For those who apply by April 18. 2021, the TAQADAM bootcamp will start in August 2021, followed by the actual accelerator program running through March 2022.By Tamara Pupic April 14, 2021Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
With April 18, 2021 being the deadline for applications for the next cohort of TAQADAM, a startup accelerator powered by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and Saudi British Bank (SABB), Hattan Ahmed, Head of KAUST Entrepreneurship Center, and Abdulrahman AlJiffry, Accelerator Manager at KAUST Entrepreneurship Center, had a lot to say when asked why entrepreneurs should not miss this chance for getting support for bringing their business ideas to life.
Since its launch in 2016, TAQADAM has successfully graduated over 126 startups through its program, which has seen more than SAR16 million being awarded in zero-equity grant funding to the entrepreneurs behind these enterprises. TAQADAM also has the distinction of being a startup accelerator housed at a hub of innovation for local and international startups- after all, KAUST itself has graduated more than 11,000 innovators, as well as 300 startups that went on to raise US$60 million of investment funding.
For the newest installment of the TAQADAM initiative, its bootcamp will start in August 2021, followed by the actual accelerator program running through March 2022. Therefore, TAQADAM is a six-month-long intensive program that is also mentor-led, industry-connected, and venture capital-backed. According to Ahmed, the program’s aim is to get startups ready for seed investment, with the SAR 150,000 of zero-equity funding serving to help them to build an initial prototype and traction, and to solidify their business model.
Hattan Ahmed, Head of KAUST Entrepreneurship Center
At a time when the world at large is still making its way through the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 crisis, startups might consider the prospect of operating in the current landscape to be a dreary one- but Ahmed believes such downturns present a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs. And he has the stats to back him up: a 2009 Kauffman Foundation study stated that more than half of the Fortune 500 companies were started in a recession. More recently, MAGNiTT’s 2021 Emerging Venture Markets Report noted that 2020 saw a record of just over $1 billion invested in MENA-based startups, a 13% increase year-over-year.
And Ahmed is putting his money where his mouth is- TAQADAM’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has seen its offering being doubled both in terms of the funding (from $20,000 to $40,000), as well in terms of the intake for the cohort (from 30 to 60 startups). “The way we see our job at TAQADAM is to de-risk those startups for the investment community,” Ahmed says. “The reason why we wanted to double the funding for startups was because we wanted to help de-risk businesses or ideas as they went through our cycle, and give them more impetus to experiment and explore possibilities. The point behind the increase in the funding and in the intake is to increase the size of the funnel, and graduate high-quality, high-impact startups into the ecosystem.”
The TAQADAM program has also expanded in terms of the scope for this cohort, with it opening its doors to startups internationally for the first time ever. While TAQADAM is now hoping to welcome companies that are based internationally who are looking at expanding into Saudi Arabia, AlJiffry points out he and his team have actually already been helping foreign nationals set up in Saudi Arabia for years. “This has been happening since day one, so we’ve become pretty good at this,” he adds. “Because KAUST is very diverse, we have over 120 nationalities on campus, so we are very international already.” One example that he mentions is Wayakit, a TAQADAM startup that aims to revolutionize the laundry industry by creating solutions with low water and energy consumption. It was founded by Sandra Constanza Medina and Luisa Emilia Javier, hailing from Mexico and Colombia respectively, who, besides being able to set up a company in Saudi Arabia, were also able to raise several rounds of funding, and continue growing their business.
Wayakit, a TAQADAM startup founded by Sandra Constanza Medina and Luisa Emilia Javier.
AlJiffry says that TAQADAM’s success over the years has served as a strong foundation for the expansion of the program. “I think that we reached the tipping point, and so we said ok, the quality has increased, and so, if we expand the program, we’ll have even better quality,” he says. “That was one area where we didn’t want to start big, but we started small and grew from there. Even though COVID-19 kind of threw the world in a loop, it attracted a lot more investments toward startups that were seen as less risky, more adaptable, and so on. Those were the two factors [caused by the COVID-19 crisis]- there were more people who wanted to start companies, and there were more people who wanted to fund companies, and since TAQADAM has built a reputation over the last couple of years, it was the right time to really go big.”
Abdulrahman AlJiffry, Accelerator Manager at KAUST Entrepreneurship Center
The theme of this year’s program, “Creativity Crystalizes,” is thus in the spirit of the current moment. “The main concept is about a topic that pressure really creates jewelry and stones, and that’s what we saw this year- people were like, ‘We’re up for it, we want to move forward nevertheless,’” Ahmed says. He compares the ongoing global crisis with an earthquake as a way to point out that “big shifts in tectonic plates” do create a lot of gaps and opportunities. “I’m really curious to see what kind of economy will be created post COVID-19, what will turn out to be really innovative and transformative,” he says. “We’ve seen this in the recent history with the creation of the shared economy after the 2008 financial crisis, and now, I believe that we are still in the middle of this one, but shifts on a global scale are already massive, and we are going to transform to a new state. That state is going to be a separation point between 2020 and moving forward.”
AlJiffry adds that the ongoing crisis has already highlighted the resilience of entrepreneurs. “We’ve got the creme de la creme of people this year, because those people applied in March 2020, were interviewed in April and May 2020, so they were ready to do it, regardless of what was going on,” he says. In addition, the impact of the global pandemic leveled the playing fields for many business owners. “We’ve had people coming in at different stages, but once COVID-19 hit, startups who were mature; suddenly, they were no longer mature,” AlJiffry explains. “Because of the situation in the market, they had to reestablish everything: product, team, fundraising timelines, etc. Everybody kind of had to press the reset button immediately.” But the crisis also brought a lot of camaraderie among their founders, AlJiffry notes. “It became like, ‘We are all kind of in the same boat, so how are we going to get across?’” he says. “That is what we usually see, not them being tougher individually, but starting to feel more connected to each other, and being more open and vulnerable, willing to exchange how they are navigating all these things.”
The market in KSA is maturing rapidly, AlJiffry adds, with industries opening up and all elements of the market -from legislators, to businesses, to customers- adopting new behaviors. “COVID-19 has forced everyone in the country to get 10 years worth of digital adoption in one year,” he says. “Customers are now super comfortable digitally, and that digitization is going from the consumer to enterprise world, as we are seeing more and more funding going to heavy, industrial, B2B, logistics areas, which are typically only the second wave that people explore for investments, after online marketplaces,” he explains. “So, there are many usually heavy regulated areas that are now coming alive. And that is one of the unique things about Saudi, the fact that the government and the regulators are super quick which results in an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunities here.”
When asked what makes the Saudi market attractive internationally, Ahmed sums it up with three key factors: market, abundance of capital, and talent. In particular, KAUST is of interest among international founders, he says, because they can leverage the resources available at KAUST, and use them as an entry point to Saudi. That is one of the distinctive features of TAQADAM, Ahmed says. “We have this research powerhouse that sits next door to us, and international founders see value in it not only in terms of the market, capital, and talent pool that they can get access to [through the program], but also in terms of them getting access to the infrastructure and the brain power that we have here in KAUST. And they get to use both to leverage fabricating products, running experiments, or developing prototypes, and this is really valuable, especially if you are going into deep tech startup areas.”
Even within the Saudi market, TAQADAM is unique due to its vision to constantly change and experiment. “We are not a standard accelerator model and that’s why the program lasts longer,” AlJiffry explains. “It is because the nature of some deep tech companies that we are dealing with, and since we want them to have a pilot at the end and be in the field, we need more time. If you are serving clients in water, energy, healthcare, it typically takes longer. That’s why our program has been optimized for these different needs.” Another important element of TAQADAM is that it does not attempt to fit all startups into the standard venture capital model. “Some of these companies are not designed for VC funding,” AlJiffry says. “It is because we are impact-driven, because we understand that there are other routes to market, and so we are happy to help them with that. So, the program is not only for companies that fit into that exact VC mold. That makes us able to invest in a portfolio with more variety, including those startups that are technically more challenging, technically more complex.”
One example of this is WhiteHelmet, a TAQADAM startup founded by Abdullah Abalkhail, Abeer Alsuhaim, and Ibreahim Alsallum, which enables project owners, engineering consultants, and contractors to remotely manage and monitor construction progress. Ahmed points out that they are innovators in an an area that is not known for innovation, the construction sector. “COVID-19 helped them to accelerate the move into that because the curfews imposed a lot of limitations on the movement of the engineers on the site, but it also proved economical for the construction company to minimize the travel time between the sites and the offices, and so on,” he adds. “They came in with just an idea, but they graduated with a major client -Aramco- whom they converted into a paying client, but they have also built a pipelines of 200 clients on the demand side.”
Ibreahim Alsallum, a co-founder of WhiteHelmet.
Another success story is Polymeron, a TAQADAM startup founded by KAUST students Noor Zaouri, Rodrigo Jimenez Sandoval, and Martin Ibarra, that develops and produces environmentally friendly polymeric materials by up-cycling the organic waste of the date industry. Ahmed points out that Polymeron is an example of how a combination of technology and heritage or culture can constitute a solid business idea. “They looked at something that is relevant to Saudi, which is dates waste, and they worked on converting it into pallets that can be used for manufacturing biodegradable plastics,” he says. “For example, dates waste is something that we have here in the region and nobody knows what to do with, but these founders used that in order to innovate in an area which everybody needs – plastics.”
The Polymeron team Noor Zaouri, Rodrigo Jimenez Sandoval, and Martin Ibarra.
Meanwhile, SARsat, founded by Ahmed Alzubairi, Yacine Adan, Amru Alamoudi, and Ali Jamaan, is another TAQADAM startup that Ahmed describes as transformational. The SARsat team builds small, cost-efficient satellite constellation using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to do Earth observation and provide data from space to agri-analytics, change detection, port logistics, urban planning, and intelligence. “They work on a space technology in order to capture images that can go through the clouds and different areas and so on, and it is an idea born out of a university in Saudi, and they are now leveraging the resources at KAUST for its fabrication,” he says. “It is interesting because only recently we celebrated KAUST sending a satellite into the space, and so we are now seeing good technologies popping up that we never expected to come out from the region.”
When answering my final question about the program’s KPIs, Ahmed is clear that the main driver of the TAQADAM program is impact. “We are keen on tracking all the different tangible elements, but what really makes a big difference for us is when we hear all kinds of testimonials of entrepreneurs saying that the journey was transformational, a life changing experience,” Ahmed concludes. “This is priceless. If we can change a person who is capable of having this exponential growth, we will eventually create a movement, change the country, and so on. So, the impact can be beyond our imagination even right now.”