Saudi Arabia’s STV talks innovation in Dubai’s Silicon Boulevard

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Saudi Arabia’s STV talks innovation in Dubai’s Silicon Boulevard

The Boulevard at Jumeirah Emirates Towers Dubai has morphed into the digital center of the emirate. (Supplied)

The Boulevard in Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai used to be a mixture of luxury shopping and fine dining. In the past couple of years it has morphed into the digital center of the emirate, with the spaces that used to be expensive clothes shops and classy restaurants turned into accelerators, hubs and hip networking facilities.

Just across the road from the site of the Museum of the Future, the squashed doughnut-shaped building intended to confirm Dubai’s status as the most forward-looking place in the Arabian Gulf, the transformation of The Boulevard is the most visible outward sign of Dubai’s commitment to attaining “smart city” status.

So it was an appropriate place for STV — the venture capital business backed by the Saudi Telecom Company (STC) — to hold the first in what is planned as a regular series of “STV Talks” designed to highlight aspects of the digital revolution that is transforming business, indeed transforming human life, everywhere in the world.

The first event was a thought-provoking couple of hours in the company of three men who have been at the sharp end of technological innovation for many years. The lead was taken by Nelson Mattos, former academic in Germany, turned IBM executive, then turned into one of the innovative forces behind Google’s early years.

Alongside him was Magnus Olsson, co-founder of Careem, the Middle East’s ride-hailing venture which in less than seven years has achieved “unicorn” status — a valuation of more than $1 billion in funding rounds. STV, incidentally, is a big investor in Careem.

Moderating those two was Ihsan Jawad, one of the best-known technology entrepreneurs to come out of the Middle East. Jawad was the brains behind Zawya, the successful financial information platform that eventually sold to Thomson Reuters, and he has since backed tech ventures ranging from job search to food delivery. He is also a partner with STV.

Given that expertise, I almost felt curmudgeonly disagreeing with the very first proposition that went up on the projection wall. “Innovation is the industrial engine of the 21st century,” said Mattos. Well, yes, but it was also the engine of virtually every century in human history, from the invention of the wheel to the steam engine to the computer age.

But you can see what he meant: High-tech digital innovation is the power behind the profound changes in economic relations that some have called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” There is no denying that the Internet and mobile communications have changed the way we think, behave, act, buy and sell. It is also the main focus of innovative entrepreneurs from Shanghai to San Francisco, and everywhere in between.

Mattos drew on his experience at IBM and Google to come up with a program for innovators to follow, all under snappy headlines like “hire the best,” “be open — share everything,” and “users first, money second.”

The specific aim of the STV Talks series is to help identify the qualities that can make Middle East companies world leaders in the technology space.

Frank Kane

His talk was laced with some fascinating stories from his time as Google. For example, he revealed that the California tech giant only hires one in every thousand of the job applicants that come its way, and that if the applicant did not go to the right college — as defined by Google — they did not even get past the (automated) first stage filtering.

Olsson took up the theme with Careem’s own version of Mattos’ program, its “operating system,” which overlapped with the Google man’s plans in many important respects, like corporate openness, “co-ownership” rather than employee status, and a focus on customer service rather than profitability. Careem has only recently begun to focus on financial profits, Olsson revealed.

The specific aim of the STV Talks series is to help identify the qualities that can make Middle East companies world leaders in the technology space. One question that occurred was how the entrepreneurial revolution can be progressed in countries in the Arabian Gulf, where the populations have for years been used to a relatively easy economic life because of the region’s natural resources abundance. How can the spirit of Silicon Valley be instilled into the tech-savvy youth of the Arab world?

Mattos explained that Google had 100 offices around the world, all with very different work cultures, but each of them was expected to display Californian standards of entrepreneurialism, reinforced by induction and training in the San Jose HQ, if necessary.

Exactly how that is achieved, perhaps with the case history of a young Arab who has undergone the Google experience, would be a good subject for the next STV talk.

  • Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai

 

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