Slow and steady wins the start-up race

Outside the disruptive world of tech, start-ups are better served by a step-by-step approach, Dubai Science Park’s Marwan Abdul Aziz Janahi says

16:01 October 14, 2016

DUBAI: Marwan Abdul Aziz Janahi, executive director of Dubai Science Park, has a simple recipe for start-up success: validate your ideas.

Around 40 per cent of Dubai Science Park’s 300 companies are small firms and start-ups, and Janahi works closely with them to help them develop.

“Validate, validate, validate,” he said, when asked for his best advice for start-ups. “They definitely need to make sure. They need to speak to different people.

“I often speak to people who have only one perspective, but once they speak to different mindsets, they either think it’s the best idea or the worst idea.

“Don’t necessarily give up your idea, but look at what [established firms] are doing, study it well. Maybe they’re doing something similar, you never know, so that could be a venue for collaboration rather than competing.

“A lot of companies miss that completely. They just get carried away with the fact that they have a good idea and they forget that we live in a global world and it could be a company from Korea or the UK has the same idea.”

Dubai Science Park, formed last year in a merger of DuBiotech and EnPark, caters to firms focused on health, material, energy and environmental sciences. It provides laboratories and warehousing, and two office towers are due to be completed next year.

The park’s laboratory area is at full capacity, with multinationals represented by firms including Pepsi-Cola, who have their regional R&D centre there, Pfizer and Thermo Fisher, rubbing shoulders with smaller labs. Warehousing is also full.

Other plans for the park include residential towers and villas. “The idea is to create a community, not just business but also people living as well. It’s ongoing. It’s not something that will be ready in a year or so, but I hope that by Expo we will be fully operational.”

Janahi, formerly business development manager at DuBiotech, says his background in business gives him a broad perspective.

“The business background gives me the ability to have an overarching or macro outlook. You see, we engage with companies on a daily basis and these companies are in different sectors — health, materials, energy and environment. There are really two types of companies — one that is bringing in new products or services from abroad, the US, Europe, Asia, that we welcome and we provide whatever it is that suits them. So if there is anything new coming into the region from those specific areas, it will usually be from here. Definitely there is an impact on the UAE, for sure.

“The second type of people is the start-ups, and they are always thinking, ‘How do we complement the companies that are coming from abroad? How can we compete?’ Maybe a start-up thinks, ‘Well, I can do a better job.’ And we always try to manage both in different ways.”

Janahi sees the mixture of established multinationals and small firms at the park as a strength.

“One of the things we realised is that you can’t have an incubator or a start-up community working in isolation. The most successful ones are the ones that actually work with large companies and complement what they do, or work with each other, because the reality is that large companies cannot do everything by themselves. They outsource a lot of their needs, or a lot of their employees get fed up and they start their own companies doing what they are really passionate about and they know there is a need for in the market.

“This is how we look at the ecosystem.”

Janahi urges start-ups to follow a step-by-step approach. Rather than plunging into innovation and R&D, he believes new firms are best served by filling gaps in the local market by providing products or services that would otherwise have to be sourced outside the UAE.

He said, “I always encourage that because if you start with that you can then innovate and come up with solutions that are unique. And for people to do R&D and to proof it takes time. But if you start with filling a gap and then you concentrate on innovating, it’s much easier.

“I think most of the time what I see is that companies coming in, filling a gap, whether by providing a better service or a solution and then thinking of more ways of doing things that are completely different.

“If we speak pure R&D and innovation then you need lots of time and you need to be really very, very patient. We can’t do it overnight. We can’t wake up and say, ‘We’re going to do R&D tomorrow.’ It takes much longer than that.”

Janahi believes manufacturing products locally is a key step before innovation can really take off, and pointed to the Dubai Industrial Strategy, launched in June, as a guide. It prioritises industrial development in aerospace, maritime, fabricated metals, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, food and machinery.

“Manufacturing is probably our way to innovation and to R&D because once you have manufacturing set up you can do product improvement, and with product improvement you need to engage more with academia, which is something that companies haven’t really done very well, and it’s not very well established [here].

“My vision is that with manufacturing, with product improvement, with academia engaging with these manufacturers, the academia giving fresh perspectives, because they are not just in commercial business, they’re more innovative and creative, then the manufacturers can always adapt.

“This, I believe, should be the Dubai way to innovation.”

Nevertheless, he said links with academia were starting, and said the science park had recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Mohammad Bin Rashid University to work more closely in the medical field.

“I really like the thinking of all the professors and the Dean of Medicine there,” he added. “They’re thinking about innovation and how they can engage their students with some of the labs here.”

He did not see the cost of setting up as a major barrier to start-ups, saying most could get up and running on between $5,000 and $10,000 (Dh18,364 and Dh36,729).

“That number is really not a very heavy burden on a start-up. My perception is that it is about how you position yourself in terms of, can you really come up with a service or solution that can be acceptable and how you make your business case.”

Dubai Science Park does not currently fund start-ups, although Janahi said discussions were under way that may change that. At present, it acts as a matchmaker between start-ups and investors, in part through the Dubai-based incubator In5.

“Funding is not usually the barrier, although there are some sectors that people are very reluctant to fund, and they want things that will take maybe three or four years to mature, but not longer — there is this short-term outlook that financiers or investors have, generally speaking, which I think needs to improve because some start-ups or investments do take longer than that.

“That is a challenge, and I think that the only way for that to change is to celebrate some success stories. If people don’t hear about it happening and being successful they will assume that it takes forever, whereas I know of people who’ve made no money for six years, but in the sixth year they started making lots of money, and that was because they had an agreement with the organisation that provided the service for them — by the time it reaches a certain number, they will get some profit-share. It is doable, but it takes time.”