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Qatar: A startup launching pad

Interview - November 24, 2014

Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC) CEO, Aysha Al Mudakha, talks in an exclusive interview about the benefits of operating an SME and the programs available to entrepreneurs.


What are the benefits of operating an SME here in Qatar, and where do you perhaps see opportunities for improved regulation?

The benefit of operating an SME in Qatar is that there is a lot of support available to help you get started and grow in the early “make or break” stages of a business. Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC) supports entrepreneurs through its flagship LeanStartup Program turning innovative ideas into startup businesses and Lean Scaleup Program turning existing young businesses into scalable companies. QBIC alone doesn’t empower SMEs in Qatar, as we have the support of Qatar Development Bank and the Social Development Center, and QBIC in turn supports these organisations.

The SME sector could benefit from some legislative changes, not least because there is a lot of red tape and operational expenses to set up a business here, and we don’t have a bankruptcy law. I think with time, the regulatory environment will become more conducive towards SMEs and I look towards the UAE as a good example of how this could happen over a number of years. In Qatar, a greater number of startup businesses will lead to more demand for changing or refining existing legislation and so I’m confident that change will happen.

As the world markets continue to globalize, how will the shift in dynamics affect entrepreneurs forming SMEs as they look to form global partnerships?

At QBIC, our first priority is to empower entrepreneurs to start and grow companies in Qatar, but this isn’t done in isolation from the rest of the world. QBIC partners with international organisations and people to exchange knowledge and bring their experience and international best business practices into Qatar. We also encourage our entrepreneurs to go abroad and look at international elements to their business, as this will undoubtedly become a necessity if they are to eventually develop into QAR 100 million companies. QBIC therefore opens a two-way channel for our entrepreneurs as we bring international businesses to them in Qatar, and we help bring them to international businesses abroad.

Taking into account the four guiding principles of Qatar Vision 2030, what is the recipe for economic success here in Qatar?

Qatar is on an economic journey, moving away from a reliance on oil and gas towards a sustainable, knowledge-based economy. If this vision is to become reality, then Qatar must support a strong and diversified private sector, with SMEs and entrepreneurs providing the engine room for growth. We are in an exciting time as there are several initiatives encouraging entrepreneurship in Qatar. This is where QBIC comes in, as we support the economic pillar of the Qatar National Vision 2030 through our programs designed to develop the next QAR 100 million companies in Qatar. There is also a human element to our work, as we support  Qatari business leaders in terms of their own personal development.

Where are the opportunities for investors and developers looking to tap into the expanding markets here in Doha?

As startups grow their businesses, there will be real opportunities for international investors to come in and invest. This is especially true when startups move into their second or third year. From my own experience, I’m seeing a lot of innovation and opportunities for growth in technology businesses starting here and there is also potential in service-based businesses.

The Prime Minister recently stated that the QBIC is at a new milestone in the overall development efforts of Qatar in the field of entrepreneurship and private sector support. Of course, this means that the QBIC is in a unique position, as the largest mixed incubator in the MENA region. Could you share with us more about the concept behind the QBIC and its growth to where it stands today?

The concept was cofounded by Qatar Development Bank and the Social Development Centre, who had the idea of advising entrepreneurs, supporting them financially through investment and also creating a physical infrastructure for them.

It’s a great concept because finding office or manufacturing space is often the biggest challenge for startup businesses in Qatar and we have really invested in developing our infrastructure. We have a space of 20 thousand square meters that can accommodate office space for 150 businesses as well as 16 workshops. In terms of financing, we start with an initial grant and can supplement this with equity funding. QBIC is the first company in Qatar that is actually investing in startups.

What makes QBIC truly unique is we also coach our entrepreneurs via our LeanStartup Program that turns innovative ideas into startup businesses and our Lean Scaleup Program that turns existing young businesses into scalable companies.

That is an excellent approach. Could you share with us in detail the LeanStartup program?

The LeanStartup Program lasts for ten weeks, running twice a year in the Spring and Autumn and we are now into our second “wave” of entrepreneurs. The LeanStartup Program provides entrepreneurs with a real hands-on learning experience of how to successfully start a company and is based on our flagship LeanStartup methodology. While traditional textbook approaches require entrepreneurs to submit a business plan, we don’t believe these.

In contrast, we believe in an operational, practical approach for our incubators and focus on costumer validation first, making sure they test the market viability of their product or service by talking to customers, partners and competitors. Incubators end the Program by pitching their ideas to a board of experts and we then decide if QBIC is going to invest in them.

In which lines of business do you believe SME’s in Qatar and the UK could partner to keep pace with global competitiveness?
QBIC is a mixed incubator and open to all kinds of businesses, although we are seeing a lot of interest in media, technology, tourism and sports events. The UK has expertise in all of these industries and so as these businesses grow I’m sure partnerships between SMEs in Qatar and the UK will flourish. As a precedent, we already have one company at QBIC who is in partnership with a European company.

Our entrepreneurs are very international in their outlook, a great example being an amazing young woman who manufactures luxury perfumes. She now has a trademark license in seventeen countries and plans to promote her brand across the world including Paris and the UK. This is her vision as an entrepreneur and I’m sure that most of our entrepreneurs at QBIC have similar international ambitions.

You have said this has always been your dream: ”There are plenty of opportunities for all of us to collaborate and we want to be the entrepreneurial hub of Qatar, bringing all the players together to deliver the best possible opportunities for Qatari startups.” Where do you draw your passion from, and what would your advice be for a young British or Qatari entrepreneur looking to start his or her own business?

My inspiration is my amazing mother who made sure that my education and my career were a priority. Although she is now retired from her job as an English teacher, her passion for helping others continues through her charity work in Africa. This inspiration also extends to my family including my daughter, brothers and father who have supported me throughout my career.

We are lucky in Qatar as there as so many opportunities available and there is the flexibility to juggle many different roles.  I am studying for my executive MBA at HEC Paris in Qatar, I’m working as QBIC’s CEO and I also have a baby. My advice is to take full advantage of any opportunities that come your way for learning and self-improvement.