With its traditional mosaics, fortresses and mosques, Oman’s architectural style is steeped in history. But don’t be fooled: this is a country with its sights set firmly in the future.
Oman is growing its local tech ecosystem, and as part of this drive the UK Oman Digital Hub tasked Plexal and Omani innovation development company AL JABR with delivering a virtual accelerator for 15 Omani startups.
Working with the Centre for Financial Technology at Imperial College London, The SME develop authority (RIYADA) and Oman’s Ministry of Transport, Communications & Information Technology, the Rapid Innovation Accelerator ran for six weeks and involved 100 UK and Omani mentors. Together, we’ve delivered 41 workshops and 1,921 interactions on our platform. As a result, 85% of the cohort are investor-ready and 90% will have an iterated product in the market in 2021.
We hosted a Demo Day to celebrate the progress of our members as they graduated as well as explore the opportunities for more collaboration between the UK and Oman. Here are our highlights, if you’ve got any questions or if you’d like to connect with our cohort members, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Oman has big tech ambitions. H.E. Dr. Ali Al Shidhani, Undersecretary for Communications and Information Technology at Oman’s Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology, described the Rapid Innovation Accelerator as a “fantastic collaboration between the international and the local”. Speaking about Oman’s Vision 2040, he said Oman’s economic ambitions “depend entirely on digital transformation and the digital economy”. And Dr. Ali Al Shidhani described how the country is laying the foundations for its tech sector to mature. “In a nutshell, Oman wants to be a hub for GDP: goods, data and people,” he said. In particular, Oman wants to be a hub for innovation when it comes to cybersecurity and space exploration, as well as become a “testing ground for fourth industrial revolution technologies” such as AI, drones and blockchain.
Startups are key. The country recognises the importance of supporting tech startups to create an ecosystem that’s primed for international collaboration. Oman is currently mapping its startup ecosystem’s strengths and opportunity areas. It’s also seeking opportunities to collaborate with global hubs like the UK. “We have a belief that startups are the fuel for any digital economy,” Dr. Ali Al Shidhani said. “We want to have a thriving startup ecosystem and that can only happen with collaboration between different entities, local as well as international.”
There’s room for closer links between startups and larger organisations. Sulaiman Hadhrami UCT, Head of New Technology Implementation at Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), says that multi-billion-dollar companies like PDO draw on the services of other companies, which creates huge opportunities for startups. PDO is already working closely with academia, and Hadhrami sees an opportunity to link the innovations produced by startups with what businesses need. “If we find that link, if we can hit that sweet spot, I believe we can generate huge opportunities,” he said.
It’s important to celebrate success. Henry Howard, Head of the UK Oman Digital Hub, said that it was important to celebrate the success of the country’s innovation ecosystem to instil investor confidence but also inspire more innovators to start a business. “SMEs are the future for Oman,” he said. “And if we can champion these early successes, then it will generate further success by stimulating the interest of the next cadre of entrepreneurs.”
Citing one example of an opportunity area, Howard spoke about how more Omanis are using the internet, and so demand is growing for cybersecurity talent and solutions. Howard said that businesses tend to look outwards for cyber talent but the country aims to build its own expertise in the sector.
Oman has the right ingredients for tech startups to succeed. Mohammed Al Wahaibi, CEO of AL JABR, said that there is a growing cluster of angel investors and venture capital funds in Oman that are ready to back startups, while 2020 saw “an unprecedented amount of funds invested in startups”. A large chunk of the population is young, educated and eager to work in startups or launch a business.
And as Omanis embrace ecommerce, the CEO sees an opportunity for local startups to adopt “a hybrid approach that can combine the online and offline experiences”. However, he warned that this is not a time for Oman to lose steam: “We either capitalise and double down on investing in entrepreneurship, or we will be left behind compared to how fast regional ecosystems are growing.”
Oman is building its data governance frameworks. Oman’s strengths include being globally recognised for being safe and stable, and this lays the foundation for the country to play a leading role when it comes to data governance as its tech ecosystem matures. Dr. Ali Al Shidhani said work is already under way to review existing legislation. The hope is that having the right legislative frameworks in place around data governance will attract international companies. He said that “data is a cross-cutting subject” and that “it’s extremely important”.
People and talent are a priority. We also heard from Maqbool Ali Sultan, former Minister of Commerce and Industry Oman, about how digital transformation is impacting already thriving sectors such as tourism, fisheries, manufacturing, logistics and energy– as well as the skills gap it’s creating. “What we will see in the post-pandemic age is completely different,” he said. “It’s a new world.”
He added that the biggest challenge for Oman as it embraces new technology is talent and making sure Omanis have the right skills and approach to critical thinking. He said: “We have to change the way people learn. We have to teach our students to teach themselves.”
The road is paved for collaboration between Oman and the UK. Oman’s Vision 2040 is well under way as the country diversifies its economy. Oliver Blake, Chairman of the New Generation Group, Anglo Omani Society, said that hundreds of years of collaboration and trading between the UK and Oman have “laid the foundations” for future collaboration. But while in the past oil and gas has been a focus area, “there’s no better time than right now to focus on technological collaboration”.
Our cohort’s progress report
We heard from 10 of our 15 cohort members at our Demo Day – to meet all 15 members head to our programme page.
Founder Nidhin Madhav describes the platform as a blend of a social network and ecommerce. It aims to bring people together online and enable SMEs to connect directly with customers. The platform can offer users recommendations for businesses near them and updates on local news stories. It also provides businesses with access to a “hyperlocal marketplace”. It was created because Madhav saw that Oman lacked a social network that connects people on a hyperlocal level.
Launched in 2016, Muscateer now attracts around 15,000 users per day and is delivered by a team of seven people.
Its revenue model is based on charging a commission on sales as well as selling sponsored content. It was making revenue from restaurants, but Covid-19 has made that more challenging so the startup is now working with local retailers as well. In fact, Madhav told us the pandemic has made Muscateer even more relevant as more people shop online. He said ecommerce is dominated by “international and national players” while the needs of small and medium retailers “have been neglected”. Muscateer wants to offer them a platform to grow on as online shopping becomes more popular.
Muscateer is now raising USD$200,000 to fund its growth, buy vehicles to support with local deliveries and grow the team.
The medtech startup connects healthcare organisations with patients virtually, enabling them to deliver remote services. Its focus so far has been on running pilots with medical institutions to build trust, gather feedback and prove itself. Taafi is seeking investment to expand its operations across the region and hire more team members.
Said Juma Al Sulti explained the premise for the startup’s creation, which aims to support electronic and remote voting: “In Oman, we have seen that government elections are based on traditional or semi-electronic voting processes, which make all users practice electronic voting in a slow and costly method.”
The startup has built a solution called The Suite, which uses distributed ledger technology to “demonstrate the election workflow process end-to-end”. It expects to generate up to $1m in revenue within a year, has plans to expand globally and is currently looking for USD$200,000 in revenue.
Taskit is a virtual marketplace that allows organisations to list projects and tasks that freelancers can bid for. The platform will launch in early June 2021, targeting 20-40-year-old Omanis.
The startup has developed a clear picture of its competitors, business model and target client. It aims to bring on 200,000 users within a year of launching. To diversify its revenue stream, it has plans for a B2B model in the pipeline as well as insurance add-ons. It’s looking for local organisations to collaborate with, as well as investment.
The digital freelance marketplace aims to connect businesses with freelance talent as well as create a community that will help make freelancing more commonplace in the region. Lujaina Al Adwani said the startup has seen demand for freelance talent grow in Oman and throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It’s currently developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to cater to this demand and is testing it with freelancers and businesses.
Oclick is looking for USD$100,000 to transform its MVP into a website that will be accessible in Arabic and English. It’s also looking for partners to work with.
The platform recognises that as SMEs in Oman move online, they need people who have the right technical skills. However, these SMEs don’t always have the time to train their employees or hire new talent.
The startup offers SMEs a one-stop-shop that helps them get online, manage their online marketing and handle order processing, payments and fulfilment. It’s looking for businesses to start using the platform, as well as partners who can help Wathiq raise awareness in the market.
The cybersecurity platform identifies skills and training gaps within organisations before providing recommendations and connecting its clients with training providers. The team of three has been using a government grant so far and has already secured its first clients. It’s now looking for investment.
Unlike freelance marketplaces such as Fiverr, Impact Integrated specialises in connecting businesses with voice talent for AI. It also provides voice talent with training in new skills that will help them get work in this growing area. It’s looking for USD$389,600 in investment to develop the platform, grow and develop the team and carry out marketing.
The digital real estate platform aims to make it easier for people to rent, buy, sell or let properties in Oman. People are able to view ratings for lettings and go on virtual tours, which saves them the effort of driving to view properties in person. Having created the MVP and tested it on 10 customers, Mskkn is now looking for USD$60,000. It will spend this cash injection on developing its technology, launching the website publicly and carrying out marketing activity.
Explaining the reason why the bee management startup was created, Mohammed said: “One third of what we eat requires pollination by bees. And bees, unfortunately, are being attacked by a poison called Varroa. In Oman, for instance, this parasite could reduce the production from 600,000kg to 38,000kg. And this bee infestation actually has no natural treatment.”
Apimoth has developed a natural solution that kills Varroa, is harmless to bees and can be shipped without being refrigerated. It could be used around the world but the startup has its immediate sights set on Asia, where it estimates there are around 44 million beehives. “If we are able to access 10% of that, that would get us a revenue of about USD$34m,” he said.
The solution is being scientifically validated and the team is awaiting official government approval, but it already has 4,107 pre-orders. In the meantime, it is looking for around USD$55,000 in investment to cover costs like transportation and production.
Watch our Demo Day