Six SMEs emerge from Abu Dhabi's Flat6Labs incubator

As the oil market roils, Flat6Labs, a start-up incubator supported by the government, offers a glimpse of how the UAE is attempting to move beyond hydrocarbons.

Six companies, each with a bright idea for using new technology to solve old econ­omic problems, offered Silicon Valley-style presentations to an audience in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night.

The companies had come to the end of a six-month incubation process at Flat6Labs, where they received office space, training and tens of thousands of dollars in seed funding.

One start-up, Dashroad, sells a piece of kit that allows insurance and car companies to measure the safety of drivers. Insurance companies need to know how safe a driver is but resort to simple data points to set premiums. Uber and Careem rely on subjective user feed to gauge drivers. But what if you could instead see the rates of acceleration of each car, second by second?

Another, Susurrus, allows companies to find social media “influencers”, such as the Dubai beauty blogger Huda Kattan, who will promote their products. That’s a change that could hit public relations companies, who have historically attempted to persuade print media to carry stories.

Marketplaces, online forums in which merchants trade with customers, remain a popular fixation of start-ups. Jumpsuite aims to connect nutritionists and personal trainers with exer­cisers. Studentcart allows schools to run their own all-in-one online shops, where parents can pay their school fees or stock up on tutus.

Flat6 Labs accepts a handful of start-ups for six months. The incubator programme began in Cairo in 2011, in the middle of the Egyptian revolution. The company opened a new office in Jeddah in 2013 and a third in twoFour54 in 2014.

In Abu Dhabi, “the future is dependent on private sector business and [Flat6] is the most tangible example of how that is becoming reality”, said Greg Sweeting, the chief legal officer of twofour54.

“It is for the growth of the general economic system of this emirate and the country.”

Whether efforts to foster tech companies will succeed is another question.

The funding cycle for tech firms in the Middle East still has large gaps, with paucities of investors at every stage. Repeat investors are thin on the ground. Gulf markets, although tech-savvy, are fragmented. The region’s regulators can work harder to stifle than to encourage innovation.

And the UAE’s tech start-ups are no fonder than western tech firms of making profits. One company boasted of being “revenue positive from day one” – as though actually making money was an unusual accomplishment for a business.

But the incubator’s start-ups, and the entrepreneurial culture Flat6 is building, are here to stay, said Hany Al Sonbaty, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Flat6 Labs who took to the stage wearing a suit and trainers but no socks.

“[Six months ago, after the last wave of start-ups] I said thank you Abu Dhabi,” Mr Al Sonbaty said. “This time I stand here being part of Abu Dhabi.”

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