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Startup Lounge: Pandemic enabled tech solutions for business continuity - Roberto Croci

Startup Lounge: Pandemic enabled tech solutions for business continuity - Roberto Croci
Roberto Croci, Microsoft for Startups MEA’s Managing Director

By: Ingy ElSafy

Mubasher: The technology sector is playing a major role in carving out space for startups to grow and scale their business. One example is Microsoft, which has a programme dedicated to startups.

Here in Startup Lounge, Mubasher spoke with Roberto Croci, Microsoft for Startups MEA’s Managing Director, about the programme's role in the region, the size of its portfolio, and the sectors it is currently focusing on.

The Microsoft for Startups programme is built on tech enablement, market access, as well as community and connections. It has worked with approximately 480 entrepreneurs and currently has 147 founders active in the global programme, in addition to 338 who have already graduated.

Croci also explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the startup scene across the region, and his view about the challenges and outlook for startups, and what governments can do to support the programme’s efforts to help local enterprises.

Our guest had studied Industrial Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, and also graduated from Harvard Business School after specialising in Leadership Development. Croci spent nine years at Google, where his last position was Regional Head, Google Marketing Platforms, EMEA Emerging Markets.

Could you tell us more about Microsoft for Startups’ global and regional role? What exactly are you trying to bring to the MENA startup ecosystem?

At a global level, building on the experience with Bizspark, one of the first programmes in support of scaling of startups, Microsoft launched Microsoft for Startups, a global incentive programme dedicated to helping [business-to-business] B2B startups successfully scale their companies. 

For the Middle East, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), specialised regional programmes have been designed to complement the global Microsoft for Startups programme. These programmes are dedicated to supporting B2B startups as they successfully scale their companies, as well as driving the growth of startup ecosystems across the region.

These programmes include the GrowthX Accelerator Programme and Highway to 100 Unicorns. Microsoft's GrowthX Accelerator Programme is a specialised programme for the Middle East region to build and drive better engagement between corporates with challenges and tech startups with solutions. We expect to recruit 15 SaaS B2B startups for this and help them work closely with Microsoft’s corporate clients.

Another programme is Highway to 100 Unicorns, which is a webinar series that will engage the regional ecosystem with talks, panels, workshops, and chats with leading industry and tech experts, from both the region and abroad.

What about the size of deals registered in your programme since its launch? And, what are the countries benefiting from it?

We are lucky to have worked with around 480 entrepreneurs so far, with many more to come. We currently have 147 founders active in the global programme, and we have 338 who have already graduated.

Microsoft for Startups Middle East supports founders with tech startups in the UAE, KSA, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, and Turkey.

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic affected the region’s startup scene?

The global pandemic brought about some truly unprecedented changes and challenges for all of us, but one of the changes that we saw very clearly is that it rapidly increased technological adoption and overcame adoption hurdles for innovation all across the region, but especially in the B2B startup space. Industries that had historically been very resistant to tech disruption were the first in line to find solutions for business continuity against the backdrop of the need to socially distance.

We also saw a huge amount of work in terms of working on regulating startups at a government level, especially in the UAE and KSA, which really helped to strengthen startup ecosystems for years to come.

What are the sectors you are currently focusing on? Also, would you expand for a wider scope?

We are currently working on supporting post-revenue B2B startups and scale-ups across all industries, but we expect to have some exciting updates coming your way soon.

In the past, you have worked on corporate reorganisations and process reengineering. Based on this experience, what do you tell startups that aim to optimise their systems and operations?

We tell them to ensure that their tech architecture is optimised for the cloud. And we help them do this with our team. And for all startups, having the right people in the right place is essential, probably as essential as validating the need for your solution.

Cybersecurity and tech-backed enterprises are vital for digital transformation across the region. What can Microsoft for Startups provide in this regard?

In general, our programme is built on three pillars: tech enablement, market access, and community and connections. To that end, we have an all-star lineup of mentors, knowledge partners, corporates, and expansion partners who are all very excited about supporting tech startups in this space to scale.

We do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to our in-programme startups, we work with our community of founders on CTOs to support them in achieving their unique milestones, both commercial and technical. This can be in the form of our Cloud Architect, Sania, supporting with cloud cost optimisation and scaling, or in our periodic VC demo days, or in corporate introductions.

You were the honorary speaker at the webinar organised in May 2020 to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), how do you find the contribution of accessibility startups worldwide and regionally?

We are getting there, in terms of paying more attention to diversity, disability, and inclusion, but on a global level and in the region, we have a very long way to go. We are incredibly proud to have startups in our programme who have built incredible tech solutions to solve accessibility problems across industries, like MindRockets and Key2Enable.

How do you see the challenges and outlook for startups in the region’s emerging economies?

It is a very exciting time to be in the tech space in the region. All stakeholders are working more closely and in alignment to drive the growth of ecosystems in the region.

Our partnership with ADIO, and all of their investments in strengthening startup infrastructure, with Hub71, regulation with ADGM, ADQ, and Mubadala, and investments in universities and entrepreneurship programmes for young people and Emiratis, keeps us incredibly excited for the transformation of these economies into leading global knowledge economies.

Finally, how can governments support your efforts to help local enterprises?

We firmly believe this is about building the right talent pool for the future, by empowering young people to explore entrepreneurship in schools and universities. We are seeing incredible progress in terms of the regulation of startups, and their integration with other industries, and finally, it is about the investment in solutions that emerge in the region that can scale globally.