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Producing tech world-beaters starts with getting the basics right

Digital EconomyEntrepreneurshipICTStartup

Just like any other region, the Gulf wants to produce its own break-out tech superstars. We have the talent-base but our region has yet to produce its own world-beater. Getting to a point where home-grown technology companies can scale to be a global force is not easy. But it’s essential that this is our goal in the Middle East. If we can’t work out how to help our best tech leaders expand beyond the Gulf then we will struggle to move from being a regional consumer, to a global driver, of innovation.

A changing landscape

There have been recent shifts in breaking the US stranglehold when it comes to setting the trajectory in tech. Chinese companies, once known as fast followers of innovation rather than originators of it, are now driving technological advances not only in traditional industries but emerging areas, such as A.I., renewable energy and big data. Forward-thinking strategies such as ‘Made-in-China 2025’ have helped, along with a focus on channelling fiscal resources into the right fields and a strong emphasis on education. While the enormous and intimidating scale of Chinese investment into R&D may be unmatchable, other elements of China’s gameplan – strong incubators, strong focus on STEM education – are open to the Gulf.

Components of success

Education is one area we need to focus on. If we want to establish the Gulf as a global leader of innovation, then we need to cultivate the right skills and invest in STEM education at all levels of the curriculum will be critical. Equally, the other basic building blocks of success need to be present – a push for diversity of talent and more women in the workforce, better visa laws (a great example being the UAE’s proposed 10-year visa for those in medicine, science, research, engineering and other technical fields), available capital, and easy access to mentorship, accelerators and incubators, like Bahrain’s Brinc, C5 and Flat6Labs. These are all foundational pillars of any ambition to build an international success story.

Bringing it all together

Across the Gulf there are a variety of government and private sector-backed ecosystems that pull all these elements together and deliver real impact for their cohorts and founders. But some of the most insightful and productive work is done when we turn conventional thinking on its head and listen to the tech talent and let them guide us. This is what happened last month when some of the most original thinkers from the tech community across the region came together for StartUp Bahrain Week, a major community-led innovation festival that drew together entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders under an agenda of their own making.

Ecosystems that can compete

The events – which included a lot of practical, hands-on advice as well as deep dives into next-generation technologies – were a reflection of how the region has got serious about startups in a way that was never the case before. And it showed the potential for MENA ecosystems to mature at comparable rates to other ecosystems. For instance, the depth of talent and sophistication of business models on display at the Flat6Labs Bahrain Demo Day, the intensity of the three-day Yostartups Bahrain Deep Tech Programme, and the creativity of Unbound – one of the Middle East’s leading innovation festivals – showed that the Gulf can compete with other regions when staging events of this kind.

Importance of funding

While some came to talk about bigger concepts, others came to talk about the hard business of securing investment. One of the key things that stood out in StartUp Bahrain Week, as well as the raw enthusiasm of a regional tech community coming together to discuss how to scale together, were the discussions around funding. We heard time and again that one of the biggest factors limiting the success of our startups has been the lack of a dynamic VC community. While access to funding for entrepreneurs has changed beyond all recognition, building a VC network has been a slow burn.

Growing stronger

We shouldn’t forget that until we have this critical element in place, our startups will struggle to scale. VC money won’t guarantee our tech companies will break beyond our borders, but the absence of VC money will almost certainly guarantee they won’t. It’s one of the reasons we started a fund of funds in Bahrain called Al Waha. It’s a non-negotiable element of any tech strategy worth the name. Strong regional funds will attract institutional investors, and allow us to better pool capital from east and west, which will at the same time give our tech businesses access to new markets. Then they can expand. Then they can scale. And then they can take on the world.

John Kilmartin

Executive Director – ICT at Bahrain EDB