Wanted from the Middle East: the next Apple or Microsoft

In the past some of the greatest technology companies, including Amazon.com, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, emerged from humble garages in the United States.

But these days, some expect a new wave of tech ventures to arise from emerging markets such as the UAE and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. Some organisations are also awarding big bucks to find the next generation of change-makers from new markets.

Global Innovation through Science and Technology (Gist), ChallengePost, XPrize and Hult Prize collectively have already awarded millions of dollars in their quests to discover new start-up ideas, which often have a significant tech component. And they are planning to offer even more money, and other support such as mentoring, to nurture companies to the next level.

“We focus on early-stage entrepreneurs who have already set up a venture and have signs of traction,” says Ovidiu Bujorean, the senior programme manager for entrepreneurship and innovation at Gist.

“We have judges who are very experienced entrepreneurs and investors that provide validation for [winners] to attract additional funding from local investors or government-backed support.”

The Gist initiative, which supports ventures that are fewer than five years old in key areas such as IT, health care, energy and agriculture, provides funding, training and mentoring to a select group of entrepreneurs across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

One of its competitions last year was held in Dubai, where a local company called AdvanTag, which also has an office in Canada and has been incubated in Doha, received an honourable mention.

Launched in December 2012, AdvanTag tries to make it easier to collect and redeem loyalty rewards while eliminating hassles such as blackout dates, points that expire and other conditions. The service, which is free to join, provides partner companies with a single loyalty platform where shoppers at certain stores and restaurants can immediately redeem rewards.

“Our main focus market is the Middle East at the moment,” says Mo Shahin, AdvanTag’s 33-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer. Yet he is also exploring opportunities to take AdvanTag to other parts of the world. Some of these possibilities arose after the company participated in the Gist contest, as well as in the MIT Enterprise Forum’s Arab Business Plan Competition in Abu Dhabi in 2012, where AdvanTag was a semi-finalist.

“We like to be around other entrepreneurs and to help to grow the entrepreneurship community within the region, and that is why we participate in these events,” Mr Shahin says.

“Although winning a prize at such events is a good thing, our aim is not just to get the prize,” he adds. “We go to these events to get feedback from experienced mentors as well as build new relationships to help us in the future.”

ChallengePost is another idea catalyst in this sector.

Government agencies and software companies use this online platform to help address various social problems. A few years ago, the World Bank challenged software developers to utilise data and tackle some of the most pressing development issues in the world. The winning team, from Australia, earned a share in more than US$55,000 in cash prizes for developing an app that visualised and compared data points for more than 3,000 economic, social, human development and other indicators.

All told, more than 100 entries were received for this particular challenge from 36 countries, including nearly a third from Africa. One participant who won an honourable mention in the contest went on to lead the Kenya Open Data initiative, which made Kenya the first country in Africa to release government data freely available to the public through a single online portal.

The XPrize Foundation is perhaps the industry’s most well known funder of innovative competitions.

This 18-year-old nonprofit group positions itself as “a facilitator of exponential change” and helped to launch the $1.5 billion private space industry by creating a competition in this sector to make flying in space more affordable.

The foundation is now trying to help overfished and polluted oceans, and it warns that oceans absorb about one quarter of the carbon dioxide that human begins release into the atmosphere, which changes the chemistry of the water and makes it more acidic. Over time these changes will imperil ecosystems, says Paul Bunje, a senior director at the foundation.

“That’s where technology comes in,” he says. “It’s not sufficient for solving ocean acidification, but necessary for those tools to be created.”

In September, XPrize launched a $2 million challenge to spur innovators to create pH sensors to better understand ocean acidification through new technologies. Some of the teams behind innovative ideas have emerged from India and Indonesia, and Mr Bunje says the winning tools could end up being used by researchers as well as tourism industry workers or just regular individuals in bodies of water such as the Red Sea.

“With reference to the Middle East and North Africa, I do expect really great ideas to come from everywhere,” Mr Bunje says. “Sometimes we need innovators coming from places like the UAE who are seeing the world in a different light.”

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