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Alena Eager

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“In Dubai, it is as if we are living inside a metaverse, and although I had come for only 12 days on my first trip here, it did not take me long to understand that Dubai will become the next Silicon Valley,” says Shadman Sakib, founder of Vurse, a Dubai-based venture developing cutting-edge technologies. “I knew that this should become my life, so I set up my company in Dubai in December 2021.” And just like that, Sakib turned Dubai from a vacation destination into a base for his future life and business activities.

Vurse
Shadman Sakib, Founder, Vurse

It was thus from his office in the Emirate that Sakib and I engaged in a conversation about what he has got up to with Vurse, and quite quickly I realize that he is the type of an entrepreneur who talks about his plans only in whispers, and then lets them speak for themselves when they materialize in the real world. But it is also clear that Sakib believes that he is working on something that’s set to make its impact felt -in a big way- on the world at large, and, as such, the rest of us can get ready for that celebratory moment by learning as much about Vurse as we can at the moment.

Vurse currently counts 35 people as team members and Sakib aims to grow it into having a 5,000 – strong team in Dubai over the next five years. His Dubai-focused plans have been boosted also by the announcement of the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, which is designed to ensure that the contribution of the metaverse sector to the Emirate’s economy increases to US$4 billion by 2030. “Because Dubai is already known for its beautiful infrastructure, I think it’s time for it to be known for its digital vision and cutting edge deep-tech sector too,” Sakib says.

The Emirate’s history seems to have also inspired Sakib’s philosophy for his business, in that he is eager to give it strong foundations that are expected to both empower and uphold its digital development in the future. This is especially evident through Sakib’s choice to simultaneously work on the three verticals of Vurse, which include an interactive short video platform, a blockchain-based ecosystem for content creators, and a Vurse metaverse. Starting with the Vurse short video platform, Sakib says that its key differentiator lies in the fact that it is not focused on user consumption, but user interaction. “One of our key drivers is to enable young people to make smarter choices in the way they interact with and consume content,” he says. “What I see today is that people’s consumption of social media is not correlated with the quality of the content or the value they can drive out of their time on it. With Vurse, we’re also trying to enhance the creators’ experience by supporting them in producing content that is intellectually stimulating, entertaining, and driving economic value. Once that happens, consumption will happen organically.”

Source: Vurse

Meanwhile, for Vurse’s blockchain arm, Sakib has walked an extra mile in order to make a shift in the content creator economy. “Leveraging the blockchain technology, we are decentralizing the core foundation that exists for content creators, because we believe that they are the future driver of marketing,” he explains. “So, what we’re trying to do is to use technologies like Web3 and blockchain to enhance the interaction with the content they create and the transparency around the economies of VURSE community and hence the overall experience. We believe that they will feel the excitement and motivation to do what they do.”

Last but not the least are Sakib’s plans to build a completely new and independent metaverse for the Vurse community and essentially the world. “Since the metaverse is like the future version of the internet, I believe that this is where the entire world is going to shift to eventually, and so, we’re building our own ecosystem,” he says. “So, once that happens, not even the sky is the limit. At Vurse, we are very excited to see where we’ll go.”

Related: Anamcara Capital General Partner Annelie Ajami Has Big Dreams For Her Venture Capital Firm (And For The Startups It Supports)

At this point, it becomes clear why Sakib will need to hire thousands of skilled tech talents to work on his three grandiose projects, but that in itself sounds as a task hard enough, keeping in mind the current state of the blockchain technology. “People who work with this technology and have gathered experience that matters are actually very few,” Sakib agrees. “For Vurse, we brought people from 12 countries here to Dubai to complement our global team. At the same time, we maintain a fun and open culture. We are all fun-loving, so we try to keep our work and entertainment all in one place, and that helps with recruiting the best. And for other entrepreneurs also seeking to recruit such talent, my advice would be to make sure you present your vision to them, and if they are aligned with that, they will jump on board, because the most talented people in the world are never actually driven by monetary factors.”

Sakib’s plans for his enterprise have also recently got a shot in the arm thanks to investors who did not hesitate to put their funds into Vurse. “We recently closed one funding round, where we invested ourselves, along with other institutional investors who previously invested in other decentralized technology platforms and reputed companies,” he says. “For our next round, we aim to raise US$1 billion, because our plan is to grow as quickly as possible, blossom as fast as possible, and show people something that will wow their mind.”

Source: Vurse

Sakib adds here that raising funds, according to him, is all about maintaining relationships. “The best way to raise funds is not to work on raising it at all, so don’t ask for money, but instead, show your vision, and motivate the investors, because, at the end of the day, investors are people like you and me, and they would also like to understand what the vision is,” he says. “Most importantly, when you want to build a company at a global scale, you want investors who have the same mindset as you, and who hold a long-term vision, because patience goes a long way. It’s not like we can get a return on our investment tomorrow; no, it’s a long run.”

Mass blockchain adoption might follow the opposite trajectory, Sakib added, in that it will happen sooner than we expect. “Blockchain is an emerging technology, and people are getting more serious about it, because those younger generations are very tech and business savvy,” he says. “If you ask them about tokens or coins, they will give you all sorts of ideas, so I can say that adoption is happening at a very rapid pace and will accelerate even more.” The missing part, according to Sakib, is creating blockchain technology solutions “that can be used even by a five-year-old, and that can be explained in like two sentences, literally.”

But Sakib adds that he believes this will happen sooner than later. “We are coming closer to this and that is why, in my opinion, this period is a great time to invest. Let’s not look at what happened before, but let’s look at what’s going to happen in the future, because that’s where we are going to live,” Sakib concludes.

‘Trep Talk: Vurse founder Shadman Sakib’s tips for entrepreneurs

BUILD THE UNBUILDABLE “Try to build something that’s like impossible to build.”

PATIENCE IS KEY “Play the long game, not the short game.”

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE BEST “Hire in a way that the next one is better than the last one, but build a family.”

Related: Shooting For The Moon: Carl Runefelt, Founder, The Moon Group

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Nanotechnology refers to the scientific study, research and reengineering of the properties of atoms and molecules. There’s a great deal of controversy around this science, as it is intended to reshape the building blocks of matter. Like with all growing fields, there are costs and benefits, and due to its infinitely broad usage for applications, nanotech will impact our daily life in a profound way we have only started to see.

Introduced to the world in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman, nanotechnology was conceptualized as synthesis through the reconstitution of atoms and molecules.

Over the past decade-and-a-half, nanotech has been one of the globe’s fastest-growing industries, evolving each year significantly with great new applications. We’ve seen incredible innovation in energy, robotics, agriculture, health, computation, military intelligence and . Those are just a small sampling of the sectors in which nanotech has been a great leader in advancement.

Related: Forget Toothpaste. This Nifty Toothbrush Scrubs Teeth Clean With Nanotech.

Nanoscience

Through particle rescaling and manipulation, nanotech creates chemical bonds that are sometimes hundreds of times more potent than steel. These bonds increase a material’s surface area, allowing for more atoms to interact with it, making the material more robust, more conductive and more malleable than its natural-sized counterparts. How the particles are manipulated affects how dense or light, big or small, visible or transparent, reflective or absorptive to waves a nanotech product is. The objects of particle manipulation are referred to as nanomaterials.

Nanomaterials are classified into two main categories: naturally occurring (such as blood hemoglobin) and artificially developed (such as quantum dots). Of the artificially generated nanomaterials, there are four common types: carbon-based, metal-based, dendrimers and nanocomposites. While carbon-based and metal-based nanomaterials are formed through the chemical manipulation of elements to derive micro-matter constructs, dendrimers either expand outwardly from a strong core or inwardly from a solid outer shell, and nanocomposites combine different nanomaterials and larger-scale high-volume materials. To be considered a nanomaterial, the engineering must operate within the parameters of a nanoscale’s nanometer, which translates to a billionth of a meter.

Current applications

Nanotechnology is already widely present in our daily life. You may not realize it, but it is in everything from textiles to food packaging to transportation. For example, in recent years, nanotech has been used to create lightweight road, sea, air and space vehicles. In the medical sector, nanotech has allowed for better imaging tools, diagnostic technology and even within medicine itself, including delivering antigens to compromised cells while avoiding healthy cells. And how was that accomplished? The answer might seem like it’s out of the pages of sci-fi– but it’s happening today.

Nanobots are nanoscopic machines programmed to deliver a specific task. They’ve been functional on both bioorganic matter and inorganic matter and have been central in many of today’s significant advancements in virology, , water filtration and 3D printing. Nanobots can deliver medicine, move as a unit to improve the source collection of wind and solar resources, clean contaminated water and link together to replicate a 3D object and enact the point of its function.

Experimental applications

Currently, nanotech is researching several world-changing initiatives. Self-repair of structural surfaces is now in the testing phase. This could be revolutionary for transportation infrastructure, allowing nanotech to bind to damaged roads, bridges and railways to correct structural issues and material deficits.

Synthesis of enzymes is also in the works, as is synthetic ethanol. A finite resource naturally derived from fossils, ethanol has various uses, from fuel to household cleaning products to acting as a binding agent for personal care products.

Robust rechargeable industrial battery systems are another avenue of exploration for which nanotech actively seeks real-world testing. Imagine the generation of an infinite amount of electricity. This may soon be possible through nanobots deployed as self-adaptive sensors, working in tandem with nanomaterials fabricated into self-servicing generators capable of powering cities with environment-friendly energy.

Another investigational innovation is replacing computer microchips with nanochips capable of fitting your computer and phone’s entire memory on infinitesimal storage units. Since nanotransistors already exist and have been commercially operating since 2014, we may not be so far off from this development.

Gene-sequencing and genetic engineering are incorporating nanotech in illness eradication and the study of tissue-and-organ regeneration. While this is one of the farthest from practical implementations of nanotech’s practical applications, it poses significant promise. We’ve poised to eventually engineer sequencing at the gene level to help eliminate hereditary illnesses and replace the sequences with positive characteristics and traits.

Future applications

While it can be argued that the future of nanotech is happening now, we have barely scratched the surface. For example, the meeting of nanotechnology with self-realizing AI has long been theorized for its potential benefits in predicting, resolving and managing environmental crises and space exploration through analyzing universal patterns and behaviors. Though still far away, the applications to make climate concerns a thing of the past or develop new climate systems on otherwise inhabitable planets are pretty plausible.

Projected to reach $33.63 billion by 2030, from its current $1.76 billion market size value, nanotech is well on its way to trending as one of the current fastest-growing sciences, not just due to its percentage increase, but in its continued collaboration with industries across the board, and sharing budget of their market share. Future applications are genuinely limitless through nanotechnology, and living during this age of exploration is exciting.

Related: Think Big With a Nanotechnology Business

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You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Abu Dhabi-based business incubator Hub71 has announced the 16 tech startups chosen for its Incentive Program, an initiative designed to alleviate the cost of setting up and growing a tech company.

Hub71

In addition to UAE-grown startups, the selected list also includes tech startups from USA, UK, Italy, as well as Hub71’s first participant from Luxembourg- with their solutions targeted at a plethora of industries such as fintech, healthtech, cleantech, edtech, foodtech and logistics. The cohort, which comprises pre-seed, seed, and Series-A startups, has collectively already raised over US$67 million.

“Our value-driven programs are continuing to attract high-tech startups to Abu Dhabi that are driving transformation within key sectors of the economy,” said Badr Al-Olama, Acting CEO of Hub71. “As a partner to over 170 startups in our community, we always strive to connect founders to our global network of blue-chip corporations, government bodies and investors. With our ability to unlock real growth opportunities for founders, we expect this new cohort to gain tremendous traction over the next few months within the vibrant tech ecosystem that Abu Dhabi has to offer.”

Over the next couple of years, the 16 startups will be able to avail benefits such as equity-free incentives worth up to AED 500,000 as well as gain access to a network of investors, corporate, government, and academia partners.

Backed by Mubadala Investment Company, and with a mission to accelerate entrepreneurship and innovation in Abu Dhabi, Hub71 has already accepted over 170 startups into its ecosystem and enabled the creation of over 1,000 jobs since its launch in 2019. Notably, in the first half of 2022, Hub71 startups raised $436 million from global investors and generated nearly $700 million in revenue. With plans to enable greater access to the UAE market for overseas startup founders, Hub71 is now also working towards cross-border programs.

Here’s the full list of the 16 startups selected to be a part of Hub71’s latest cohort:

Abhi– Pakistan’s first financial wellness platform that enables salaried employees to draw down a percentage of their accrued salary before the next payroll.

Amwal– a fintech company that is building an identity-powered payment that allows individuals to authenticate and pay, send, or remit money based on their phone numbers.

archiREEF– a Hong Kong-based cleantech startup that offers climate solutions with eco-engineering approaches for ocean ecosystem restoration.

Cubex Global– an online marketplace for buying, bidding and selling space on sea freight containers in real time.

DoBrain– an AI-based application that offers an accessible and affordable digital cognitive learning program for young children.

Gigaaa– an AI-powered personal assistant that is designed to reduce complexity of growing connections with people, systems and services by process automation and autonomous decision making.

GlycanAge– a healthtech company designed to determine the state of one’s immune system and risk of chronic inflammation through multiple scientific methods.

GrubTech– a B2B software as a service (SaaS) foodtech company that provides end to end solutions for cloud kitchens and modern restaurants.

Maalexi– a US-based trade and finance digital ecosystem that facilitates both cross-border trade, as well as financing of food and agricultural products.

iHealthScreen – a platform that utilizes AI to scalably screen for retinal diseases and heart diseases.

Islamic Finance Guru– a one stop shop for all Muslims globally to get their finances and investments in order with its flagship product IFG Wealth.

Lune– a unified financial data platform that provides solutions across financial management, data enrichment and analysis, which also provides personalized customer experiences.

OnEx– a one-stop shop for medical manufactures worldwide to export and manage their businesses overseas.

Yoello– a payments platform building infrastructure that connects banks and payment networks to merchants and consumers.

Perceptiviti– a deep technology company focused on fraud and risk management.

Green Future Project– a firm that simplifies access to effective climate solutions and empowers individuals to have an active role in reversing climate change.

Related: Virtuzone Partners With Binance To Enable Cryptocurrency Payments For Business Setup In The UAE

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You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

Dubai Cultiv8
Arif Alawi, CEO, Dubai Cultiv8

“Do they have a vision, or is money the only interest?” In his role as the CEO of Dubai Cultiv8, this is one of the questions that Arif Alawi likes to ask entrepreneurs that seek support from the Dubai-based investment fund. Evaluating a startup’s founding team on everything from their vision and passion to their experience and skills, Alawi and his team at Dubai Cultiv8 also consider a bunch of other factors. Those include the solution’s differentiating factor in a competitive market, revenues and earnings, client acquisition costs, or its lifetime value (“How much can the company expect to profit from a customer?”). Also, the Dubai Cultiv8 team looks at the company’s business plan, growth strategy (“We project five years into the future- when will this project hit break even and become profitable, and how much time will it take?”), scalability, and exit plans.

The questions Alawi poses offer a glimpse into the mindset with which he leads the charge at Dubai Cultiv8, an initiative of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Fund for SMEs, an entity established by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, in 2012. Dubai Cultiv8 itself was launched in 2018, and has been chaired by H.E. Abdulbaset Al Janahi, CEO of Dubai SME, an integrated division of the Emirate’s Department of Economic Development. Alawi describes Dubai Cultiv8 as a Shariah-compliant investment firm that offers “cutting-edge solutions for investors,” all of which is regulated by the Dubai Financial Services Authority. “We define ourselves as an investment arm providing two services: advisory services (providing expert advice, structuring the company, raising capital, formulating business plans and financial models, and guiding through each stage), and investing in companies through fund creation,” he explains.

Alawi also adds that his enterprise is behind the Dubai Cultiv8 Technology Fund, a US$100 million fund focusing on investing in growth-stage technology companies, either located in the UAE or abroad, that aim to shift their operation wholly or partially in the country. As the UAE’s first public-private partnership in the venture capital sector, Alawi points it to being a key advantage for the firm. “Most companies are privately owned by families, individuals, offices, or ex-bankers, but we are differentiating and positioning ourselves as a niche incubator,” he notes. “We clear the way for SMEs to enter and grow in the UAE market without financial pressure.”

For Alawi, whose career trajectory has seen him launch multiple investment and asset management firms across the GCC, as well as play leadership roles at various financial enterprises in the region, he seems to be especially well-suited for his role at Dubai Cultiv8- and we can confirm this as he tells the story of how he came to be associated with the enterprise. It started with a conversation he had with Dubai SME’s Al Janahi in 2017, when he was engaged with the latter’s enterprise as a strategic advisor for special projects and startups. “My thoughts were that if the initiative wants to support SMEs that are contributing to the UAE economy, we have to focus on local as well as international startups,” he recalls.

“Local SMEs already form around 90% of companies, especially in Dubai. Out of 100 ideas, there are only two or three ideas being acquired by venture capitalists or angel investors. After presenting the idea, we established an investment arm- any concept with a potential for growth, we would support and invest in, rather than just financing it. This way, we also got transparency of the cash flow. This is where the idea for Dubai Cultiv8 came from. Local SMEs who need financing go to Dubai SME, and those who need investment and business advice come to Dubai Cultiv8, so, we complement each other, and, together, we don’t miss out on any SME that needs help.”

As the CEO of Dubai Cultiv8, Alawi is responsible for developing the entity’s overarching business plan, while also ensuring it encourages and attracts international entrepreneurs to set up and expand their businesses in the Emirate by offering relevant funding and services. Of course, along with that, his role also includes recruiting talent across the world to position Dubai and the UAE as the go-to hub for investors and entrepreneurs. “Contributing to the UAE government’s goal of launching and assisting companies to stimulate economic growth has been a highlight of my career at Dubai Cultiv8,” Alawi states.

But what does it take to be part of Dubai Cultiv8’s portfolio? “Our investment philosophy is to focus on companies established in the UAE and have plans to expand worldwide, as well as companies who are based elsewhere, but wish to expand into the GCC, notably the UAE, with operational branches,” replies Alawi. The overall aim eventually, Alawi states, is to attract more businesses to develop in the region and attract talent globally, while creating job opportunities for both locals and expats in the UAE. And Dubai Cultiv8 is certainly doing its part- the firm has so far invested in seven different companies, with two headquartered in the US and having a base in the UAE, while the other five are based in Dubai. Its portfolio includes startups like UAE-based car sharing company Udrive, New York-headquartered online ethical investment platform Wahed Invest, and Dubai-based last-mile delivery startup Fodel.

Looking at the current state of the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem, Alawi believes that the UAE has definitely emerged as a preferred location for new businesses in the MENA region. According to him, the sectors that have potential for further investment include e-commerce, fintech, healthcare and wellness, payment gateways and wallet solutions, and gaming platforms. Alawi adds that he and the Dubai Cultiv8 team are also considering nascent industries, and says “We have our eye on crypto, which is growing fast, and has many platforms here for it to grow. The NFT business is [also] just growing here; we started with digital artists, but in the future, it will take over the world.”

And for those of you seeking guidance to grow your respective businesses, Alawi has plenty of practical advice to share as well. First off, he says, develop a clear marketing and sales strategy. Plus, he tells entrepreneurs to ask themselves, “If you’re thinking of expanding and selling the company one day, there should be exponential growth in clients. Is the product scalable overseas?”

Other tips include attempting to increase customer retention through after-sales support and loyalty programs, as well as to develop strategic partnerships with service providers. Seek like-minded people around you, he adds- participating in networking events is a good way to do that, for instance. “Founders should look for guidance right from the set-up,” he says. “Once you have an idea, meet with an expert for guidance on how to develop the business. Often, I’ve seen people develop ideas and pitch them, but there are several gaps.” At the end of it all, he says entrepreneurs should just remember one thing: “Start small, and grow slowly.”

Related: Follow The Leader: Dima Ayad, Founder, Dima Ayad, And DAC Communications

The Not-To-Do List: Dubai Cultiv8 CEO Arif Alawi lists mistakes entrepreneurs make when approaching investors

1. Overvaluation according to market trends “An investor is not just looking at market trends, but also at the startup’s growth possibility. Some SMEs state that the company will grow 1,000% in one year, but this isn’t possible in every market and industry and for certain products.”

2. Lack of a clear vision “Bringing in funding involves many people. Without a plan of how many people a company needs during different periods, one runs out of cash fast, and in future rounds, the investors will see the cash flow and refuse to invest.”

3. No clear market understanding “People come in with a great idea, but they don’t know who their clients are. Are they focusing on B2B or B2C? Everybody cannot be your target market. Hence, without the client base, an accurate valuation cannot be formed either.”

4. Selecting wrong partners “Many tend to focus on capital only, without considering the ramifications of the wrong investment. Nowadays, companies don’t need $1 million in funding; $200,000-500,000 is enough to grow until the next round.”

5. Giving away too much of their company “If a founder doesn’t have anyone to support the business, they may give up 60-70% of the company, and once they progress to the next round of funding, they end up with 2-3%, and then, they won’t have enough power to direct the company based on the initial vision.”

6. Running a one-person-show “Some projects are started by a single person who believes in their product, but doesn’t believe in the people around them. The founder may not be recruiting the right people, and they are doing everything from marketing and sales to pitching to investors themselves. They don’t know when to bring in investors and at what valuation.”

7. Not having an advisory board “Often, technical experts who have little to no knowledge of business create a business, but they don’t know how to sell it and at what price, or how to effectively sell shares of the company. They don’t have financial or investment advisors or experts to guide them on the strategy around them, and they are also unwilling to give outsiders a stake. You need an advisory board to guide you, and enhance the value of the company and brand.

Related: Follow The Leader: Pallavi Dean, Founder, Roar

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Aditya Swamy, Google Play partnership’s director, on Thursday, said that India will play a critical role in the evolution of the global app ecosystem in the coming decade and Google Play will continue to invest in India to encourage budding innovations.

Google Play Twitter handle

“India is today uniquely positioned to become a leading hub for global app innovation and there is tremendous potential for India startups across the country, regardless of size and geography, to thrive in the global app ecosystem. From leading in-app adoptions to emerging as a large global developer hub, India will play a critical role in the evolution of the global app ecosystem in the coming decade,” said Swamy.

According to Swamy’s blog post, “Indian apps and games saw a 200 per cent increase in active monthly users and an 80 per cent increase in consumers spend in 2021 compared to 2019 on Google play. The local developers are finding global audiences with Indian apps and games, seeing a 150 per cent increase in time spent by users outside India in 2021 compared to 2019.”

“We will continue to invest in initiatives that enable a diverse range of developers to build helpful apps and successful businesses on Play. We want to help every developer with an idea capitalize on the potential to reach 2.5 billion monthly active users and 190 countries with Google Play,” he added.

According to reports, “India had the second-highest app downloads in the world, with more than 27 billion downloads in 2021. The report also says that, the Indian app market is expected to reach $2.3 billion in revenue by 2026, growing at a CAGR 9.22 per cent.”

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Usually, founders travel to meet investors in coastal cities. But in 2014, Steve Case and his team of investors began an annual bus tour, traveling to meet founders where they lived. It was the next step in a longstanding goal of Case’s; following his work as chairman and CEO of America Online, he’d founded an investment firm called Revolution, with an eye toward empowering entrepreneurs across the country — not just in clusters like Silicon Valley and New York. The bus tour, complete with a pitch competition, targeted places like Detroit, Chattanooga, and more.

Courtesy of Steve Case

“It was not clear what we’d find when we hit the road and rolled into town,” Case writes in his new book The Rise of the Rest, which shares the same name as the bus tour. But after more than eight years, over 11,000 miles of travel, and 40-plus city visits, Case is passionate about what they encountered: He describes a country full of thriving (or on-the-cusp) entrepreneurial ecosystems, and a radical shift in how and where companies are grown. Here, he explains why he believes the greatest innovations will now come from all over.

Related: “There’s Often No Right Answer”: A Famous Economist Explains the Smartest Way to Tackle Life’s “Wild Problems”

You make a bold prediction in the book. You write, “Over the next decade, a majority of the iconic startup companies, the ones that create tens of thousands of jobs and end up being worth billions of dollars will not be in Silicon Valley, but all across the country.” Why do you feel so confident about that?

Because we’ve seen it firsthand. If you look back 250 years ago, America itself was a startup. The country then led the way in the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution and the Digital Revolution. And that enabled us to become the leading economic power in the world. That happened all across the country. That’s the history. It’s really more in the last several decades, when innovation became about software and coding, that Silicon Valley became where most of the money is, and so people left different parts of the country to go there.

That’s started to shift over the last decade or so. In a number of cities, momentum has built around startup communities, clustering people together, attracting more capital, slowing the brain drain of people leaving, accelerating the boomerang of people returning, and having these breakout tent-pole company successes. Then with a pandemic — obviously, it’s a tragedy in many respects, but one of the silver linings was that it led people to rethink their lives a little bit. It led to an unbundling of where you work and where you live and how you work and how you live. It broke the lock that Silicon Valley had on the innovation economy. Today, it’s really dozens of cities, not just a few, that are rising.

I’ve heard many people say that next wave of innovation will be in “boring” — but foundationally important — industries like, say, insurance or healthcare or transportation. There’s already a lot of expertise in these subjects outside of, say, Silicon Valley, right?

The sectors that you mentioned, you could call them boring — but I call them the largest industries in the world and some of the most important aspects of our lives. How do we get around? What do we eat? How do we stay healthy? Healthcare alone is around one-sixth of the economy. That’s where the puck is moving. That’s where the innovation will be in this next wave of the Internet. And there are certain cities where that domain expertise really advantages the startups in those places.

For instance, we’re seeing a lot of companies in the healthcare space move to where the big research hospitals are — building on that expertise, that legacy understanding of these businesses, which is going to become increasingly important. Because healthcare is not about the technology. It’s not about the software. That’s the table stakes. The real value is created by building partnerships with a lot of different organizations and hospitals, health plans, and others so they will adopt and integrate your technology. That requires the ability to form trust, and often that will come from the entrepreneurs in these cities that really understand those industries and are living side by side with some of the key partners that could really catapult their companies to greatness.

Related: Why an Entrepreneur’s Ability to Innovate Will Make (or Break) Future Success

Right, because particularly in specialized industries, people want to feel like they’re understood.

When we were in Chattanooga, we found a company called FreightWaves that built a data platform for the trucking and logistics industry. Well, I didn’t know this until we were there, but some of the biggest trucking companies in the country are headquartered in Chattanooga. Or, we invested in a company in Northwest Arkansas called AcreTrader that’s basically a platform to find investors to invest in farmland. The founder was in San Francisco but decided to move to Arkansas because they were trying to get farmers on the platform — and if you want to be credible and trusted in that industry, it’s better to be where there is a culture around farming.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Steve Case

Many small cities are trying to build entrepreneurial ecosystems, which you describe as a wheel with seven spokes — startups, investors, universities, government, corporations, startup support organizations, and local media. But what’s required for all of this to truly succeed?

The first step is slowing that brain drain. Capital is a key part of that. But there’s some other, subtler aspects. You need to have a community. You’re seeing the creation of neighborhoods within a lot of cities where entrepreneurs tend to cluster, because it is helpful to bounce ideas off each other. It’s also important for local leaders to really spotlight and celebrate entrepreneurs.

We encourage entrepreneurs to focus on building their company, but also to figure out ways to drive more connectivity with more people in the community. That then helps maximize the likelihood of some of these companies being successful — creating those breakout successes that attract more capital and more talent.

Related: How Growing Businesses Can Prioritize Community Involvement

What’s your advice for an entrepreneur who lives in a small city, and wants to help build their local ecosystem?

First of all, believe in yourself and your community. Entrepreneurship is about seeing the world in a different view, but it’s important to recognize that entrepreneurship is a team sport. So who else should be on your team to help take that idea and give it life? Then, recognize that it’s not just about you and your team and your company — you’re part of a broader community, so how do you make it easier for all the boats to rise?

Right now, the country is divided in part based on opportunity. A lot of people feel left out, left behind. How do we create a sense in their cities, in their communities, that they’re on the move and there really is hope and possibility?

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This article is excerpted from the new book Build for Tomorrow.

We are in a moment of great change, and that change has surely come for you. Perhaps you’ve been forced to adapt to the unpredictable. Or you’ve pivoted. Or released a or service. I’m going to guess that, in some way, you feel like these changes have been equal parts success and failure — that something is working very well, but you aren’t fully happy or satisfied. Maybe a small wellspring of panic is brewing.

Why?

I’ll tell you my theory: It’s because you’re 99% there. And that last 1% hurts the most.

This is like hiking a mountain with a pebble in your shoe: It doesn’t really matter if your legs are strong enough to conquer the incline, or if your shoes grip the earth tightly enough, because if the tiniest, most infinitesimal part of that rock formation ends up underneath your heel, it can bring you to a halt. You must stop, take off your shoe, and locate that tiny part.

Related: Why Struggle Is a Good Thing, Even If We Never Want It

Sometimes, the most impactful part of a journey is also the smallest part.

So how can you locate it? And how can you make it better?

To start, you need to understand what I call the “99% There” problem. It’s time to back up.

Image Credit: Nicolás Ortega


When Miley Cyrus twerked at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, prudes were aghast. “We’re on a moral downward spiral,” conservative radio host Laura Ingraham told her listeners at the time. “What you’re hearing is the end of the culture.” But in truth, Ingraham was just echoing a centuries-old complaint: A new reaches mainstream culture, and traditionalists use it as a stand-in for everything they find objectionable about their own fading relevance. It famously happened with jazz and rock and roll — but the mother of all dance scandals, and arguably the very first true dance-inspired crisis, was the waltz.

In the early 1800s, European society was absolutely scandalized by the waltz. London’s The Times, for example, called it an “obscene display” for “prostitutes and adulteresses.” The British Romantic poet Lord Byron wrote a nearly 2,000-word poem about how much he hated the dance. A society man named Theodore Hook — who, on a completely unrelated note, is credited as the inventor of the picture postcard — despised the waltz so much that he got into a duel over it with a waltz-loving military general. They each shot once and called it a day.

Antiwaltzers at the time talked a lot about how unhealthy the dance was, and how the human body wasn’t made to endure all that spinning. A 19th-century doctor claimed that habitual dancing would take years off your life — calculating that the average life span for a waltzer was 37 years for a man, and 25 years for a woman. In one way, this was nothing new: Victorian-era doctors had also warned that novels might make women infertile, and in the 1800s, doctors warned of a medical condition called “bicycle face” — a permanent disfigurement caused by the strain of attempting to keep the bicycle balanced.

But intriguingly, the doctors of the late 1800s were correct about the waltz: It actually was bad for people’s health.

The doctors were just wrong about why.

Doctors noted that after waltzing, some people fell ill. “Dancers were reported to have developed bronchitis and even pneumonia after waltzing. This led some doctors to blame the dance itself as the cause,” says Mark Knowles, author of the book The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances, who is on the faculty of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Therefore, doctors believed, the dance itself was the problem. Our bodies were not built to withstand that much spinning and touching.

Related: Would You Rather Change or Let Your Business Die?

But here’s what those doctors didn’t consider, according to Knowles: The dance happened in a ballroom with no ventilation, because buildings back then weren’t designed for good airflow. Things were even worse in the winter, when windows and doors were closed. Candles or gas lights would illuminate the room, which poured noxious chemicals into the air. The floor was sometimes lined with a big piece of linen called a “crash cloth,” which enabled dancers to glide more easily — but when dancers traversed them, their feet released lint from the cloth that filled the air with minute linen particles. When these were inhaled, they could cause serious problems in the lungs. And on top of all that, proper women’s attire at the time called for petticoats, which could be heavy, and tightly laced corsets that made breathing difficult.

In short, the pure act of waltzing was perfectly healthy. It was 99% there. But many things around the waltz were insane and deadly. That 1% needed to be solved before the waltz was 100% enjoyable.

Now let’s fast-forward a few centuries and look at a modern cause for safety concern: electric scooters. If you’ve visited a major city recently, you’ve surely seen these things. They’re made by companies such as Lime and Bird, and the first time you come upon one, you think it’s a mistake.

Here’s this little device, left unaccompanied on a sidewalk, available to anyone. But that’s its most compelling feature. To locate a Lime scooter, for example, just open Lime’s app and it’ll show you where all available scooters are on a map. When you approach one and scan its QR code, the wheels unlock. Just turn the handle and zip away, fueled by an electric-powered engine that can move between 15 and 20 miles per hour. In , for example, you’ll be charged one dollar to unlock the scooter and then 30 cents per minute. When you’re done, just leave it at a bike rack or a sidewalk “furniture zone.” Someone else will find it soon.

The scooters started appearing in cities around 2017 and were welcomed with hostility. The Philadelphia Inquirer summed it up in this headline: “Electric Scooters Have Brought Chaos and Outrage in Cities Across the Country.” People treated these devices as a wildly new intrusion onto city streets — which, historically speaking, they are not. The first motorized scooters hit the streets around 1916, and were a largely welcome addition. That year, The [New York City] Sun said scooters have “the disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel,” which is a lastingly accurate description. But times are different. In 1916, roads were awash in people, commerce, and every newfangled machine on wheels. Today roads are almost entirely reserved for cars. Which means scooters don’t feel like they belong.

Soon after the scooters were introduced in American cities in 2017, the narrative turned to safety: Scooters, many people said, were too dangerous. Cities started threatening to ban them. This, too, has a long history. In 1880, bicycles were banned from Central Park because the park commissioners thought they were a dangerous nuisance.

And yet, just like with doctors and the waltz, there is unfortunate truth to the safety concerns about electric scooters: People have crashed and even died while riding them (although multiple studies have found them to be no more dangerous than other transportation modes). So in one way, people’s safety concerns seem reasonable: They see people being harmed on the scooters, and conclude that the scooter is the problem.

But what if the scooter is not the problem? And what if the problem is actually quite solvable?

Lime dug into its data on accidents in the U.S., seeking to understand what is happening. It looked at incident reports related to all rides for one calendar year, starting on March 1, 2019, which consisted of roughly 38 million scooter trips. It found that 99.985% of trips involved no safety incidents. Of the trips with incidents, 93% of them were minor scrapes or cuts that required no medical attention. This left 0.0011% of all trips assessed that required medical attention, hospitalization, or worse.

Lime then dug into that group, seeking patterns. It found that less-experienced riders made up the majority of these reported accidents, and 36% of incidents occurred during a rider’s first five trips. With this insight, Lime launched a course program called First Ride in cities around the world. That way, people could take their first rides in controlled environments, and therefore safely move through the window when most serious accidents occur.

Now let’s step back and look at these two very different situations — the waltz and the scooter. Both brought changes to people’s culture and environment, and both were first adopted by young people. Both were believed to cause bodily harm, and those concerns were validated by real people who experienced real harm. As a result, both were targeted for elimination: People of the 1800s wanted to stop the waltz entirely, and people of the late 2010s aimed to take scooters off the streets.

Related: Why an Entrepreneur’s Ability to Innovate Will Make (or Break) Future Success

But after a closer examination, the waltz and the scooter are found to be statistically healthy activities. They are not inherently dangerous. Instead, the problem existed around the waltz and the scooter. It had to do with the environment that the waltz and scooter were experienced in — the 1% problem in 99% greatness.

Those problems were solvable and would result in broader adoption of change. The waltz would transition from a scandalous dance for kids into a classic dance for all. The scooter would go from a terrifying new obstacle to a common option for urban transportation.

These two stories helped me identify the “99% There” problem. If we want to find the real opportunity in something new and potentially scary, we cannot focus on the new thing itself. We must look in the margins around that new thing — making adjustments in the places where nobody else is looking, so that we transform something from “new and scary” into “can’t live without.”

And how can we do that in our own lives?

To find out, I decided to ask someone who transformed millions of small businesses and reshaped the way commerce happens. His name is Jim McKelvey, and he’s the cofounder of Square.

I asked him what he thought of my theory. “It’s good, perhaps great,” he replied, but “it depends on if someone can use this for a competitive advantage or not.”

Then he explained, with two words, how to do exactly that.

Image Credit: Nicolás Ortega


First, here’s what you need to know about McKelvey. In 2009, he partnered with a friend named Jack Dorsey to introduce a tiny object called the Square Reader. It’s that roughly inch-long reader that plugs into a handheld device, such as an iPhone or iPad, and transforms it into a digital cash register. This sounds small and simple, but it was transformative. Many small businesses couldn’t accept credit cards before this; the process was simply too cumbersome and expensive for them. But now everything from food trucks to farmers’ market stands could take a card. Business has fundamentally changed because of it.

Maybe you’ve swiped your card through a Square Reader and thought: That’s so easy! Competitors in the payments industry saw it and thought: That’s so easy to knock off! Then they tried — and often failed. “People thought the secret to Square’s success was building a card reader that plugged into the headset jack,” McKelvey told me, “but really it was the other 14 things in our stack.”

Related: 10 Truths for Making Change Successful

An “innovation stack” is a model that defines the different types of possible innovations within an organization, and a way of thinking about building new things. The idea is that innovations are stacked on top of one another, each working in tandem to support the other. (It’s also the title of McKelvey’s book, The Innovation Stack.) A credit card reader, for example, isn’t very useful without figuring out how to lower the processing fees for small businesses (which is the reason so many entrepreneurs didn’t take credit cards), or without completely new and innovative relationships with credit card companies. Square addressed all that. Square’s competitors did not. “As a result,” McKelvey says, “most of our potential competitors headed down a dead-end path designing hardware while the real opportunity lay elsewhere.”

To McKelvey, this is a fundamental lesson that goes beyond business. It’s about remembering that what you see isn’t all there is. Or, to keep with the theme of my theory, you can’t confuse the 99% for 100%. “The reasons things look easy is often ignorance,” he told me. “Watching a master chef poach an egg makes it look easy. Only after you have a kitchen full of gelatinous slime will you appreciate how difficult the process truly is. I’ve watched entire companies get funded based on an assumption that something is easy that is actually difficult. Humans love to think they understand.”

Given all that, I asked McKelvey how a person can identify something new and then truly maximize it. How can they get to 100% themselves?

“Doing one thing causes another problem, but often in a surprising way,” he said. To illustrate his point, he reframed the stories of the scooter and waltzing that I had also shared with him: “People assume dancing is unsafe, but really it’s the ballrooms. People assume the scooters are unsafe, but really it’s the riders. Look for that phrase but really and you will find a competitive advantage.”

Look earlier in this article and you’ll see that McKelvey used that exact phrase when describing Square. Here it is again: “People thought the secret to Square’s success was building a card reader that plugged into the headset jack,” he said, “but really it was the other 14 things in our innovation stack.”

When McKelvey meets with innovators, he loves asking them this: “Tell me something nobody else knows about your innovation stack.” It’s a kind of quiz. If someone has created something truly new, and understands its exact purpose in the world and how it’s measurably different and better than everything else, then they will have dozens of answers to this question. “Posers spit platitudes, while real entrepreneurs know firsthand why things happen in nonobvious ways,” McKelvey said.

His advice to anyone trying to answer that question, or to just find the value in new things: “Look for the but reallys,” he says.

Related: 4 Lessons 2020 Taught Us About Adaptability in the Workplace

These simple words may in fact be the difference between adapting and truly thriving. Want to get to a place where you truly, fully appreciate something new, and maximize the opportunity in changing times? Make a list of but reallys. Write down at least three of them, at which point you’ll have thought so deeply about the subject that you’ll probably have many more. Challenge yourself to recognize not just what this new experience is good for, or what its potential is, but what it might be missing as well.

Imagine saying to yourself: I may be dissatisfied with my job, but really I’m being pushed to better identify what I love and how to pursue it. I may need to move to a different city, but really I’m now finding a place that fulfills needs I didn’t have before. I may have just taken on a terrifying new project, but really I’m learning a skill set that will be valuable later.

Once you know your but really, you can foster it. You can solve the small problems, which in turn can solve the big ones.

We must innovate inside the margins of our own lives. We are 99% there. That can be a problem, or it can be an opportunity: It means there’s only 1% left to go.

→ This article is excerpted from Build for Tomorrow copyright © 2022 by Jason Feifer. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

Maqsam
Sinan Taifour, co-founder and CEO, Maqsam

One business idea can lead to another, and another, and another again, and that seems to be the story of how Sinan Taifour and his team developed Maqsam, a cloud communication suite for MENA-based SMEs that gives them an alternative to traditional, more expensive hardware-based solutions.

Now, if you read that Maqsam recently won the first place at the Leap tech expo in Saudi Arabia, or that Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan recently visited Maqsam’s office in Amman to learn more about this promising MENA startup, you would think that the co-founders Sinan Taifour and Fouad Jeryes hit the jackpot with this business idea from the get-go. However, the truth is that it was a process of the two entrepreneurs discovering and solving a series of problems in the region’s complex market that brought them to conceptualize Maqsam. “We founded our first product together called Payhyper, a cash collection network that solves the problems companies faced with cash on delivery by introducing cash before delivery,” Taifour explains.

“The merchant works with Payhyper as if it is any other payment method, so through API (Application Programming Interfaces), and we collect cash on behalf of the merchant from the customer, and inform the merchant when the payment is made. However, a lot of merchants were interested but not fast enough to act, so we ended up eating our own dog food and building a merchant on top of our service.” That experience led to Taifour and Jeryes’ second startup CashBasha, an e-commerce website allowing MENA buyers to buy from international merchants, even when the items cannot be shipped directly to the region. “They would pay us with cash, and so, they did not have to worry about all the logistics and complications of regulations and customs,” explains Taifour. At the time, while Jeryes was building the business on the ground, Taifour was committed to CashBasha and was planning his exit from his Senior Software Engineering post at Google in Munich to join the growing team.

“While working on CashBasha, we ourselves suffered from the gap in infrastructure in the MENA region, such as in communication, payments, and logistics,” he explains. “We filled those gaps by developing a number of internal products. The communications solution we created caught the eyes of startup founders that were facing the same exact challenges we were facing, and that became Maqsam, dubbed the friendliest cloud communication suite in MENA.” In 2019, Taifour left his role at Google and came back to lead Maqsam as its CEO which he describes as “turning our company into a well-oiled machine.” He adds, “The part I like the most about my job is instilling a culture that empowers the individual to grow and contribute in their own way. We often find this is a part of our company the team really appreciates.”

The Maqsam team is currently 70-person strong and spread out between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Jordan. “We started Maqsam from a need we had inside CashBasha to connect with our customers in a region that is wider than where we were physically located, and we found out traditional legacy systems were very costly and not flexible, and so, we built this for ourselves,” Taifour explains. “We understand our clients needs, so we are continuously improving our software with our clients’ input.”

Sinan Taifour and Fouad Jeryes, co-founders, Maqsam

Going forward, he aims to focus on natural language processing technologies in order to help Maqsam clients to better interact with their customers. “Particularly, we’re working on making leadership and management teams in a client’s company better informed by allowing them to learn what their customers are explicitly saying in existing conversations; it is achieved by transcribing the calls (which is challenging in Arabic), and exporting relevant information to the management and leadership teams,” Taifour says. “Our second goal is to turn our clients’ agents into super agents by shortening training time, easing evaluation, and providing real-time feedback to the agent while on a call.”

Once our conversation turned to assessing the current opportunities available to MENA-based entrepreneurs in their own region, Taifour gives an interesting insight into this area. “While there are many startups whose products purely exists in the virtual world, most startups have a leg in reality or require strong local cultural relevance, like a car hailing app or an e-commerce website that builds software, but also have a lot of operations on the ground,” he says. “Such companies typically cannot launch all over the world at once, which leaves a big opportunity for regional startups in the MENA, and examples of successes that covered such cases would be Maktoob, Souq, Careem, Anghami, and Jawaker.”

Another of Taifour’s tips for MENA-based entrepreneurs is to find a way to operate in multiple markets in order to enlarge their business opportunities. “It’s important to have a sizable market when you start your business, so you can grow fast and avoid a plateau, but in our region, we lack such huge single markets, like the European Union or the US, and the closest we have are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (with a lot of buying power) and Egypt (with a huge population),” Taifour explains. “Part of what Maqsam is doing is to help achieve the benefits of such single markets in terms of communication. Your company can be in any place in the region, and you can serve your clients all at once, without having to worry about creating different setups for different countries. This allows you to unlock economic opportunity within a complex region, accelerate growth and reach new frontiers more effectively.”

Source: Maqsam

Before I ask him to share more of his tips for MENA entrepreneurs, I’m eager to hear Taifour’s opinion on the region’s tech talent. “Studying electrical engineering [Taifour holds a bachelor’s degree in the subject from Jordan University, and a master’s degree from the Technical University of Munich] was useful in building sound thinking, but I learned software outside of my formal education through self-learning, and by surrounding myself with people I could learn from,” he says.

“The internet helps you to get halfway, but you need to be part of a team to unlock the next level. We try, at Maqsam, to provide such internships, but also, we see ourselves as hiring great talent, and helping them become world-class. As rarely as it happens, when someone leaves us to a more prestigious or ambitious role, we consider this a win, unlike many companies that feel hurt- we see it as a win since we were able to act as a springboard for that person. Some people leave the region for opportunities, but end up mentoring others or coming back later, which is a win for the ecosystem.”

Taifour adds that in his opinion, the MENA region’s problem is not in having enough tech talent, but in retaining it. “For that reason, regional tech companies should create more interesting opportunities for people to come back,” Taifour says. “Really good technical talent typically evaluate opportunities on two parameters: whether it provides interesting technical problems, and whether their technical skills will grow with time. To attract and retain technical talent, a company has to try to hit both those points.”

In addition to keeping local talent at home, Taifour and the Maqsam team are also working on building bridges with MENA tech experts who live abroad. “We work a lot with our advisors who left the region and have gained knowledge elsewhere, and now act as advisors to us in Maqsam,” he explains. “This is one way we can utilize talents that left the region, and we should also design easy ways for people to contribute back; often, these expats want to contribute, but don’t know how.” MENA governments, Taifour adds, should work together on mitigating the risk of coming back to the region, or not leaving it. “They should lower the risk of starting a company by creating more stable regulations and concepts that are closer to single markets,” he concludes.

Related: Follow The Leader: Natasha Sideris, Founder And CEO, Tashas Group

‘TREP TALK: Maqsam CEO Sinan Taifour shares his tips for entrepreneurs, aspiring and otherwise

1. Don’t delay, do it now. Don’t accept mediocrity “If you find that your job or employer is not up to par, there are a lot of companies out there that are, and if you are good in your field, they will be happy to have you, so never stay in a place that isn’t helping you grow. The culture of a company is as important as what they do, and pay attention to their culture.

2. You don’t need to start a company to have the experience of a founder. “If you join a company early enough, your experience will be similar, and you will wear many hats, and get to contribute to the future of that company and grow with it. Many companies these days offer stocks for employees, so you will likely do very well. This will also help you if you plan to start a business in the future.”

3. Become a T-shaped person. “Have depth in a few things, but also have some breadth. If you have a lot of breadth and you do not have any depth, you are easily replaceable. If you have a lot of depth in something and not enough breadth, you are not seeing the big picture. You have to try to combine both. If you have a bit of breadth across non technical topics and depth in something technical, you’ll be a desired part of any organization.”

4. Join communities to learn and get motivated. “Figure out which communities you want to be part of, whether online or offline, as being part of them will open your eyes, and will help you realize the available opportunities you could join. You can also create your own community of similar people. Look for mentors, people willing to help, and if you find a good mentor, it makes a big difference in your life.”

5. As The Legend of Zelda put it, “it’s dangerous to go alone!” Take a co-founder with you “If you are starting a tech company, consider having a co-founder. It’s full of ups and downs; you’ll need someone to help you, and by doing it alone, you are less likely to succeed. Starting a company requires a skillset that is unlikely to be in a single person, so look for someone who has a complimentary skillset or a willingness to learn.”

Related: Seafood Souq Co-Founder Fahim Al Qasimi Is Building “A UAE-Born Business That Will Change The World”

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Sustainability is a buzzword which has stormed the fashion industry. The growing awareness around sustainable fashion is not only restricted to apparel but has made its way into footwear as well.

Pexels

The vogue is such that the concept has forayed into one of India’s newest airline’s uniforms. Recently, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala-backed Akasa Air unveiled its crew’s sustainable uniform which won accolades from netizens.

The innovation in the sustainable footwear industry has undergone a lot of changes over these years and the current trends speak for casual sneakers and canvas shoes. These are made with recycled rubber soles, upcycled products and sustainable or eco-friendly materials which are aligned with the consumers’ philosophy.

Urgent intervention

About 300 million pairs of shoes are thrown out each year, which may take hundreds of years to completely decompose in a landfill. According to reports, Ethylene-vinyl acetate, found in most sneakers as the shock-absorbing component, is believed to take more than 1,000 years to break down. Moreover, by virtue of the way it is assembled, shoes are fairly difficult to recycle.

Many factors influence the environmental impact of a product. Virgin plastic, rubber and petroleum were the main constituents of shoes for most companies until recently. These materials have high carbon footprints and hence companies started exploring alternatives.

Innovation gigs

PUMA, a German multinational corporation manufacturing athletic and casual footwear, is trying to find new ways to reduce environmental footprint as part of its Forever Better sustainability strategy.

In 2021, the company announced a project, which finds solutions for the afterlife of products. The RE: SUEDE category is the company’s experimental version of the iconic suede sneaker which was created using better sustainable materials. “As many as 500 participants have been selected to wear the shoes for half-a-year before sending them back to PUMA. Together with Dutch waste management specialist Ortessa, we will test if the shoes can biodegrade in a controlled setting to create compost,” said Stefan Seidel, senior head of corporate sustainability, PUMA.

“We want to make sure that by 2025, 90 per cent of our products contain more sustainable materials and components. For footwear that means at least one main component will be made from more sustainable sources, such as leather from tanneries that have received a Leather Working Group medal rating or recycled sources such as recycled polyester, leather or rubber,” Seidel added.

The RE:SUEDE range is made with materials such as zeology tanned suede, biodegradable TPE and hemp fibers. Compared to other biodegradable materials that were evaluated by PUMA, these materials ensure better comfort.

The biodegradable footwear line should be produced with an eye on creating the least possible damage to the environment. Nike, the American multinational corporation engaged in the manufacturing of footwear and apparel, is a major believer in sustainable practices.

“Since 2008, all Nike air soles are composed of at least 50 per cent recycled manufacturing waste. As of 2020, all of Nike’s AirMI facilities in North America are powered by 100 per cent renewable wind energy. We reuse more than 90 per cent of the waste from materials used for our air soles to make new, innovative cushioning systems. Shoes labeled ‘sustainable materials’ are made from at least 20 per cent recycled content by weight,” quoted the official Nike website.

In 2015, Adidas partnered with the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans. They teamed up to help end plastic waste through the power of sport. “Through our collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, we want to inspire and mobilize an entire generation to help shape the future of our planet. We are rethinking the standard materials we use and expanding our portfolio to include recycled and natural materials as well as exploring new more sustainable material innovations,” quoted Adidas in its website.

Shaping the future

By 2024, Adidas aims to replace virgin polyester with recycled polyester, wherever possible. “We are redesigning how we work to bring innovations and services to keep products in play for longer, such as Made to be Remade. Through this, products will be remade and not thrown away. You wear it down and return it.”

Reebok has raised the bar to take the idea of sustainability ahead. The brand believes that it is in the business to inspire positive changes with a trailblazing innovation of its plant-based performance running shoe.

The Forever Floatride GROW is an update of Reebok’s award-winning Forever Floatride Energy shoe. The shoe is composed of four key ingredients: an upper made primarily of eucalyptus, algae sockliner and natural rubber outsole and the hero of the plant-based mission, a midsole composed of castor beans.

“The earth is a runner’s arena, and we have a responsibility to help detox the world for the athletes who run in it,” said Matt O’Toole, Reebok Brand president in a report. Reebok plans to ensure that every single one of their products are sustainable by 2030.

The younger consumers are more aware about the environmental impact of their choices. Sustainability has been an important topic for PUMA ever since it first introduced a code of conduct for suppliers in 1993. “In the past five years, consumers have become more aware about sustainability, especially the younger generation,” added Seidel of PUMA.

According to a report by Startview Research, the sustainable footwear market is likely to witness a CAGR of 5.8 per cent from 2020 to 2025. In terms of regions, Asia-Pacific is estimated to be the largest as well as the fastest-growing sustainable footwear market during the forecast period, with China and India being the major growth propellers of the region.

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You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

Seafood Souq
Seafood Souq co-founder Fahim Al Qasimi

When Fahim Al Qasimi was a boy of about 11 years of age, he was cast in his school’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed musical, Cats.

At the time, he was studying at the Emirates International School in Dubai, and in a bid to adapt Cats better to the UAE, his music and drama teacher then, Jenny Wilson, decided to include locally relevant feline roles in her version of the show, and Al Qasimi was invited to come up with a character true to himself that could be a part of this performance.

That’s how Al Qasimi ended up essaying the part of FisherCat, which he recalls as being a heroic Emirati moggy living by the harbors of Deira Creek that wanted to unite all of the region’s fishermen with the aim “to get better fish.” Now, Al Qasimi may have not known it then, but the mission he chose for his FisherCat persona was a harbinger of what he would get up to in his adult life- after all, getting better fish on all of our plates is a good enough summation of what his enterprise, Seafood Souq, has set out to accomplish with the digital ecosystem it has built for the global seafood industry. And given that the Dubai-headquartered startup’s annual recurring revenue for this year is forecasted to be US$100 million, it’s fair to say that Al Qasimi and his team are well on their way toward realizing that goal, and, in the process, make their impact felt on the international stage as well. “At Seafood Souq today, about 80-90% of our business is global,” Al Qasimi reveals. “This is a UAE-born business that will change the world.”

Seafood Souq came into being in the UAE in 2018 after co-founders Al Qasimi (who, by the way, is a member of the Sharjah royal family) and Sean Dennis (the company’s CEO now) spotted the opportunity in creating a digital B2B marketplace that could connect fish buyers and sellers from all over the world. The appeal of this solution from Seafood Souq can be seen in the fact that just a few months after it was launched, the startup was able to ink a partnership with Emirates SkyCargo, the freight division of Emirates (aka the world’s largest international airline) to transport seafood from countries like Norway, Cyprus, Chile, Scotland, and the USA to customers in the UAE and the wider Middle East.

But this was just the start for Seafood Souq- in building its e-commerce offering, Al Qasimi and Dennis also realized that they had an opportunity to trace the supply chains of all the products hosted on their platform. As it so happens, this relates to a major problem being faced by the global seafood industry- in 2021, The Guardian conducted an analysis of 44 studies of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fishmongers, and supermarkets in more than 30 nations around the world that found 36% of these products were mislabeled.

“Unfortunately, seafood supply chains are wrought with fraud,” Al Qasimi adds. “People swap products in and out. They will sell you something, and give you something else.” For instance, you could have been told the fish you’ve bought in a fine dining restaurant to be, say, responsibly farmed salmon, but there was no way for you to confirm if that actually was the case- at least not until Seafood Souq Trace (SFS Trace) came along.

Source: Seafood Souq Trace

SFS Trace is a digital tool that allows one to confirm the provenance of the fish they buy, and one of its first applications was in 2021 when Seafood Souq got to ink a partnership with Dubai-based Jumeirah Restaurants whereby the latter’s customers at Rockfish, the Mediterranean F&B concept located at the Jumeriah Al Naseem hotel, could simply scan a QR code on their smartphones and learn about the journey -from sea to plate- of their chosen seafood. But while SFS Trace -which is now available in supermarkets in Europe as wellmay have been initially rolled out in this consumer-oriented manner, Al Qasimi points out that its ability to provide traceability found itself help solve other issues within the ecosystem as well. “Distributors told us that SFS Trace is great for supply chain visibility,” he explains. “They can now, using SFS Trace, have access to all the details of their shipments, who the providers are, where it is in the supply chain, which flight it was on, which ship it was on, and so forth.”

Distributors could thus make use of SFS Trace to prove to their buyers that whatever they are buying is exactly what they are getting- and this led to a new use case for the company’s offering. Al Qasimi reveals that Seafood Souq has been approached by the Mandarin Oriental and Atlantis hotel groups to aid with their efforts at realizing their sustainability targets by ensuring the traceability of the seafood they serve. “We’ve thus created a dashboard that now lets leading hotels look at it and say, for instance, ‘In this quarter, 60% of our fish is 100% traceable,'” Al Qasimi says. “They can say that this is the carbon cost of the fish that we’ve brought in, this is where it’s come from, this is the amount that have got certification, and this is how much can be classified as sustainable. So, it’s become like the lifting of a lid on this previously very opaque supply chain.”

And this is where the impact of what Seafood Souq is doing comes into play. “Seafood is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Al Qasimi states. “About 200 to 300 billion dollars of that is just the production of seafood, I’d say. About 50% of the seafood we eat today is thanks to aquaculture- but the other 50% is the only food source that we extract from the earth and not farm. So, it’s more like mining- we go to the ocean each time with only the hope that there will be fish there to harvest again.” Now, this is clearly a perilous approach to take, especially when you consider that approximately three billion people around the world rely on seafood as a primary source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The oceans are thus in danger of seeing their seafood stocks depleted, and this could have far-reaching consequences on humanity- and yet, solutions being proposed and developed for this problem have been few and far between.

Related: Cleantech Startup BluePhin Technologies Is On A Mission To Battle The Global Problem Of Water Pollution

Fahim Al Qasimi, co-founder, Seafood Souq

“One of our investors helped me realize this the other day- if you look at venture capital funds across the world, I think you can count them probably on two hands, maybe three hands, the number of them that are solely focused on the blue economy,” Al Qasimi notes. “And we have, in the world today, put such a focus on carbon that anybody interested in safeguarding our environment is focused on energy, and specifically on carbon. Well, the ocean covers 70% of our globe- there’s a disconnect between that and the number of people actually investing in solutions for the ocean.” This would also explain why one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is centered on “conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas, and marine resources”- and it is one that Seafood Souq has taken to heart by building tech to solve problems inherent in the seafood industry.

An example of the kind of impact Seafood Souq can have on the world at large can be seen in a collaborative endeavor it has engineered with the International Pole And Line Foundation (IPNLF) and fishermen in Oman. “These Omani fishermen used to go out to sea and catch yellowfin tuna in nets,” Al Qasimi explains. “Now, what happens when you catch fish in nets is that they get degraded, since they aren’t treated properly. By the time they arrived on a boat, put on ice, and got to the factory, they were able to sell it only for about about 75 cents a kilo. That’s tuna that’s good enough for pet food, maybe fish food, maybe canning, but these Omani fishermen were not making any real money off the trade, and so, they were catching as many tuna as they could to try to make some money.”

Enter the IPNLF, which argues that the only way to sustainably catch tuna is “one-by-one,” a collective term that incorporates pole-and-line, handline, and troll line fishing methods, which are regarded as being both environmentally and socially responsible- Al Qasimi points out that once Omani fishermen started making use of this methodology, the quality of the tuna they caught rose so much that they were now able to sell it for up to $14 a kilo. These fishermen thus stood to gain more income by catching less fish and being more mindful about how they harvest the oceans; however, the challenge that remained was that once their tuna left Oman, it’d get lost in the opaque supply chain- but Seafood Souq’s SFS Trace can allow for that to not happen.

Related: The Need For Innovation In The Middle East’s Food Supply Chain

The Seafood Souq team participating in an Adidas: Run For the Oceans event in Dubai.

“SFS Trace allows us to sell the product with full traceability of the supply chain, and the stamp to say that this is pole-and-line-caught tuna, that it is sustainable, and therefore is worth the money it is,” Al Qasimi says. “The value transfer is higher to the fishermen (the people that need it the most), and the consumers also have full traceability on where the fish is coming from, and that it is what it says it is.”

Seafood Souq’s work with fishermen in Oman and other emerging markets like it have also allowed the startup -whose offerings are now used in 25 countries around the world- to explore a new avenue for business that is centered on filling the trade financing gap that currently exists in the seafood industry. “Buyers in more developed markets ask for payment terms, and they basically want to only pay when they see the product and so forthbut fishermen in emerging markets, they need cash today,” Al Qasimi explains.

“Seafood Souq Pay (SFS Pay) is thus the next product that we’re building, which will be a trade financing arm of the business that will fund or provide financing for only sustainable seafood sellers with full visibility in the supply chain.” SFS Pay is therefore set to be the “blue financing” arm of the Seafood Souq enterprise, and Al Qasimi adds that much like all of the company’s other undertakings, this too is aimed at balancing profit with impact in the seafood industry.

“When we’re building SFS Pay, we’re not making any less of a return by funding what is sustainable- all we’re doing is making sure that the value transfer within the system is fair,” he says. “We are ensuring that people who are making use of sustainable practices in emerging markets of the world, who previously couldn’t get access to financing, now get to sell their products on a global scale. For instance, a Bangladeshi prawn farmer that we work with never had the opportunity to have their product end up in a Carrefour supermarket in France- now, they do. And that’s thanks to Seafood Souq- and that, for us, is what impact is.”

Seafood Souq co-founder Fahim Al Qasimi

Impact often requires investment, and Al Qasimi says that he and his team at Seafood Souq have been lucky to rally partners and investors who share the same value systems as they do. While the startup’s initial funding rounds were led by angel investors mostly based in the UAE, Seafood Souq has since received support from investment firms like VentureSouq and Global Ventures, and Al Qasimi reveals that it was recently able to secure Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative Institute as a partner as well. He also adds that the groundwork is also being laid for a $30 million Series B funding round to be launched in the last quarter of this year, which is set to fuel Seafood Souq’s further growth.

“We’re setting up our European and Asian headquarters now, because the business is now large enough to warrant having that global presence,” Al Qasimi says. “And that, for us, is a super exciting step, because a company called Seafood Souq, born out of the UAE, is now operating on a global scale. For me, as an Emirati founder, this is something I am super proud to showcase, not just for this country, but also for the Arab region, in that that you can come up with innovative ideas for the world from here, and not the other way around.” But when I note that Seafood Souq has been relatively quiet about its funding rounds so far, Al Qasimi replies that that’s the case simply because it’s not something he and his team are excited by.

“When you find partners and investors that have the same value systems, that honestly do care on the impact that you’re making, then you’re not excited by how much money you raised,” he says. “You’re also not excited necessarily by how much money you’ve made, but you’re really excited when you find out how much of an impact you’ve created for the world, whether that’s jobs created for Omani fishermen, whether that’s helping solve food security issues for the UAE, whether that’s reducing the carbon cost of the seafood trade in the UAE, or whether that’s ensuring the value transfer of people eating wonderful prawns in Europe is going effectively and efficiently to the Bangladeshi farmers that harvested them. That’s impact.”

Incidentally, this is the mindset that also governs Al Qasimi’s dreams for Seafood Souq in the long term, which includes an initial public offering (IPO) for the startup in a couple of years’ time. “I’ve always wanted to be a tech IPO in the region that ‘keeps the dirham in the room,’ as they say, bolsters our capital markets, and proves that we can have technology in the market cap of our local stock markets,” Al Qasimi says.

“What that will take is continued commitment from our fantastic team and our great investors; above and beyond that, excitement and commitment from investors in the local capital market.” As for Al Qasimi himself, he’s clearly in it for the long haul, and he remains excited about the promise Seafood Souq holds. “You know, when you are passionate about something, when you really care about something, you’re going to stick it out,” he says. “And that is something I’m very excited about, in that Seafood Souq is going to be a story that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

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Source: Seafood Souq

Ongoing controversies in the seafood sector

Some of the seafood sector’s issues were brought to the mainstream thanks to Ali Tabrizi’s 2021 film, Seaspiracy, which had shed light on the global overfishing problem with some critics claiming it was one-sided. One of the solutions Tabrizi proposed at the end of that documentary was that we either need to reduce the amount of seafood we eat, or replace it with plant-based alternatives, but Seafood Souq’s Fahim Al Qasimi is not too sure if this is a really sustainable resolution to the problem at hand.

“My personal viewpoint on this is that while some people like Ali have suggested eating less seafood and looking for a substitution to it, there is a carbon cost on that, which is why I challenge that hypothesis,” he explains. “Another solution being proposed is lab-grown meats, which people like KBW Ventures’ Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed have been extremely active in investing in, and I commend them for those efforts. But I believe that the problems that we have today in the seafood industry were created by business- and as such, they need to be solved by business as well.”

According to Al Qasimi, the old ethos of ‘you can’t improve what you can’t measure’ is what one needs to keep in mind when talking about problems in the seafood industry, and that, in effect, explains how Seafood Souq’s digitization of this ecosystem -which allows for everything to be traceable and transparent- allows for sustainable harvesting of the world’s oceans. “If Seafood Souq -hypothetically- was adopted in every fishery and fish farm around the world, traded on our platform, or used SFS Trace, we could reach a point where we could aggregate enough data to really understand whether fish has been sustainably caught,” Al Qasimi says. “We’d have data telling us whether the catches have been registered by the environmental agencies or the fishery management organizations of the countries where it happened.”

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