With its strong telecommunications infrastructure, and with rules in place to free tech start-ups from local ownership requirements, Qatar is a natural home for ICT entrepreneurship. However, the country’s start-up segment has faced challenges, not least a shortage of private sector investors willing to invest in high-risk propositions, given the availability of less volatile options. “Private investors tend to prefer to put their money in less risky segments, such as real estate, and there are few angel investors working in the country as a result,” John Buck, managing director of telecoms infrastructure firm COMTEC Middle East, told OBG.
The start-up and early-stage scene is nonetheless developing rapidly, largely due to government efforts to increase the availability of funding and speed up sector development. Key among these is Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), a free zone created by Qatar Foundation Research and Development. Located in Education City, QSTP helps public entities, private firms and individuals to develop, commercialise and license entrepreneurial projects.
The institution holds a range of initiatives to support ICT-related entrepreneurs and start-ups, including a three-month accelerator, known as XLR8, that runs twice a year and hosts up to 30 project teams per edition; a three-month investment, training and mentoring programme, known as Doha Dojo, for start-ups that have already received some investment, conducted in cooperation with 500 start-ups; and an in-house incubator, which provides tech start-ups with a year of free co-working space, training and access to mentoring, funding programmes and business services to help them develop their product, find customers and raise funding. Maher Hakim, managing director of QSTP, told OBG, “The objective is to build a sustainable and dynamic technology start-up ecosystem in Qatar that is integrated with regional and global ecosystems.”
The park also provides early-stage businesses with capital via two funds under its management: the Product Development Fund and the Tech Venture Fund. Demand for the park’s services has proven strong. Its Tech 1 and Tech 2 buildings have an occupancy rate of 83%, and a fifth building (to be known as Tech 4) will allow the park to expand its activities when these fill up by adding a further 6000 sq metres of space. The latter facility was due to be ready in January 2017, though at the time of publication there had been no public announcement regarding its completion. The park also hosts an Innovation Centre and a building used exclusively by General Electric.
Another institution helping develop technology entrepreneurship in the country is the Digital Incubation Centre, a unit of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, which was launched in 2011. It offers two incubation tracks: one known as the idea track that provides entrepreneurs who have an idea for a tech start-up with six months of support to see if it is viable; and another two-year track for pre-existing start-up companies, which includes the provision of free office space, coaching, mentoring and training in areas such as technology and business practices. The centre has incubated 72 start-ups and, as of the first quarter of 2017, had 27 projects in progress: 15 on the idea track and 12 start-ups. There are another 22 applications that the centre has just accepted for further projects: 10 start-ups and 12 idea-track projects.
Success stories from the centre include Meddy, an online platform that helps patients find doctors, and Fi-Tech, which provides free Wi-Fi in coffee shops, generating revenue from advertising on the login page. Applications to the centre are becoming increasingly varied and sophisticated, illustrating the rapid development of the start-up scene. “When we launched in 2011 almost all our applications focused on mobile apps and e-commerce,” Duha Al Buhendi, manager of the Digital Incubation Centre, told OBG. “Now we are receiving a much wider range of projects covering areas such as drones, wearable technologies and augmented reality.”
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