ictQATAR's Digital Incubation Centre invited Qatar Today to talk about its new direction and programme of diversification.
For a while now the Digital Incubation Center has enjoyed (and suffered through) a fair share of our focus. First because it has been an interesting, and necessary, vigil: watching the evolution of what has now clearly become one of the epicentres of the country's tech innovation. And second, the various companies that are incubated here (and the enthusiastic young entrepreneurs at their helm) are an endless source of material for an ever-hungry publishing house. So while we had been aware of the changes in management at the DIC over the last few months, we couldn't guess what this would mean for the centre's operations. During a discussion with Thamer Al Thani, some, if not all, were revealed.
Al Thani is a relatively new presence in DIC, though not ictQATAR itself, where he has managed various projects aimed at getting citizens to engage with e-government initiatives. And now he is taking on a supporting role as DIC's Business Development Manager. “Like any startup we have to stay lean, and wear multiple hats. And it is always good to bring in people with new perspectives and different experiences,” he says. This partly explains DIC's “reboot” and the ambitious strategies that have been put in place.
Starting this year, DIC will restructure its programmes around two tracks – launch pad and startup. “Applicants who have an idea that could potentially be something can submit it online, come in for a screening and live pitch and, if we are sold on it, they will be selected for a six-month programme. They will be supported both in the technology and business side, allowing them to test the viability of their business and craft a business plan,” Al Thani says. Those who have completed this track can either take this forward independently or stay on to become part of the two-year startup track.
It is difficult to imagine why anyone, given this option, would choose to forgo the training and mentorship and wide-ranging support, from infrastructure and financial to legal and networking. “For this entire duration all these early-stage startups have to worry about is developing their products and finding clients,” he says. For Al Thani, the true value lies in the environment these startups will come together to create, resulting in exciting collaborations. The equity/debt-free funding doesn't hurt either. DIC has tiedup with Qatar Development Bank for the early-stage funding needs and is developing an angel network for the scale ups later on. Al Thani admits the latter is a little slow on the uptake (“It's still very much about knowing someone who knows someone”) but there is interest. “All we need is to see one success story.”
Also new this year is the concept of dedicated mentorship; during the early stages, startups will be matched with relevant industry experts, both regional and international, from companies like Microsoft, Vodafone and Siemens who will help guide the entrepreneurs from idea to prototype. Startups will also benefit from the experience of home-grown entrepreneurs (“We have a partnership with Khalifa Al Haroon, for example”) and past DIC graduates.
The 20 launch pad and 10 startup companies DIC hopes to start grooming this year will hopefully be capable of sustaining digital clusters like the one planned in Ras Abu Fantas. “This new economic area will host several industries that will support the plants there and tech is a vital industry,” says Al Thani. This is part of the reason why DIC, which has hitherto been populated mostly with startups in the Arabic digital content space, is pushing for diversification. “We are looking for ideas and businesses around specific emerging technologies like smart city solutions, Internet of Everything, cloud computing, drones & robotics, cybersecurity, Big Data and predictive analysis, digital transformation, social media, infotainment, machine to machine, mobility and wearable solutions, e-commerce, digital content, and telecom services, which seek to support various key sectors.” Many of these are new technologies while some are mature ones which are yet to see sizable application in Qatar.
We have said this before and we'll say it again: DIC's incubation terms are generous by any comparison, unprecedented even. And it has, even before its fifth anniversary, had a few meaningful successes. But is that alone enough to attract technologically inclined minds in Qatar? Yes, the entrepreneurial landscape here is littered with challenges and is certainly not for the faint-hearted but what DIC is giving young startups is an opportunity to try and quite literally lose nothing in the process
THAMER AL THANI Business Development Manager Digital Incubation Centre