The UAE: The next startup hub?

Say the word “tech” and the first thing that comes to mind for most people is its epicenter, Silicon Valley. While the close association is warranted given the number of disruptive companies that have started and scaled in the Valley, there are many other places that are trying to prove that transformative tech companies can exist elsewhere.

The UAE is one such place. During our time here, we visited two organizations that are part of the growing tech scene and changing the perception of where innovative tech companies can thrive.

The first up: Fetchr. The startup sits in the intersection between tech and last-mile logistics. The idea was inspired by the lack of street addresses in Dubai, which presents a huge obstacle to e-commerce and other delivery-based businesses. And this problem isn’t limited to Dubai; it’s an issue across the UAE and in many countries in emerging markets (a market of 5.7B). The founders of Fetchr, Idriss Al Rifai, Joy Ajlouny, and Omar Yaghmour noticed this gap in the market and came up with the solution to use GPS to pinpoint customers so their fleet of on-demand drivers can deliver packages. In addition to solving the delivery conundrum, it also allows companies to take advantage of the customer’s desire to pay cash for their products (drivers can receive payments on behalf of the retailer).

Fetchr describes itself as the fastest growing startup in the world hitting a 400% revenue CAGR. The company has been backed by well-known VCs in and outside of the region like Winklevoss Capital. It also landed the largest Series B funding in the Gulf after securing $41M in 2017. Despite the company’s incredible success, the founder notes that Fetchr is still has many challenges to overcome including attracting top talent, creating a strong company culture, and overcoming misconceptions that outside funders have about the region.

Thankfully, Fetchr is not alone in proving that the UAE is a great environment for startups. It’s getting plenty of help from Sheraa: Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center. As the name indicates, Sheraa is an incubator that is trying to find, fund, and grow the next generation of entrepreneurs in the UAE.

The center was established three years ago to provide support for burgeoning entrepreneurs from the idea phase all the way to funding. The center offers programming on different topics related to entrepreneurship, founder-matching, and mentorship. About 10,000 people have attended events since the center was established. So far, 72 companies have graduated the program (raising $32.7M collectively), which have created 500 jobs and many of the startups have a social impact component. Moreover, 50% of program participants are women and over 30 nationalities are represented among all members. These early stats show Sheraa is filling a needed gap.

Yet, Sheraa recognizes it has a lot of work to do in order to change the perception of being an entrepreneur. For Emiratis in particular, there is a lot of stigma attached to forgo a high-paying and stable government job for the volatile world of startups. However, Sheraa (which is funded by the government) believes that everyone may not be destined for entrepreneurship, it shouldn’t be a from a lack of resources.

And given the vast resources in the UAE — government support, funding opportunities, access to talent — the startup scene’s growth isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

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