“We have a thriving ecosystem”

Interview with Khalfan Belhoul, Dubai Future Foundation

Interview with Khalfan Belhoul, Dubai Future Foundation
Interview with Khalfan Belhoul, Dubai Future Foundation

Bildnachweis: (C) Dubai Economy and Tourism.

Gitex Global is the world’s largest tech and start-up event and gathers more than 5,000 companies and more than 100,000 visitors from 170 countries.. As a hub between Europe, Asia and Africa, the Dubai-based venue offers an insight into the various start-up ecosystems, innovations and technology-driven revolutions of digitalisation. In the interview series „Gitex Global 2022“, experts, founders and investors share their insights and take a look into the digital future. 

VC Magazin: What makes Dubai particularly interesting as a location for local and international start-ups and grown-ups?

Belhoul: First of all, there are more than 190 nationalities living in Dubai. 90% of the population is expert driven. The city is a melting pot and a very diverse city, this by itself is a value proposition. But beyond that, it’s the opportunities entrepreneurs and venture capitalists can have within the ecosystem. Dubai has one of the most thriving innovation ecosystems with the highest number of valuations and transactions compared to the region, which is something that we’re very proud of. The Dubai Future Foundation plays a key role in enabling that innovation ecosystem through launching one of its products:  the Dubai Future District Fund.

VC Magazin: How is the fund structured?

Belhoul: This fund has a direct investment mandate, but also a fund investment mandate. And it is primarily focused on catalyzing the ecosystem here and filling the funding gaps where the private sector is not investing. The fund is designed to support growth-stage companies and help them start at an early stage. We want to help raise awareness of this asset class and emphasize the benefits of the private sector. Because when they see a government-led fund getting into private funds, confidence in this asset class increases. So we have a dual strategy with our fund: it’s not just about the business. It is also about how much money we have put in the region, but also how much we have contributed to the introduction of a new sector or job creation through the use of the fund.

VC Magazin: What are current priorities for you?

Belhoul: Foresight in general is the core pillar of the Foundation. We need to understand where the future is heading. And on that basis we can develop new initiatives. And to achieve this, we have launched the Dubai Future Forum, which gathers the best futurologists from around the world. We want to understand what is the critical role of humanity in the future with all the advances in technology, innovation, digitalisation, robotics and AI. Then we launch different initiatives that are important for us, like the fund, the R&D strategies and the climate change efforts. All of that is very important.

VC Magazin: You’ve set yourself big goals and according to media reports, want to become the startup capital of the world. What key steps are necessary to achieve this?

Belhoul: Collaboration, I think. Startup ecosystems can only be successful if all the important pillars of an ecosystem are in place: academia, the private sector, government, funding, but most importantly, agility and mindset. And when I say agility, I mean that the government has an open ear to what needs to be changed. Because, if you don’t take the right measures, no matter how much money you put in, you don’t get anywhere. So we are fortunate to live in a city where the government listens and responds to the needs of innovation. And I think that’s an important recipe for success in building innovation ecosystems. It also helps that we are a hub in the world, connecting the East to the West. Fortunately, we have one of the biggest airlines here and the biggest ports in the world. Transport, tourism and logistics play into our cards. And the diversity of our people also helps us create a thriving ecosystem.

VC Magazin: Which startups from Dubai have impressed you the most?

Belhoul: Obviously the ones that are on each and every tongue of anyone here: The Souq.com platform, which was acquired by Amazon, is an amazing thing, Careem and Talabat, which dominates the food delivery ecosystem, are also part of it. The acquisition by Uber is one of the success stories that we are very proud of.

VC Magazin: What other accelerators and investors are there locally?

Belhoul: There are more than 20 accelerators in the ecosystem, private and local. We see international players like Techstars, 500 Startups and others coming in. But also the government is participating with different accelerator programmes like the Dubai Future Accelerator. This is not a typical accelerator. It’s a zero-investment programme that connects startups with government agencies in the hope that governments will allocate capital to startups to help them generate more revenue, which is not the typical formula. But we did this to firstly create inclusivity and secondly to get start-ups to work more with government agencies. The programme has produced more than 200 start-ups from the programme. Many of them received significant funding and, more importantly, they created a bridge between innovators and small businesses and government. That is usually a bottleneck.

Museum of Future
Museum of Future, Dubai

VC Magazin: The Forum finds place at the Museum of Future. What is the idea and the combination to the Future Forum about?

Belhoul: This project complements the foresight mandate we have. We cannot look clearly into the future if we do not get the best of the best to share their views with us. That is why this forum and dialogue are very important to us. Because the future and the way forward require cooperation. And we have seen so many different people here from all over the world helping us to build a better future.

Museum of Future
Museum of Future, Dubai

VC Magazin: What are your expectations for the next year?

Belhoul: I would like to see more common growth and I feel that we are moving in that direction. But I think we will of course face some challenges, one is the geopolitical challenge in the world. The second is the financial turmoil in the world. But I think that with both challenges we see the light at the end of the tunnel. And once these problems are out of the way, I think we can achieve anything if we create the right cooperation.

VC Magazin: Thank you very much for the interview.




Khalfan Belhoul is CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation.