As Saudi Arabia steps up reforms of its oil-based, corporation-driven economy, Startup Hub Riyadh, run by the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises (Monshaat), has become a focal point for the emergence of a more sustainable and entrepreneurial culture.
Arriving at their offices in Riyadh Front, not far from King Khaled International Airport, I am met by Sara Almangour, Monshaat’s Director of Entrepreneurship Hubs.
“We have two sections,” Almangour tells me. “The Entrepreneurship Hub on the ground floor and the Innovation Center upstairs. They work in tandem, along with Monshaat’s SME Support Center in the building opposite. This provides a supportive environment for anybody running a business or planning to start one up.”
Clustered around the spacious premises, dozens of young women and men are hunched over their laptops or engaged in discussion. Many are here for the Acceleration Program, an intensive months-long training and mentoring exercise that gives startup entrepreneurs the knowledge and tools needed to achieve rapid growth, reach a bigger market and become a genuine investment proposition.
Participants in this program arrive every morning as they would for an office job, and take part in workshops, boot camps and seminars. Experts from fintech, health care and educational technology, for example, provide advice on niche areas, and there is a network of mentors from every sector.
Potential investors visit to explain what they are looking for, and at the end of the program a demo day is held for participating entrepreneurs to make their five-minute “elevator pitch” to an assembled group of angels and private equity investors. During the pandemic this gathering is virtual rather than live.
“What we’re trying to build is a community of startups and other players in the ecosystem. Rather than planning too much, we allow things to happen organically. For example, some startups have merged to form a single company, or provide their services to one another, or exchange valuable information based on their experiences. It’s education and mentorship, but also very much ‘real world’,” says Almangour.
In the shared office area, which has options including hot-desks and dedicated private offices, I am introduced to a few of the startup teams: EIA, offering energy efficiency solutions and green building consultancy; Daily Meals, a subscription-based provider of healthy meals to workplaces; PTWay (Part-Time Way), which matches employers with part-time and short-term workers; and Rowad Tech, which designs courses and certification for the animation industry.
Upstairs, I meet Mohammed Almamar, Tech Innovation Specialist. “The Innovation Centers are all about digital transformation,” he tells me.
“The Riyadh center specializes in the Internet of Things (IoT) and cybersecurity, and the Khobar center focuses on artificial intelligence and data analytics. We have a track for traditional businesses to adopt new technology, and we have another track for innovative startups.”
A friendly speaking robot guides us into the futuristic Innovation Space where, with the aid of “digital fabrication machines” such as laser-cutters and 3D printers, physical product concepts are developed from mere ideas to working prototypes.
“We provide expertise in terms of sketching, designing, 3D visualization and eventually, 3D printing and assembling,” Almamar says. “We might experiment with different alterations and versions of prototypes until the client achieves what he or she is looking for.”
Mohammed Al-Hassan, a young entrepreneur, explains his product: “This is called Shuttle. It’s a smart locker that is linked with e-commerce operators and their customers. The package is delivered to this locker, and you can pick it up whenever you like. You open your locker with your smartphone, from wherever you are in the world — so someone else can collect the package for you. It makes delivery cheaper and more efficient, and gives an enhanced customer experience, so it’s win-win for everybody and all done with IoT technology.”
Around the corner, in the 24-hour open office, I meet the DataLexing team, whose software allows ordinary managers to produce data analysis reports without the need for expensive data analysts.
“A data analysis report normally requires three to six weeks to produce,” DataLexing CEO Rayan Al-Faheid says. “But using our software it takes only three to six hours, with no need for expertise.”
Adaptation is going viral in the GCC, and DataLexing has been approached by customers outside the region.
“We’ve really been helped with the Innovation Center and the SME Support Center,” says Al-Faheid. “And with the community here, if I need help with marketing, I can approach one of the other startups, and they can also come to us for expertise.”
If Vision 2030 is about cultural change, Startup Hub Riyadh is where that shift is happening at lightning pace — with the necessary resources and network of contacts for ambitious young people to bring their ideas to fruition and launch themselves into the global marketplace.