By: Ingy ElSafy & Moslem Ali
Cairo – Mubasher: Vera Futorjanski, Director of Innovation and Partnerships at 500 Startups, recently participated in the RiseUp Summit 2019, held in the American University in Cairo (AUC) on 5-7 December, where she discussed challenges facing entrepreneurs and the rapidly growing ecosystem.
In an interview with Mubasher, Vera Futorjanski shared her views on the fast-growing startups atmosphere in the Middle East and how to encourage investors and pave the way for growth and innovative solutions by startups.
How do you see Saudi Vision 2030 opening spaces for startups to grow and succeed?
I think Saudi Arabia is doing an amazing job by looking into diversifying its economy and supporting innovation. The [government] recently set up about 14 VCs in the shortest amount of time and the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (Misk) is running accelerator programs with several players, including 500 Startups.
There is a lot happening in the kingdom, pushing innovation with startups while attracting talent and offering invectives.
Several other players in the region are doing that as well. Abu Dhabi is supporting startups with the HUB71, Mubadala, and the Abu Dhabi Global Market Authorities (ADGM) offering perhaps the cheapest license in the UAE to set up a company at about $700.
What do you think startups in MENA could learn from the UAE model?
The UAE market probably has the most startups [in the region]. It offers different incentives. You can set up a company within a good ecosystem that is already in place. I think ecosystem is really important for startups to thrive, and you have to look at ecosystems holistically, from startups to investors and capital so that you can continue growing.
You also need government support. The UAE government has been amazing in looking into potentially changing legislations and regulations to support startups.
You need academia to be on board, since that is where the talent is growing, and for corporates to realize that if they do not partner with startups, they can get disrupted very quickly and easily. There is a saying that “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” It is so simple yet true.
Look at Nokia for example, ten years ago, they were the No. 1 phone maker, but this has changed now. Big corporates can be disrupted very rapidly and they really have to realize that.
Do you think the need to partner with startups is reinforced by rising technologies?
Of course, 100%. I was recently speaking in Zurich with a number of corporations on the panel, and I said that the problem in corporates often is that the highest leadership does not realize the importance of partnering with startups. They could be very slow in decision making.
Both governments and corporates need to support startups and offer them an opportunity to test their products.
I have worked on building government and corporate innovation and ecosystems in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with Misk through a number of accelerators and investments in education as well as accelerator management training. I was in charge of the MENA region and Russia, which was building an accelerator with Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia.
Now, what I would like to do is to bring Europe and the Middle East closer together.
What do you think is most important in personal and business growth?
For personal growth, it is so important to get out of your comfort zone. It may sound cliché, since everybody says that, but it is really true. When you start feeling comfortable, you are not growing anymore. It is really important to kind of leap into the unknown, which is scary at first, but that is how you learn to fly and get higher.
How do you think Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE can collaborate their efforts to support startups?
In terms of coordinating regulations, it has to start from the highest level of course. Governments have to realize that we need to start this cross-border collaboration.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already working on making it easier for startups to move from one country to another. When I built my startup in the UAE it was very difficult to move to another market. In order for startups to thrive in this region, we really need to make sure that we make those cross-border opportunities easier, because otherwise, it is very difficult if you have to start all over in every country.
In Egypt, there is definitely a lot of talent with the largest population in the Middle East, bringing several advantages to it.
From your perspective, are there frameworks applied internationally that we can learn from?
In Europe, Paris overtook Berlin in terms of the entrepreneurial ecosystems. I think President Emmanuel Macron was very smart in setting up certain invectives for startups. France made it easier for talent to get visas and changed certain regulations.
We can do this here in the region, by making it easier for startups and talents to move and allowing for an easier capital flow.
How can more startups in the region share their own experience, challenges, and success stories?
I think through events like this. The RiseUp Summit is a platform for startups that are already successful and perhaps are looking for more funding, as well as other startups that are just in their beginnings, like the ones exhibiting. They have access to talk to more experienced startups and learn from them.
Recently, we had great stories with Uber acquiring Careem and Amazon acquiring Souq. This encourages the local ecosystem.
For the next step, I think we need more innovation in addressing local issues. I feel a startup will be most successful if it solves a real challenge. What is a real challenge in the region? The unbanked, which is why fintech could be huge here. Mobility, because of the large population and traffic. The salination in other parts of the region, so, farming solutions could help provide for the region and reduce food imports. That is why startups need to focus on solving the real issues here.