst-case scenarios, and making sure your runway lasts as long as it needs to, you need to spend equal time or more preparing for success,” he said. “Things can get uncertain and gloomy, but you have to believe that you can bat it out of the park!”   

Dubai Future District Fund CEO Sharif Al-Badawi in conversation with Entrepreneur Middle East Managing Editor Tamara Pupic

Besides the panel discussion, the Forum also hosted a fireside chat titled “Funding Dubai’s Future,” which had Dubai Future District Fund CEO Sharif Al-Badawi engage in conversation with Entrepreneur Middle East Managing Editor Tamara Pupic. As the man at the helm of an AED1 billion fund aimed at supporting seed- to growth-stage startups in Dubai, Al-Badawi is leading efforts to support the directives of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, to establish 1,000 tech companies in the country within five years, while also increasing startup investments from AED1.5 billion to AED4 billion. “As an investment team, we have put our target on the UAE’s economy in 2050, because there are a lot of reports out there explaining how economies will look like then, as well as the potential changes that might happen,” Al-Badawi said. "In venture investing, the return horizon is important, how long it takes, and so, one of the main reasons why the Dubai government is putting together a fund like this is that there are gaps in the funding ecosystem, but even more because there are gaps in the horizon of investments- what we call patient capital versus 10-year cycles that most of the VCs today have. That prevents them from investing in areas with heavy research and development or ventures solving hard problems, because those will take longer to materialize, and will require more capital to see it through.” 

Al-Badawi added that the amount of AED1 billion is just the beginning for the Dubai Future District Fund, as it has been envisioned as a permanent fund. "We are here for the long run, and our focus is on the longer-term horizon, so the AED1 billion anchor will be split between trying to capitalize more funds in the region, and investing directly in the startups where we see that funding gap,” he said. "Firstly, we want to anchor new and emerging fund managers, because we know that when there are more fund managers, founders will have more options, and they will find a better fit for themselves among the investors that they talk to. Empowering new fund managers is an input that creates ecosystem growth as an output. Secondly, we aim to bring in more international investors. We are so lucky that we have started seeing that wave coming in, because just several years ago, when I started investing here, it was hard to try to get anybody to look at this region. Now, we don’t even need to push for it, as we’re seeing more international investors here every day. And thirdly, we will continue to support the investors who have been supporting the ecosystem from the beginning."  

Al-Badawi added that the second pillar of the Dubai Future District Fund will focus on supporting programs, competitions, and everything else that lies at the bottom of the startup investing pyramid. "We’ll be doing selective investments there,” he said. “This one is very sensitive to explain, because we want to empower venture capitalists here, and not cannibalize their efforts. As a government, we should not be going into every US$100,000 check, but there are cases where gaps exist, so we will fill in them.” Focusing on Series A to Series C investments will be the Fund’s third pillar. "That is when the institutional rounds start, and there is plenty of capital in that space and at that stage already, but it is not covering every sector meaningfully enough,” Al-Badawi explained. "From our strategic relationships as the Dubai Government, we have a lot of leverage to offer to these startups, and if you have ever tried to build a startup here, you’ll know that it’s very difficult to navigate some regulatory hurdles. So, by virtue of our relationships with our shareholders, such as the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and Dubai Future Foundation, there is a lot that we can do to help these kinds of companies, and lay out a plan to make it a lot easier for them in the future.”  

Al-Badawi also revealed that his team has already started creating fundraising strategies for Dubai Future District Fund’s permanent fund, with the vision having it being open to public on a tokenized platform “so that any qualified investor who will want to invest in the Dubai index, they will be able to do so,” he explained. "This is all a precursor for eventually, when the fund becomes profitable, in let’s say 10 to 15 years from now, we will be able to take this entire vehicle public on the exchange. Therefore, we will be a public fund.” Finally, when asked to share his advice for entrepreneurs aiming to build successful businesses out of Dubai, Al-Badawi urged founders to always remain focused on their core visions. “Stay grounded on your first principles,” he said. “What you read in the news isn't always happening in the scene. There's righteousness in following the fundamentals. So, don't get caught up in the hype, and don't change your philosophy based on that.” Al-Badawi also went on to highlight the need for more diverse participation in venture funds. “You need to diversify the pool," he said. “That way, you'll be able to see different opinions and markets that you're missing out on.” 

The Enterprise Agilty Forum 2022 also staged the final ceremony of Dubai Startup Hub’s Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, which saw the contest’s 10 finalist startups -Aiotize, Digital EnergyDiwama, EduPloyment, Hamples, Hydro Wind Energy, Manhat, One Moto, PalletPal and Soul Artists- pitch their business ideas in front of a jury comprising of Talabat CEO Tomaso Rodriguez, Mumzworld co-founder and CEO Mona Ataya, DIFC FinTech Hive Executive Vice President Raja Al Mazrouei, and Bayzat co-founder and CEO Talal Bayaa.

EduPloyment co-founder and CEO Mazen Omair

EduPloyment, a global online recruitment platform for upskilling blue-collar workers with English language skills and offering them job placements, was declared the first place winner with a cash prize of AED75,000.

Diwama co-founder and CEO Christopher Arida

The second place, which offered a cash prize of AED50,000, was awarded to Diwama, an artificial intelligence-based image recognition software that automates waste analysis and drives recycling revenues for waste management companies.

Soul Artists co-founder and CEO Zaid and Suhail Khour

In third place was Soul Artists, a global online peer-to-peer platform to discover and book performing artists and musicians for events and occasions, which was awarded AED25,000.

Related: The Recap: The Future Of Healthcare Forum Staged By The UAE Ministry Of Health And Prevention In Collaboration With Entrepreneur Middle East


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