DUBAI: Young Saudis willing to do their part to transform their country into a tech hub can access a wide range of tailored initiatives from the Saudi government and local institutions.
One of them is the Emerging Entrepreneurship Leaders Acceleration Program, launched by the Entrepreneurship Institute of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM-EI) in Dhahran, Eastern Province, to stimulate the growth of local tech startups.
The program specifically targets startups that generate innovative products and processes in manufacturing as well as in the digital economy. It aims to support Saudi Arabia’s aspiration to become a regional and global technology hub.
Huda Ahmed Flatah, 26, from Riyadh, is one of the young Saudi graduates from the program. His startup, Helper Robot, was launched in 2020 to develop and exploit technologies that bring tangible benefit to society.
“We came up with two solutions,” Flatah told Arab News. “The first is a robotics kit, including sensors, motors and an electrical circuit, for anyone who wants to build a prototype. It’s easy to use and connect, and you can use it if you’re looking to build a smart home or a smart car.
The second product created by his company is an online platform for people wishing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, allowing them to participate in courses in programming, electrical circuits and robotics.
Flatah was among the first group of women to study at KFUPM-EI. Having already obtained a degree in biology from Taibah University in Madinah, she then received a scholarship to study at Draper University in Silicon Valley in California and H-FARM College in Italy, where she pursued studies in entrepreneurship and technology.
Flatah is grateful for the scholarships and acceleration programs the Kingdom offers to help young people break into the tech industry.
“It was really great because when you see your country and your institution caring about your project, helping you and believing in you. It helped me a lot, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Flatah said. “It was so difficult, but we made it.”
Additionally, she is impressed with the Kingdom’s efforts to encourage more women to engage in STEM subjects and career paths. She says the program has both shaped her character and boosted her self-esteem – essential in what is otherwise a male-dominated field.
A growing awareness of the need to diversify the Kingdom’s economy from oil into other high-value industries prompted the launch of the Vision 2030 reform program in 2017. One of the objectives of the program is technological development, mainly carried by national startups.
“We see a lot of opportunity today across the Kingdom for those who are ready,” Flatah said. “We have Vision 2030 for dreamers and workers, and those who want to make a big change and improve our lives. Every university and school is looking for entrepreneurs.
“I have a vision for myself and we want to build a generation of builders and innovators. I have to take that leap and change myself.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced it would invest more than $6.5 billion in future technologies and entrepreneurship to further strengthen its position as the region’s largest digital economy.
As part of the announcement, Saudi and foreign companies unveiled plans including a billion dollar investment from NEOM Tech & Digital Company to focus on future technologies, such as XVRS, the world’s first cognitive metaverse, and M3LD, a personal data management platform.
XVRS is a one-of-a-kind 3D cognitive digital twin metaverse platform, where the physical merges with the virtual to create unique and immersive experiences and enable a revolutionary “mixed reality” model of urban living.
For example, NEOM visitors and residents could attend a meeting wherever they are, in the form of a real robot, an augmented reality avatar or a hologram.
“The future will not be defined by megacities, but by cognitive metacities,” Joseph Bradley, CEO of NEOM Tech & Digital Company, told delegates at Saudi Arabia’s flagship technology event, LEAP, in february.
“XVRS is the only iteration of the metaverse currently in development that will be a mixed reality 3D digital twin of a physical location – in our case, the NEOM community. It will be comprised of next-generation digital assets that users can interact with in the real world.”
M3LD, on the other hand, is an innovative AI-powered “consent management platform” that empowers users to take back control of their data.
The product is able to track who owns a user’s data, monitor their usage, and provide recommendations on privacy settings for all of their digital accounts. Its general release is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023.
It is through programs such as the Emerging Entrepreneurship Leaders Acceleration Program at KFPUM-EI that the Kingdom hopes to harness and develop local talent to advance the “fourth industrial revolution” and realize the full potential of projects like NEOM.
Meem Web Solutions is another technology company spun off from the KFPUM-EI program, offering a platform that optimizes business process automation.
Its founder, Syed Shamaail Jafri, received a grant of SR50,000 ($13,300) from the institute’s Keys of Goodness fund. Jafri says his idea grew out of his initial recruitment by the institute to automate one of its processes.
“I thought it would be better to create an application that can be generalized to automate all these processes,” Jafri told Arab News.
“Now anyone without any programming knowledge can develop such workflows, and we’re targeting markets that don’t have commercial developers and have a lot of processes that aren’t automated. In this regard, we simply make their offices paperless.
Originally from Pakistan, Jafri, 42, says he is grateful for the Saudi government’s support to grow his business.
“My goal for the future is to build this company independently,” he said. “The institute has really helped me on the legal aspects, and I hope to serve all businesses here in Saudi Arabia and then around the world.”
High-growth startups like these will have a vital role to play in diversifying the Kingdom’s economy, says Wail A. Mousa, associate professor of electrical engineering and founding dean of the Institute of Entrepreneurship.
“We see a strong and ever-growing entrepreneurial spirit in our community,” Mousa told Arab News.
“Through our programs, we aim to nurture this spirit and provide the practical support needed to establish and grow these businesses, to reach their full potential and make a lasting contribution to the country’s economic prosperity.
The institute was established to help foster entrepreneurial thinking through education, training, and research, and to provide logistical and financial support for the formation and growth of high-potential startups. It also relies on the expertise of local and international experts.
To date, KFUPM-EI has held over 4,000 mentoring sessions, trained over 2,000 participants, and created over 30 startups that have created over 100 jobs and secured SR25 million in revenue.
These efforts to promote entrepreneurship already seem to be bearing fruit. Venture capital investment in Saudi Arabia in 2021 exceeded the total for 2019 and 2020 combined.
According to Abdullah Al-Swaha, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Saudi Arabia is now home to some of the region’s largest investments in cloud technology, leading large-scale cloud providers including Google, Alibaba , Oracle and SAP, investing more than $2.5 billion in the Kingdom.
Speaking at LEAP earlier this year, Al-Swaha said Saudi Arabia is also the regional leader in tech talent, having created more than 318,000 jobs in the sector in recent years.
More importantly from a women’s empowerment perspective, women’s participation rate in the information and communication technology workforce has jumped to 28% in recent years.
“Technology is important because it’s the future,” said Flatah, a KFUPM-EI graduate.
“The ongoing transformation in Saudi Arabia from one sector to another involves technology, so if you don’t invest in technology, you risk failing in the next 10 years because it will not meet the requirements of the generation.”