With the right support to kick off her journey, this entrepreneur took her research to market.
Salwa Alzahmi is the founder of the tech startup SPL Co. Ltd, award-winning research scientist and multiple patents holder. Having received her Master’s Degree in Computer and Electrical Engineering from Khalifa University in 2014, she is leading the software engineering research group at the Emirates ICT Innovation Center (EBTIC, established by Etisalat, British Telecom, and Khalifa University, and supported by the ICT Fund). Here, she shares her story of making the jump from researcher to entrepreneur and the challenges in taking her research work to the market.
There is a fire inside that is fuelled by passion and a willingness to solve problems
I have always been passionate about building my own products and addressing new trending market segments in technology, particularly software governance techniques, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. I participated in a number of research projects during my studies and even won the UAE IT Challenge Award for Best Educational Application, the Best Master Student Award at Khalifa University and the Khalifa University Research Excellency Award.
After my studies, I joined the workforce, starting as a software engineer for a start-up company, managing enterprise software. Working with smaller private companies that actually develop and deliver projects and with government companies leading the modernization agenda equipped me with vast and relevant hands-on experience.
The journey often starts with unique insights acquired during the early career and an inspiration that keeps you motivated
I had exposure to the struggle and limitations in IT processes and technologies when maintaining outsourced and legacy software systems. This gave me a unique advantage in understanding the gaps and opportunities in current IT systems. Hence, I was confident in my skills and the business opportunity for my research (SPL project). Based on this, I leveraged the output from my research at Khalifa University’s Emirates ICT Innovation Center (EBTIC) to build a successful product that became the foundation for my business.
I was curious about business when I was a researcher because it aligns very well with my goal of supporting the UAE’s growing knowledge economy. The UAE’s futuristic vision of championing the creation of smart government services, artificial intelligence solutions, cutting-edge data analytics, and other futuristic technologies has inspired me to put great effort into building my company. Such home-grown innovation entrenched in technology is exactly aligned with the government’s economic development priorities.
The mindset shift that was needed to move into entrepreneurship
I faced a number of challenges as I entered the entrepreneur space. As a scientist, I used to make decisions based on complete data or information. In contrast, an entrepreneur must have the ability to make decisions—such as starting a company—on incomplete data, and that means taking a risk, particularly when introducing a new technology like SPL that essentially creates a new market segment.
I had to get a basic understanding of the elementary financial aspects involved in business and legal topics such as contracts, liability and intellectual property. However, being a scientist, my research and learning skills helped me navigate the entrepreneurial pathway much faster. Coming from an engineering technology background, learning to put my thoughts into a business-oriented context was one of the most challenging parts. This was critical for enabling me to learn how to explain my business to customers and investors, as well as learn how to define my product’s unique selling points and to position my product in the market.
Global challenges addressed through local technological and business leadership
The UAE is a global leader in digitalization. A huge part of this is related to supporting local corporations to move to the cloud, integrating new forms of technologies that speed up, automate, and improve business. Since these technologies require heavy computational power and storage space, cloud computing is the optimal solution. My start-up, SPL Co., was founded to speed up the process of migrating software systems to the cloud, as this can take a long time and require a lot of resources with the traditional manual approach. Upgrading company-wide software was a challenge due to a lack of documentation and expert guidance. Adding to the complexity, the companies I worked with often lacked the resources and skills to modernize enterprise applications. SPL’s solution can reduce the cost of migration to the cloud by up to 30 percent. It is one of the first tools of its kind that provides an AI model for automatically identifying and composing the part of the system code that should be lifted to the cloud, and assists with micro-service implementation. SPL solution maps out the entire architecture of the software code within hours through the runtime and static code analysis powered by cutting edge artificial intelligence and automation technologies. It reduces the cost of re-architecting the monolithic application by up to 30% and transforms it into a cloud-native architecture.
Getting the right local support to kick-off the journey
Khalifa University, EBTIC and the Khalifa Innovation Center (KIC) helped me along the way. Khalifa University management realized at an early stage the importance of bringing industry and academia together at the research level to realize and accelerate innovation in the UAE. A great example of this is EBTIC, where the SPL project was born. SPLCo is a product of this system, which has provided me with the right platform and infrastructure to build the research foundation of SPL, prototype my solution and productize it with leading industrial partners. After a successful trial with BT in the UK, and the great recognition we got from the local and international communities, I received further support from EBTIC to fund the SPL product development. Through this, I was able to form my great team, Dr. Corrado Mio, Ahmed Sulaiman, Dr. Sid Shakya, and Dr. Ivan Boyd, who have supported me in this journey, along with the support received from EBTIC management, especially Dr. Nawaf Almoosa. EBTIC helped tremendously in developing my entrepreneurial skills, giving me the opportunity to work very closely for three months with an international consultancy firm to build the SPL business case.
Getting the right local support to accelerate the startup journey
The Khalifa Innovation Center (KIC) is a one-of-a-kind center in the UAE, focusing on deep tech start-ups derived from successful research projects conducted in local universities and research centers. The center supports innovation and the knowledge economy of the country, and the incubation program clearly outlined the key steps to develop my business from different perspectives. Coming from an engineering background, learning to put my thoughts in a business-oriented context was a huge benefit. Early intervention by industry professionals through a mentoring program was also vital in supporting the initial development of my start-up.
Digital transformation is a reality that a corporation cannot escape. SPL Co. is here to help overcome the challenges involved in upgrading legacy software and moving companies to the cloud.
29 April 2021