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Startup Lounge: Health, edutech investments to flourish after pandemic – Noor Sweid

Startup Lounge: Health, edutech investments to flourish after pandemic – Noor Sweid
Noor Sweid, Founder and General Partner, Global Ventures

By: Ingy ElSafy

Mubasher: The Middle East carries plenty of appeal for regional and international investors due to the favourable macroeconomic fundamentals that underpin these markets.

Meanwhile, the sectors that have witnessed increased digitisation as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are expected to see accelerated growth. More investments are projected to flow into digital health, as the collection of healthcare data will continue to increase at an accelerated pace.

In an interview with Mubasher, Noor Sweid, Founder and General Partner at Global Ventures, talked in detail about Global Ventures’ role and future investments. She shared her outlook for regional tech-led startups and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on emerging companies.

Sweid spoke about her journey to being the first-ever female Arab to lead an initial public offering (IPO) on NASDAQ Dubai and the London Stock Exchange (LSE), in addition to her personal motivation to focus on yoga in her former business Zen Yoga.

Today's guest of the Startup Lounge also offered her advice to startups based on her diverse experience, which includes investing in the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem since 2008 after she had moved back to the UAE from the US in 2005.

Sweid holds a Bachelor degree in Finance and Economics from Boston College, as well as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


Venture capital entities play a major role for startups, could you tell us more about Global Ventures’ regional and international footprint?

Global Ventures is a UAE-based international venture capital firm, with presence in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah, Egypt’s Cairo and the UAE’s Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Our network of advisors extends to the United States, Europe, and Singapore.

Furthermore, the geographic footprint of our portfolio companies stretches regionally and internationally across the UAE, KSA, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine, Oman, and Bahrain in the Middle East; Egypt in North Africa; India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Singapore in Asia; Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, and Ghana in Sub-Saharan Africa; as well as the UK and the US in Europe and North America.


What about Global Ventures’ pipeline of future investments in various sectors and leading emerging markets like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt?

Our focus will be on the many opportunities created and accelerated by the pandemic, from digital health to education technology, and on the sectors experiencing a second wave of growth and innovation, including FinTech and the Future of Work.

Global Ventures invests across emerging markets. We will continue to support the most promising startups in the GCC, North Africa, the Levant, and Sub-Saharan Africa.


How do you see the current and future investments in healthtech startups?

We expect to see more investment flow into digital health, as the collection of healthcare data will continue to increase at an accelerated pace. With the help of [artificial intelligence] AI and other digital capabilities, we expect healthcare stakeholders across the value chain to leverage these technologies to dramatically improve access, quality, and cost of healthcare. Robotics and [augmented reality] AR will revolutionise the ways healthcare practitioners perform and deliver surgical procedures and patient access to essential care.

MENA’s bed availability capacity is less than half the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] OECD average; for every 1,000 individuals, there are 1.9 beds available. In OECD, that number stands at 4.8. Similarly, there is a significant shortage of qualified physicians; only 1.3 per 1,000 in MENA. Accelerated by COVID-19, the opportunity to bridge the healthcare inclusion gap using digital solutions is greater than ever.

It is expected that 50% of all surgeries will be robot-assisted by 2025.

Startup Proximie, an AR tool enabling clinicians to virtually scrub into any operating room from anywhere in the world, has been used in over 10,000 surgeries since 2016. The startup recently saw a 430% increase in the number of surgeries it’s been used in. Proximie has announced a successful $38 million Series B fundraise that attracted a number of large US venture capital firms.

Meanwhile, working from home is here to stay, making the need for more efficient workforce management, communication, and organisation tools and software greater than ever. Over the coming three to five years, 42% of executives plan to use more independent workers.

Taking an example among many, Tata Consultancy plans to only have one-fourth of its employees work from its physical facilities by 2025.


Do you have the same outlook for the edtech sector?

This year will witness a rise in investor appetite for technologies that complement the physical student learning experience. As schools and universities gradually reopen their doors to students, the hybrid learning model will gain momentum as educators and policymakers think of the most efficient ways to provide continued learning that is interesting, engaging, and personalised.

It is estimated that there will be 2 billion more learners around the world by 2050.

Education is grossly underfunded with less than 4% of the global expenditure on tech. This is highlighted by the $8.3 billion global investment into edtech since the third quarter of 2020, yet only $30 million was invested in edtech in MENA during 2020. Investments in the space are projected to grow by 12% year-on-year until 2025 in MENA.


How can companies and sectors in emerging markets use innovative technology to leapfrog legacy systems in developed countries?

We call this “reverse innovation”. It is the concept of bringing smart ideas developed for or originating in the non-western world into the west, instead of always assuming that innovation happens the other way around. In 2007, we saw an example of this with M-Pesa in the mobile payments space which was developed to circumnavigate the lack of banking infrastructure in Africa.

Another example is our portfolio company Arrow Labs, which is a technology company uniting deskless frontline workers that transformed the way companies manage their field resources through its MIMS technology. The technology was recently used by the US-based Cajun Navy in searching, locating, and rescuing people during Hurricane Laura, via its machine-assisted dispatch and optimised resource allocation.

We see similar events happing with health technology, or ‘healthtech’, as it will be focused on how you provide access to healthcare using remote tools for diagnostics, telemedicine, remote pharmaceuticals, and medical deliveries, rather than going out to build more hospitals.

Meanwhile in education technology, the biggest bottleneck for startups has always been the quality and availability of educational content. With the COVID-19 pandemic came a huge accelerating effect in this sector and suddenly the world of education has been inundated with content as schools and parents were forced to use remote learning options. Global Ventures has recently just published our annual in-depth research report on the EdTech sector in the MENA region.


Which sectors have the pandemic helped to accelerate in MENA? And, which industries had to leave the race?

In MENA, we expect accelerated growth across the sectors that have witnessed increased digitisation as a result of the pandemic. Specifically, we are seeing more interest in the spaces of education, digital health, agriculture, and the future of work.

COVID-19 has had a different impact on other industries. While some are and will continue to experience long-term disruption and growth, others will continue to withstand losses like tourism and transport. It is important to mention that the latter group will benefit significantly from things going back to normal. Slowly but surely, vaccination programmes are being rolled out across the globe, setting these industries up for recovery and growth.


Which platforms do you think can emerge based on the changes created by the pandemic?

COVID-19 seems to be catalysing and accelerating innovation and adoption of platforms that commoditise and digitise medicine, education, and employment, amongst others.

The most obvious surge in demand has been in healthcare, where despite significant technological advancements, the existence of a user-friendly digital patient journey for those who fall sick is still lacking. There is not a single platform to carry a patient from sickness to wellness seamlessly, combining include health information, booking, teleconsultation, medical records, and pharmaceutical delivery. The current pandemic has encouraged an incredibly large number of healthtech startups to consider how we may re-invent this space. Ultimately, this will lead to the creation of a platform: one destination to manage your health.

Education technology companies had to experience an unprecedented boom in users due to remote learning options. Many schools and parents struggled to adapt to this new format of learning. Identifying the valuable content, consolidating it, and sharing it in a useful manner with children – all remotely using technology - became the main role of traditional classroom teachers. This highlights the massive need for an education platform: a user-friendly journey where content is consolidated, sorted, and presented to the user in a manner that creates value, is trackable, and where results can be measured. 

The pandemic also presented an opportunity for fintech’s all over the world to achieve massive growth. Our portfolio company Paymob, the Egyptian digital payment provider, grew its monthly revenue over five times in 2020, recording a total payment volume of more than $5 billion.


How do you find MENA market conditions conducive for startups to grow regionally and internationally, not just on the local level?

The region carries plenty of appeal for regional and international investors. This is mainly due to the favourable macroeconomic fundamentals that underpin these markets, including a young population, as [the Middle East and Africa] MEA is home to 1.5 billion people and one of the world’s youngest populations, with 60% under 25 years of age.

The growing high digital adoption is another factor, where a rapid increase in the propensity for digital consumption is seen, with growing digital penetration rates across mobile (85%), internet (40%), and social media (25%).

Furthermore, educated population and expanding technical talent, with 165 million individuals with tertiary education and 55 million who are STEM-educated.

In other parts, the region is home to brilliant founders who are solving some of the most pressing issues of our times using technology and innovative solutions. These startups have as much regional potential, as they do international potential.


How would you describe your journey to being the first-ever female Arab to lead an IPO (Depa) in the region?

Following the completion of my MBA at MIT, I joined Depa, a leading interior contracting firm, in 2005 for an initial three-week project. This quickly became three months in a consultative role and eventually became three years in a much more operational role.

At the time of joining, Depa had reached around $60 million in revenue and employed over 1,000 employees across six markets. By 2008, Depa was turning over $600 million and operational in over 22 markets. In light of that growth, I led the IPO on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ Dubai in 2008.

Whilst at Depa, I also founded my own business, Zen Yoga, the first yoga studio in Dubai.  Zen Yoga went on to become the largest chain of yoga and pilates studios in the Middle East before I took the decision to sell the company to a private equity firm in 2014.

During this time, I realised it was so much harder to run a startup than to run a billion-dollar company. I started engaging with founders, especially female founders, and angel investing and mentoring. This is partly how I found myself in Venture Capital today.


Preserving our health is essential, what personally motivated you to focus on yoga in your former business Zen Yoga? And, how do you find it vital during the COVID-19 pandemic?

When I started Zen Yoga in 2006, there was little to no understanding of the practice. I returned to the UAE from the US in 2005 and was hoping to continue my practice here, except I couldn’t find the right place to do that. I struggled to find trustworthy and qualified teachers and a studio that truly understood and appreciated yoga. That’s when and why I decided to start Zen Yoga.

As always, it’s important for everyone to pause and find space to reflect amidst the busyness of our everyday lives. The importance of this exercise is magnified in times of isolation and turbulence. Yoga helps promote physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. It becomes the necessary practice to re-centre and bring balance to the areas of our lives that were heavily disrupted because of the pandemic.


Finally, what would be your advice to startups based on your diverse experience?

Share openly and directly with investors. It's not only about sharing your work and progress, but also the challenges you've encountered and the learnings from your journey toward building a great product and service that solves a real problem.

Exhibit excitement, passion, and enthusiasm. It's contagious!

Teams win, not just individuals; a lot can be said of an entrepreneur from the people they hire; think big and be ambitious; always aim higher than the initial idea and prediction.