RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has many dreams but one vision. One of these dreams is to have its own version of Silicon Valley, where young Saudis develop unicorns — startups that hit $1 billion valuations — with disruptive technologies and Riyadh becomes a hot spot for venture capitalists.
That's not going to happen without building an ecosystem and this is why it invited hundreds of experts, venture capitalists, and technology gurus to Riyadh’s debut LEAP 2022 event, the biggest tech conference the Kingdom has ever held.
So how to do it? One initiative launched during the event was The Garage, which aims to inspire Saudis to start their own tech business, mirroring giant companies such as Apple, which were started in family garages.
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In Saudi Arabia, The Garage will act as an innovation hub focusing on the financing and mentoring of emerging and disruptive technology-based startups.
The Kingdom definitely has the funding, but it lacks the exposure and the expertise.
As for funding, that was shown with the official launch of Aramco's venture capital fund, Prosperity7 Ventures. It’s a $1 billion fund named after its first oil well, Dammam 7, that later became Prosperity Well.
The oil-rich nation has invested $6.4 billion in future technologies, the Kingdom’s communications and information technology minister, Abdullah Al-Swaha, told delegates at LEAP 2022.
Also, at the forum, the CEO of the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security and Programming and Drones (SAFCSP), Muteb Alqany, said: “The Garage project is a perfect bridge to connect high-tech startups with potential investors.”
He added that grants of around SR100,000 ($26,650) will be awarded for suitable business ideas, while investment could top SR500,000 for the most promising startups.
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The Kingdom aims to bolster its tech ecosystem, with these efforts. Over the next eight years, Saudi Arabia expects at least 100,000 to 250,000 additional jobs to come from the rapid growth of the technology sector. This will effectively mean doubling, or even tripling, the number of programmers the country has today.
The government also expects to spend $1.4 billion on fostering entrepreneurs with programs like The Garage.
Jad Joumblat, the CEO of IT security firm Securitrust based in Paris and co-founder of SmartFunds Investment, told Arab News: “Disruptive technologies provide major strategic opportunities for governments in terms of economy and soft power.
“Being a leader in disruptive technologies makes it possible to sell goods and services with high added value while increasing gross domestic product growth. It also allows a country to have greater influence at the national and international level, and to be more independent from foreign nations”.
The Garage involves multiple stakeholders such as King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and SAFCSP. These bodies will support entrepreneurs, in a bid to strengthen the new Saudi tech scene.
“Vision 2030, is leading us to adopt and adapt with technology and to be the best in class, said Bandar Khoreyf, Saudi Arabia’s minister of industry and mineral resources.
He added: “In the Ministry, we look at the digital sector to ensure bright innovation for startups and emerging companies. The Garage is a sign that digital evolutions come locally, and are not just imported from abroad.”
Professional services firm PWC has identified eight key emerging technologies that might lead the sector: artificial intelligence, robots, drone, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, 3D printing, and the internet of things.
US business magazine Forbes adds that disruptive technologies such as 5G, unsupervised machine learning, and health tech might also have important roles to play in the next stage of the world’s technology revolution.
The road to seeing Saudi unicorns is going to be long and tough, but at least with The Garage, young people can feel themselves close to building something big such as the next Saudi version of Apple or Amazon.