What KSA’s Startup Ecosystem Needs to Be MENA-Competitive | GCF 2016

Alexis Baghdadi, Jan 25 2016

Creating competitive landscapes for entrepreneurship was the theme of the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF) 2016 held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The closing panel on Day 1 of the GCF, “Fostering an Ecosystem for Digital Startups” was one of the highlights of the event, recapping the day’s talks and announcements, and exploring what it takes to build a positive climate “for dynamic people to establish dynamic businesses.”

The panel was moderated by renowned journalist Stephen Sackur, the presenter of HARDtalk, BBC World News' flagship current affairs interview program, who drove the questioning line about how recent low oil prices could create an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to focus on its entrepreneurial economy.

So what would it take for the Saudi entrepreneurial ecosystem to flourish?

Taking KSA from Conservative to Competitive

The meaning of the word ecosystem denotes a relationship between different elements, from the macro to the micro level. “Entrepreneurs do not exist in a vacuum”, explained Shanker Singham, Chairman and CEO of Competere, and Director of Economic Policy and Prosperity Studies at the Legatum Institute (London), and one of the panelists.

Other panelists included Mark Crowell, Vice President for Innovation and Economic Development at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and Hala Fadel, founding Managing Partner at Leap Ventures and Chair of MIT Arab Startup Competition.

Together, the 3 panelists presented valuable insights to the audience, linking the different elements of the ecosystem to come up with these recommendations:

1. Encourage research:

Research is the fundamental requirement for innovations around which value can be created and translated into new services, products, and jobs. It involves both knowledge and skill training.

2. Bank on human capital:

A direct result of research and education, according to Crowell, is the rise of a new class of “scientist entrepreneurs”, young men and women who are technically proficient in the digital economy, but also aware of sound business practices and markets.

The question is: how can a country like Saudi Arabia keep and nurture this talent pool?

“Governments need to put their money where their youth is, to attract talents,” said Fadel.

Singham added that labor market flexibility is a huge driver for entrepreneurial activity and startup growth.

3. Supportive policy environment:

Crowell and Singham agreed that the regulatory system is the key precondition for entrepreneurship. The ease of doing business in a country, for example, can determine whether a startup kicks off or never makes it at all.

“Taking a proof of concept to market applications requires smart money, smart infrastructure, and smart policies,” said Crowell.

4. Be open to new ideas:

The abovementioned issues are certainly big ones, but the reality can be a little different. “Entrepreneurs in the MENA find their way around the big stuff,” said Fadel.

She said that in parallel to these issues, it is important to encourage an “entrepreneur mentality and spirit,” away from conventional notions of secure employment or risk aversion.

Competition allows new ideas to circulate, particularly out-of-the-box ideas, then, completing a virtuous circle, it incentivizes openness to further new ideas. Singham pointed out the obvious fact that favoring state-owned enterprises or corporatization rather than privatization with competition, is the “opposite of openness.

The GEC 2016 will go on for one more day. You can watch a live streaming of the program on the forum’s main page: http://www.gcf.org.sa/en/Pages/default.aspx

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