May 2012 was an exciting time for entrepreneurs in the UAE. Two Startup Weekend events – one in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi – brought together nearly 500 people to hear more than 100 ideas for technology startups. As an organizer and sponsor of these events, it was very fulfilling for me to hear all the great ideas and see the excitement and determination in the faces of teams as they work to turn an idea into a prototype over the weekend.
For regional entrepreneurs, Startup Weekend events serve as a starting point – a way to present their idea to an audience, find other people to believe in and build their idea, and potentially be awarded a cash prize to help start their business. It’s also a chance for entrepreneurs to receive valuable feedback on the business potential of their idea, thanks to the mentors who volunteer their time to coach the teams.
The entrepreneurial passion at these events is impressive. The problem is, what is there for participants to do after the event? Many teams actually go on and try to launch a startup – kudos to them, but this is a BIG step and one that not everyone is ready for. As a result, many ideas from the events are not developed further because there is no additional guidance or funding.
So, what is the solution?
I believe we need a comprehensive framework and infrastructure to support budding entrepreneurs in the UAE and the rest of the Gulf. Such a framework would help to create a more cohesive entrepreneurial ecosystem that would benefit not only entrepreneurs, but also investors, various service providers, and society as a whole.
Entrepreneurial ecosystems are well established in other parts of Europe and throughout the U.S. Even parts of Africa are getting into the game, without full-fledged ecosystems, but there are at least accelerators popping up in such countries as Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda and South Africa.
In the Middle East, we have a few technology parks, such as QSTP (Qatar Science and Technology Park) and KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science & Technology). However, as I have argued before, technology parks are not the same as business incubators or startup accelerators. And although many individuals and organizations in the region are taking steps to encourage entrepreneurship, the efforts are still largely fragmented and not as productive regarding the end product – innovative and profitable new businesses – as they could be.
In a post last year, Italian journalist and entrepreneur Emil Abirascid explained very well the spirit of an entrepreneurial ecosystem:
“Around 5 years ago, an entrepreneurship ecosystem was just a dream, but it grew as I, and others worked to build it; today, ‘startup’ is the new buzzword in Italy. The spirit we have cultivated is that creating a startup is not just matter of developing an idea and bringing it to market, but something greater: a means to put passion and values into action, to take risks and use all of your energies to live the present and the future with the aim to innovate and create something that benefits all of society.”
I believe we have this type of spirit here. We have the WILL —now we just need the WAY.
What will that “way” look like? It looks like the first innovation accelerator in the Middle East that we have launched. The accelerator is one component of developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem here, but there is a lot more to be done. If you have ideas or are already working on this agenda, let’s connect.
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Kamal Hassan is President and CEO of Innovation 360 Institute, an innovation management and operation advisory group based in Dubai. Mr. Hassan works with public and private organizations on business model innovation, innovation strategy, innovation project execution and organizational change. He leads international workshops on Business Model Innovation. www.i360institute.com.