Plug and Play Exclusive: Establishing Abu Dhabi as the MENA center of tech innovation

Plug and Play Exclusive: Establishing Abu Dhabi as the MENA center of tech innovation 

Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, the regional arm of global innovation platform Plug and Play, launched in the emirate in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO.)

Since it arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2018, it has set out to empower regional startups while bridging the gap between the Silicon Valley and the Middle East ecosystems.

Babak Ahmadzadeh, Director at Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, shares his insights on the startup sector, the benefits of doing business in the emirate, and more with Abu Dhabi SME Hub.

In your perspective, where does the Abu Dhabi startup ecosystem stand today?

The Abu Dhabi Startup Ecosystem is going through an exponential growth with exceptional local, regional and global startups establishing and scaling more rapidly, even during this “New Norm”. We have been witnessing this firsthand over the last three years through our Abu Dhabi Hub, which stands as our GCC HQ.

We strongly believe that Abu Dhabi has the potential to become the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, and we are proud to have extended our commitment to Abu Dhabi for another 3 years through our Strategic Partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office.

What are the benefits of doing business here in Abu Dhabi, as a startup?

Emirate and Federal efforts have, and continue to, offer support to startups in 4 main ways: Access to Business and Product Development Support; Access to Incentives and Funding; Access to Knowledgeable Talent; and Accommodating Infrastructure.

Today, we can see many accelerators, incubators, venture studios, and tech-based programs helping aspiring entrepreneurs and current startup founders to better launch, navigate, and scale their startups. On the B2B side, we see many of the major corporations and government entities of Abu Dhabi taking increasingly proactive and bold measures to engage, empower and do business with startups.

Equity-based funding, startup grants, subsidies and cheaper licensing packages have all become more and more prevalent and accessible for startups looking to call Abu Dhabi and the UAE their home. Access to capital is growing for early, growth and late-stage startups as the private and public sectors are following the momentum of the growth of Abu Dhabi startups.

Schools, universities and other educational/vocational institutions and programs have shifted their focus to initiatives that develop the entrepreneurial mindset and educate aspiring entrepreneurs with the skills needed to launch startups or support current and future tech startups. As tech leaders, investors, academics and other ecosystem players cluster more and more in key areas like ADGM and Hub71, this is giving more reasons for high-skill talent to come to Abu Dhabi to learn, exchange and co-create.

With UAE’s bold leadership, innovation and digital transformation are becoming much more than a buzzword. A big factor in that is the public sector's willingness and ability to listen to startups and provide better policies and regulations to lower the costs of doing business, access to business and ease of doing business.

How can Abu Dhabi-based startups further be supported in their growth?

We are just at the tip of the iceberg: more initiatives can be started and connected to generate new opportunities for startups. Plug and Play is excited to see development here in Abu Dhabi around access to Business.

Access and ease of doing business fundamentally underpins all startups’ needs. Funding, talent and smart policies can only go so far if entrepreneurs can only access a limited market or if it is too slow/costly to access it.

Given that Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s population can only grow so fast, we see two key channels that can really help develop Abu Dhabi as a startup business hub.

First, increased connections and integration with the nearby market, for example with other Emirates, GCC, MENA and Asian markets. Secondly, gathering and activating the B2B market: there are many major corporations and government entities in Abu Dhabi that are forward-thinking and ripe for innovation through startup collaborations.

This is what we at Plug and Play focus on heavily as we have seen it in more than 40+ countries be one of the key drivers to building innovative ecosystems. When startups collaborate with these largest private and public sector entities, this can be invaluable for their product and business development.

This is the win-win we try to catalyse as Plug and Play: startups are able to create and scale solutions that meet market needs; and major corporations and government entities can gain huge ROI by testing, co-creating and/or commercializing exceptional startups solutions through cost optimizations and/or new revenue generation.

Babak Ahmadzadeh, Plug and Play

Babak Ahmadzadeh, Director at Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, shares his insights on the startup sector, the benefits of doing business in the emirate, and more with Abu Dhabi SME Hub.

How is Plug and Play contributing to the development of the local startup ecosystem?

For the past 3 years, Plug and Play Abu Dhabi has been a dedicated supporter of the local tech startup ecosystem in Abu Dhabi, UAE and MENA. We achieved that through our Venture Capital Investments; Tech Accelerator Programs; Corporate & Government Innovation Services; Inspiration & Education; and general Tech Ecosystem Enablement, Inspiration & Education.:

As one of the most active VCs in the world, Plug and Play is actively and increasingly investing in tech startups in the UAE and the region. We focus on early-stage business, usually up to the Series A round of funding.

We have three active annual tech accelerator programs focused on enabling exceptional, local, regional and international startups to discover and attain real business and collaboration opportunities through our network of future-forward corporates and government partners and friends. Our priority sectors/verticals of focus in Abu Dhabi are HealthTech, FinTech and, most recently Industry 4.0. Our accelerators are 100% free-for-startups with no hidden terms or catches.

We are excited for a long and impactful future of fostering innovations and startups in Abu Dhabi. We make this possible by bringing together the largest and richest dataset and network of tech startups globally, and strongest track record of creating consistent value for startups, corporations and government entities through meaningful collaborations through our dedicated 700+ team.

Plug and Play proudly works closely across many of the key pillars of the Abu Dhabi tech community to best create and align value for current and new startups that may seek to start or grow their ventures in Abu Dhabi. We typically do this by actively participating in policy/incentive discussions with key government entities; and create or support a range of events, workshops and seminars to inspire and equip tech entrepreneurs and corporate/government innovators to better innovate and collaborate together.

As a global company and the largest open innovation platform in the world, we try to leverage our 42 global offices and wide network of corporate partners, government partners, startups, investors, mentors and academic bodies to enable knowledge and tech exchange at scale and speed internationally for the Abu Dhabi and wider tech ecosystem.

How does Plug and Play connect entrepreneurs to business opportunities aligned with local market needs?

We typically focus on active outreach rather than open applications to find the startups most suitable to meet the tech challenges and business opportunities in our verticals of operations here with and for our private and public partners such as ADIO, Department of Health, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB), Etisalat, Daman, UEMedical, Philips etc.

Our corporate/government-led tech accelerator programs become truly impactful when key industry influencers become more able and willing to innovate through startup collaboration.

Much of our work at Plug and Play Abu Dhabi is to support our local accelerator partners 1-on-1 in a hands-on way to support their effort to create the culture, strategies, processes and internal buy-ins they need to initiate innovative tech challenges with the hope of finding the right tech startups with whom they can collaborate, meet or excel together.

Our main corporate innovation services are based on advisory activities, workshops and other internal engagements to help leadership and innovation champions bring the rest of the organizations with them on their vision of digital transformation and growth.

Health Plug and Play MENA Department of Health is a joint program between the Abu Dhabi Department of Health and Plug and Play

How do you see the Abu Dhabi ecosystem evolving over the next years?

We have incredible belief in the future of Abu Dhabi and Arab Nations to go through a miraculous growth as a center of tech innovation and startups. We could not be more bullish and our vision of supporting Abu Dhabi to be a real global leader as a tech hub is as clear as ever.

That being said, we aim to take even bolder steps to support the ecosystem, such as scaling and consolidating a fluid B2B marketplace for startups.
Our focus will be Abu Dhabi, but we want to support more across the UAE and MENA region. This is very important as startups need markets to scale and aspire to grow into. This means that we seek to broaden and deepen our corporate and government partnerships across our existing verticals and new ones, to create a larger and more connected open innovation platform.

We would like to see real industry/national innovation and tech start growth within and, uniquely, across sectors/verticals. There are many great startups and industry leaders that can pioneer innovation opportunities, break barriers and also shape a brighter future for all.

We also aim to make more Investments and are considering a VC Fund: as a private investor, our goal is to find, invest and enable the next unicorns. With companies under our belt including Google, DropBox, PayPal and Logitech from the US, and others closer to the region, such as Flutterwave, Guardant Health, N26 and Rappi, we know we can support many more in the MENA region. Our VC arm has typically been closed to only the capital of our founder and his/her family. We are considering launching funds in certain key geographies and/or verticals in collaboration with strategic investors and/or corporate/government partners.


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