Interview: Najla Al Midfa

What is the current state of start-up development?

NAJLA AL MIDFA: The investment community increasingly recognises the potential of new enterprises and the role start-ups can play in job creation. Physical spaces for new businesses are growing, and Sharjah has launched three free zones, including Sharjah Publishing City and the Research, Technology and Innovation Park, since 2016. This offers a friendlier licensing environment for start-ups, as there is more flexibility and variety. The entrepreneurship community is also growing, and events, such as the first Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, organised by Sheraa in November 2017, are bringing investors and innovators together. Start-ups have difficulty securing early-stage financing from banks and investors, who need more education on this asset class. Government agencies – including the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and the Ruwad Establishment – are helping to pair start-ups with venture capital.

This business ecosystem is in its early stages: microfinance, angel investment and crowdfunding are only just starting to enter the UAE. Start-up incubators can help build closer relations with the investment community to develop sources of early-stage funding. Sheraa, for example, provides access to investors through networking events, direct introductions, and showcase days which allow accelerator cohorts to pitch their start-ups to potential investors.

How is the government supporting the development of a knowledge-based economy?

AL MIDFA: UAE Vision 2021 identified entrepreneurship as a key element of its transition to a knowledge-based economy, particularly in high-growth segments such as e-commerce, health technology and financial technology. Continued collaboration between academia, government, civil society and the private sector is vital to fostering an environment in which start-ups can grow and develop. The Ministry of Education has partnered with Stanford University to integrate entrepreneurship and innovation into higher-education curricula. Meanwhile, the private sector can provide financing and human capital development. Corporate partnerships, particularly with larger companies, provide financial support at both an incubation and accelerator stage, while universities can engage local businesses to help develop the practical skills and expertise to prepare students for the job market.

Working with local industry also helps incubators understand private sector needs and industry-specific challenges. For instance, Sheraa has worked with local carrier Air Arabia to create solutions to challenges in aviation and tourism. This will help develop high-growth ventures, which can drive economic diversification and job creation by targeting fast-developing segments. Our first accelerator cohort included start-ups working in sustainable technology, education, artificial intelligence and Arabic-language digital content.

What is the role of accelerators and incubators?

AL MIDFA: Most local graduates look for employment in the public sector; we need to change this mentality and encourage young people to see entrepreneurship as a viable career path. Incubators can help aspiring entrepreneurs develop the practical skills and know-how to transform their ideas into scalable businesses.

Our programmes are designed to support new enterprises at every stage of development. Our Ideathon programme allows entrepreneurs to validate their ideas, prepare business models and collect feedback. The incubator programme then allows these businesses to refine their concepts in our co-working space with financial support and mentorship, turning ideas into scalable businesses with strong growth potential. Incubators and business support programmes provide not only physical and operational support – including business licences, grants, workspace and legal advice – but also access to a wider business community, which can help entrepreneurs to develop essential soft skills.