An Alma Mater for early-stage startups in the UAE

Embedded within the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) campus is the unique startAD facility.

August 6, 2018
5 Min Read
An Alma Mater for early-stage startups in the UAE

Embedded within the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) campus is the unique startAD facility. It is an accelerator and entrepreneurship hub that supports early-stage local and global startups looking to launch or scale in the UAE. One look around and it’s clear that this is not a hype shop. Run by a small, dedicated team, it immediately reflects the solidity and credibility brought to it through its roots in academics, industry and innovation.

The programmes run by startAD enable the development of technology startups in emerging local industries which are of strategic importance to the UAE such as energy, aviation, logistics, fintech and smart transportation. They also facilitate investment in local-based startups. Selected startups that display outstanding potential and promise may also benefit from advance mentoring and seed funding from startAD to help scale their businesses. StartAD has interesting acceleration areas – so far, it has focused on Fintech and hardware. The upcoming edition is the inaugural Artificial Intelligence Venture Launchpad.

What sets startAD apart are three important factors. The first is a strong support base from multiple constituencies – government, industry, investors, entrepreneurs and NYUAD itself. The second is that the differentiated programme structure that encourages hardware and software startups is at no cost to entrepreneurs. startAD also makes equity-based investments through its fund, startAD Seed. The third is the flexibility – there is no need to take up an office space or get a visa from startAD to use its facilities. It assumes that for the most part, you are a UAE resident or can make convenient arrangements to get residency.

Let’s take a look at the constituencies that support the startAD ecosystem.

The first is Tamkeen, a company owned by the Abu Dhabi government that delivers projects to meet the vision of knowledge-based development. Tamkeen collaborates with startAD to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the UAE by offering core programmes and entrepreneurship initiatives.

The second constituency is industry collaborators. Key industry names include Etihad Aviation Group, UAE Exchange, Adnoc Distribution, Crescent Enterprises, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and VentureSouq. The value that this brings is live and ongoing feedback from the industry to startups that participate in startAD’s initiatives. The industry participants bring in their real-life strategic and immediate business requirements to the table. This creates a rich feed for the startups to work on.

The third is the venture capital ecosystem. It plays an important role in mentoring and scaling up the startups. VentureSouq and startAD jointly organise startInvest – moderated investment literacy sessions with live startup valuations held quarterly as well as the Annual Angel Rising symposium. The latter event is one of the most high profile in the startup community world.

The fourth constituency is the startups themselves. Over 3,000 aspiring entrepreneurs in the UAE have participated in one or more of the 100 programmes run by startAD since 2016. In addition, 80 startups have graduated from startAD’s Venture Launchpad sprint accelerator, raising more than $3 million in investments and grants. This community endorses the platform’s success in building an ecosystem of successful startups.

The fifth is of course the academic value of being embedded within the NYUAD campus. It has distinct advantages. The cross-pollination of academic content especially in the area of engineering and technology, brings in immediate value to the startups. Also, the research facilities and knowledge base available with the campus are best-in-class globally.

Orchestrating this interplay of constituencies is Dr Ramesh Jagannathan. Dr Jagannathan is managing director, startAD, vice-provost for entrepreneurship and associate dean of engineering at NYU Abu Dhabi. He is a scholar, researcher and pragmatic technocrat. With over 30 years in the research facilities of Eastman Kodak, 43 patents to his name and several peer-reviewed journals in the industry, he brings both rigour and innovation to startAD.

The next factor is the programme structure. The manifestation of the intent is through how the programmes have been identified and developed. These are the Venture Launchpad – a 10-day programme aimed at early-stage startups, Al Warsha – an open-access, DIY workshop and prototyping and fabrication facility, Beyond the Pitch – A UAE youth startup programme, startInvest – quarterly investment literacy and training sessions, Founder School – weekly modules teaching the skills that are essential for aspiring entrepreneurs. All these programmes are free to attend and some have qualification requirements.

The third factor is the flexibility of the programmes. Take the Venture Launchpad. It’s held four times a year, roughly corresponding with the academic sessions. Applying for the programme is open to seed stage startups with an MVP or initial prototype. Ten to 15 startups are chosen for each cohort. It recognises that startups do not have the luxury of weeks and compresses what’s best into 10 intensive days at a stretch. It links the startups with regulators like the Abu Dhabi Global Market if required, brings in industry partnership, investors as well as provides the mentorship and content required to develop and strengthen a minimum viable proposition as well as to get an understanding of what it takes to go to market. Al Warsha, on the other hand, is every new-age tinkerer’s dream. State-of-the-art equipment and guidance is available aplenty.

Also supporting the startup activity are a number of behind-the-scenes processes. For example, using AI-based technology to help startups identify talent for their ventures. Entrepreneurs also get to meet investors via private meetings, not just the usual show-and-tell en masse presentations. There is also co-creation with an industry partner where the startups get an opportunity to embed themselves within a client organisation to develop a solution by working in-house.

If you are an entrepreneur or planning to be one, you may like to keep startAD on your radar.

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