TAQADAM was particularly helpful in kickstarting UnitX, especially when it comes to the emotional support to the founding team.
By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed September 20, 2021 Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Since its inception in 2016, the TAQADAM Startup Accelerator, a program powered by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in collaboration with Riyadh-based Saudi British Bank, has been able to boast of providing a nurturing environment for many successful startups. TAQADAM Tales is a series of success stories of six such businesses, and through these, what is made evident is TAQADAM’s secret for success, which seems to be a combination of the best of technological advancements and mentorship, with a keen focus on building a sense of community within Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Launched in 2018, UnitX is an AI company whose flagship enterprise solution Vizard takes in streaming video feed coming in from drones or CCTV cameras, and analyzes it in real-time to trigger instant insights, alerts, and notifications. “Vizard basically leverages the combination of deep learning with edge computing, and it is uniquely positioned to capture the computer vision market for safety and surveillance,” explains CEO Kiran Narayanan. “The industries we are targeting right now are oil and gas industrial sites, airports, as well as event management companies.”
Frustrated by the knowledge that contemporary scientific academic research didn’t necessarily always translate into real-world solutions that achieve economic impact, Narayanan admits that he entered the TAQADAM program with a fair amount of trepidation. However, those worries soon melted away. “My co-founders and I had a passion to commercialize high-performance computing and artificial intelligence, and TAQADAM helped us in realizing and conceptualizing that dream,” explains Narayanan. “The team there assured us they have a program that can help define whatever ideas we had.”
By offering a US$20,000 grant, TAQADAM was particularly helpful in kickstarting the business. But while the business itself is entirely technological in nature, Narayanan says it is the emotional support he received that proved to be the biggest source of strength. “What TAQADAM really did for us was it created a safe space for us to go crazy and take the plunge into entrepreneurship,” he adds. “To this day I still meet up with my mentors for dinner, and that gives you the emotional solidarity that you need. I think TAQADAM is the best in the Middle East when it comes to that!”
Kiran Narayanan, co-founder and CEO, UnitX. Source: UnitX
It’s interesting to note that UnitX’s initial product was, in fact, a high performance computing platform called Sentient targeted at entities like banks and aerospace firms. But the pandemic changed course for the startup. “We’ve always been B2B as a business, but with businesses shrinking their innovation budgets and focusing on operational cost reduction in 2020, we had to pivot to Vizard,” explains Narayanan. With plans now to open UnitX subsidiaries across the region as well as India, and with companies expanding their innovation budgets again, Narayanan is optimistic about UnitX being able to cater both its products to the market. “We are right now in a post-seed stage,” he says. “In 2019 we closed a seed round of US$2 million led by Saudi Aramco’s Wa’ed Ventures Fund and KAUST Innovation Fund. So, right now, we’re hitting that growth stage where we’re getting production orders, so we need to scale our team in order to deliver.”
But when asked what keeps him going despite all odds, Narayanan reverts to his stance on the importance of emotional support and the spirit of camaraderie. “ When I meet my TAQADAM mentors today, I can see that the sense of camaraderie they instilled in me is in our team now,” he says. “This is what keeps me going now! Before, the emotional support was from TAQADAM; now it comes from our own team. At the end of the day, a company is just a few people who come together and create a product or a service. So it should always be about the people, and we’ve got the ‘people’ aspect of UnitX right!”