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There is no lack of talent or passion amongst B2B tech start-ups in the Middle East, but access to funding has traditionally been a challenge, while the entrepreneurial network can feel limited. Microsoft for Startups is looking to close those gaps, providing support and working with B2B start-ups, introducing global best practices to early-stage companies and providing them with the technology, mentoring and corporate partnerships to bring their disruptive ideas to the world.
Participants receive access to a range of tools and resources to help them build and scale their products as well as connections to like-minded start-up founders, potential clients and investors. Its GrowthX Accelerator programme, designed to bridge the gap between corporates and B2B start-ups, part of a larger strategic partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, has recently closed its inaugural round of applications, but the business remains keen to support regional start-ups through its always-on Microsoft for Startups programme.
Strength in numbers
One regional start-up which has already benefited from the Microsoft for Startups approach is Fero.ai, creator of Transport Interactive Assistant (TiA), dubbed “the world’s first Alexa for logistics”; an intelligent virtual assistant for logistics and freight.
Fero.ai’s co-founders realised that the $9.3trn per-year global logistics industry wasn’t reaping the benefits of smart software automation, which, if deployed correctly, would not only increase turnaround times but reduce the sector’s exposure to the risk of human error.
The Dubai-based start-up was accepted into the 2020 Microsoft programme and, in the year to date, has helped clients, from sectors including distribution, retail and logistics, automate 1,000,000 interactions – including emails and calls, related to 56,000 automated truck trips resulting in combined savings of an estimated $13m.
Co-founder and chief operating officer Carolin-Carmen Neubauer says one of the key ingredients to building a successful B2B start-up is finding an opening in the market. “You need to develop a product which is delivering superior value to customers, allowing them to reach their KPIs and targets in a faster and smarter way,” she explains.
“We achieved that through automation APIs that are integrated with companies’ supply chain software. TiA can read and write on any freight ERP, which means we can replicate the element of human coordination. For the best outcome, we combine that with natural language processing as that’s the most intuitive communication.”
Platforms for growth
A tangible benefit of the Microsoft for Startups programme is the access it provides to software such as Dynamics 365, a portfolio of intelligent business applications. Fero.ai was also recently selected to become one of the few start-ups to leverage GPT3 by Open AI, an enormous deep learning model with 175 billion parameters. “That’s a huge acknowledgement for us as a team and our potential – and it was only possible through Microsoft,” Neubauer says.
The entrepreneur has also hugely appreciated the overall business environment Microsoft has created through its programme, particularly the access to smart money and positive push to scale.
“That methodological approach of building a knowledge cluster was really needed in the region, especially in the wake of the pandemic, where collaboration with external parties, no matter the industry, wasn’t easy because of the lack of physical proximity,” she says. “Microsoft really builds a great community and they understand how modern-day collaboration between all parties involved – corporate, government and start-ups – works.”
The network effect
Buy now pay later start-up Spotii, which enables customers to split their purchases over four payments without paying interest, is another beneficiary of the Microsoft for Startups programme.
Co-founder and chief operating officer Ziyaad Ahmed, a data scientist who previously worked at Afterpay in San Francisco, had seen the power of similar products first-hand in the US and recognised the macro trends that facilitated Afterpay’s success would soon coalesce in the Middle East.
“I was seeing the shift of shopping from offline to online and the increasing propensity to spend digitally, as opposed to with cash,” he explains. “A product like this, which can provide point-of-sale decision-making and help facilitate sales for merchants didn’t really exist previously and, when you added in the strong general economic activity in the region, it was a no brainer.
Ahmed decided to apply for the Microsoft programme because he knew that he and his team would need huge data processing power and access to enterprise-grade software to make their product a reality. “That’s the only way you can really make a product scalable from a tech perspective,” he says. “Every start-up has to deal with the same thing – you have no money and you rely on the kindness of providers like Microsoft.”
In addition to the support Spotii received to build its product, the start-up also gained access to a broader community of like-minded entrepreneurs doing exciting things in the region, as well as corporate clients they met through Microsoft introductions. “The ecosystem in this region is small so having that connectivity can be incredibly powerful,” Ahmed says. “The network effect is what’s going to make someone really successful.”
Spotii’s co-founder has three pieces of advice for other young start-ups in the region: “learn to take rejection”; “don’t leave any stone unturned”; and apply to be a part of the Microsoft for Startups community. Spotii started off as a UAE-based operation but is now set for major international expansion, following its recent $16m acquisition by Australian fintech, Zip. “We made a connection through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend and the stars aligned for us,” Ahmed says.
For both Ahmed and Neubauer, membership of the Microsoft for Startups programme has achieved what it set out to do: remove the key hurdles facing B2B start-ups in the Middle East and serve as a launchpad for scaling up their platform across the region and beyond.
“[Microsoft for Startups] enables you to really focus on building the business and creating customer solutions rather than being hung up on obstacles, the main reason why we all came together,” Neubauer concludes.
Tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East can apply to join the Microsoft for Startups community now