The UAE’s startup ecosystem is diversifying away from its e-commerce roots, according to industry executives convened at Expand North Star, part of GITEX Global 2023. Expand North Star, which kicked off on October 15, hosted over 1,400 start-ups from around the world.
Saeed Alnofeli, the Director of in5 Innovation Centers, an enabling platform for entrepreneurs and start-ups, took center stage during a panel discussion at Expand North Star, where he emphasized the significant shifts occurring in the UAE's entrepreneurial landscape. Al Nofali noted that the region is seeing an influx of startups working in agritech, sustainability, and AI – a clear departure from the era when e-commerce reigned supreme.
Sharif El-Badawi, the CEO of Dubai Future District Fund, highlighted the influx of deep tech startups into the region. He noted that, since Covid-19, the UAE has become a more sought-out destination for investment, attracting over 200 VC firms, including international VCs.
But the narrative isn't just about the numbers – there is also a marked shift in mindset. Al Nofali underscored growing acceptance in the region to the notion of startup failures. "Culturally, we don’t want to accept failure," he said. "I think that people understand startups better now, and things are changing. We are not there 100%, but we are getting there."
Earlier this week, Abu Dhabi’s Hub71, the city’s global tech ecosystem that supports startups in fintech, health and education, among others, announced revamped incentives programs that will offer companies up to Dh750,000 ($204,000) in equity-free incentives – a 50% increase from its prior offering.
AI on the Rise
In line with the UAE's policy to grow AI investment, GITEX Global 2023 centered around the theme "The Year to Imagine AI in Everything." Last year, the UAE’s Ministry of Economy’s Entrepreneurial Nation project set a target to support 8,000 startups and SMEs, with the aim of producing 20 unicorns by 2031.
At GITEX’s Abu Dhabi pavilion, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) announced the MBZUAI Metaverse Centre (MMC) and the MBZUAI Incubation and Entrepreneurship Center (MIEC). MMC will focus on developing large, accessible and affordable AI-driven immersive technologies and their applications across sectors, while MIEC aims to aid start-ups in the adoption of AI across diverse industries.
A 2022 report by strategy& projected that the metaverse will inject $15 bn to the GCC economies by 2030, with $7.6 going to Saudi Arabia and $3.3 going to the UAE. A report by Facebook parent Meta puts the number even higher, estimating that metaverse technologies could inject $8.8-$16.7 bn to the UAE’s economy on the back of Dubai’s Metaverse Strategy, which aims to make the city one of the world’s top 10 metaverse economies.