A ‘UAE Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Framework’ designed by KU students to Enhance the country’s Innovation Index Won Best Paper Award at ICOM 2019
A team of KU graduate students from the Engineering Systems and Management (ESM) Program won Best Paper Award at the 4th International Conference on Organization and Management (ICOM 2019), held from 12-13 June in Abu Dhabi, for their paper on the strengths and weaknesses of the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The paper, titled “Examining the Framework of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: A Case Study on the United Arab Emirates,” examines the UAE’s current entrepreneurial ecosystem model, its gaps and opportunities, with a particular focus on the domains of the ecosystem that startups find pivotal to their growth and success. It won Best Paper in the conference’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Management Track.
“We were motivated to study this topic because of the lack of academic studies and up-to-date literature on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the UAE, especially considering that it is evolving at an extremely rapid pace,” said Aamna Aljarwan, one of the paper’s authors and a Spring 2019 graduate. Co-authors include fellow ESM graduate students Bushra Alyas Yahya and Bashayer Mohamed Almarzooqi. The paper was written as part of a team research paper for ESMA 607 Management and Entrepreneurship for Engineers, a graduate level course taught by Dr. Toufic Mezher, Professor of Engineering Systems and Management.
The UAE is committed to transforming into one of the world’s most innovative nations by 2021. The KU paper is an important step towards assessing what needs to be further improved to help the country achieve its ambitious goal.
The ultimate aim of the paper was to design a framework that could be used as a tool to help policy-makers, academics, researchers and industry leaders further enhance the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and raise the country’s innovation index, which would in turn attract more global startups to establish operations in the UAE.
The students interviewed ten key ecosystem players from across the public-private sector, including CEOs and founders of SMEs, incubators, and government authorities, to understand how they enable and support entrepreneurs and tech startups, and to learn their opinions about the gaps and opportunities in the UAE’s ecosystem. They also conducted surveys to quantify the availability and importance of key ecosystem support elements, such as the funding, accessible markets, and the legal framework.
They then compiled their data and developed a ‘triple helix model’ to describe their findings on the interactions between academia, industry, and government. The triple helix model studies innovation at a national level and can be used as a tool to foster economic and social development.
“We used the triple helix model as a base and integrated it with our framework to study the entrepreneurial ecosystem at a national level,” Aljarwan explained. The result was an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Framework that clearly identifies the UAE’s key players, important support elements, the relationships between them, and the which support elements are strong and weak.
Aljarwan and her team found that the government is the strongest key player in the ecosystem and the main driver of the current entrepreneurial movement. The government mandates strategies to the private sector and academia, such as the UAE’s National Innovation Strategy and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which in turn creates a kind of reliance on the government to initiate the growth in the ecosystem.
The students identified some of the ecosystem’s strongest support elements as the infrastructure, the legal framework, national and international networks and relations, an accessible market, and incubation and acceleration programs. Some of the ecosystem’s weakest support elements identified by the students include the investment culture, a lack of angel investors due to the risk-averse investment culture, the predominant social culture and mindset, and research and development.
“It is predicted that once the ecosystem grows, it will start to decentralize and become autonomous, where it does not rely on mandates and incentives any longer,” Aljarwan explained. “Once a large batch of entrepreneurs succeeds, it will create enough competition to drive the industry to innovate and collaborate with academia. Moreover, successful entrepreneurs will then become investors and motivators to encourage the younger batches to follow the same path. This will also make a paradigm shift in the culture and mindset to become more tolerant of risk and acceptant of failure.”
The team made numerous recommendations to improve the UAE’s startup ecosystem. On the government side, they recommend that governments incentivize the private sector to work with academia by building non-profit shared labs. They also recommend that the government reduce the legal setup costs for startups with innovative ideas, incentivize private companies to allocate a percentage of their procurement from startups, and reduce the cost universities and startups pay for filing novel intellectual property (IP). They also advise that more technology equity funds, which are funds solely dedicated to investing in specific technologies, should be established.
On the academic side, they recommend that universities establish on-campus incubators and accelerators, and better connect students to startups for internships. They also suggest that more academic institutions establish permanent acceleration programs for senior design projects to encourage students to continue working on their ideas after graduation.
As a startup founder herself, Aljarwan is experiencing firsthand the pros and cons of starting a company in the UAE.
Aljarwan founded GrowthPass, a marketplace for discovering and listing self and career growth events, workshops, and classes.
“The platform aims to encourage lifelong learning and to help people upskill their soft skills to complement their hard or technical skills. In this day and age, recruiters don’t only look at one’s technical skills, but they also look at their soft skills and mindset and the kind of value they bring to their teams,” Aljarwan said.
She was inspired to develop GrowthPass after trying to find soft skill training and development opportunities that were aligned with her interests, and available at a convenient location. She immediately realized there was a need for a better, more effective way to find career-growth events.
Now, GrowthPass is receiving support from one of the UAE’s well-regarded startup incubator program, Sheraa. Aljarwan is set to launch a minimum viable product (MVP) within the next month or so.
“Although the government and other key players continue to support the ecosystem, the success of any startup lies in the hands of its founders first and on the ecosystem second. Now that I have a better understanding of our ecosystem’s gaps and opportunities, I’ve been able to navigate around them and leverage on what is available”.
1 July 2019