Is there a way to create high quality startups in Kuwait?

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This is an edited crosspost with Nuwait.

We see plenty of buzz around the topic of startups in Kuwait.

The 2 billion Kuwaiti dinar fund (US$6.6 billion) has attracted worldwide media attention and rightly so - not many countries have committed this kind of money to entrepreneurship.

Having said that, the innovation ecosystem in Kuwait is a work in progress and needs careful nurturing from all stakeholders.

Where startups come from

In other countries startups could be spin-offs from larger companies where an employee, after working for several years, understands a domain inside out and spots an opportunity to set up a smaller, nimbler entity.

Examples are Okta, Zuora and Hearsay Social which came out of Salesforce; FlipKart, Hointer and Pro.com came from Amazon; Twitter, Foursquare and Factual were birthed by Google employees; and Nest, SITU and Android are Apple babies.

Top universities typically work at the very cutting edge of science, deepening our knowledge of the world and coming up with discoveries, for example in life sciences or renewable energy.

For instance just two universities, Stanford and MIT, have each added $2 trillion to the US economy though over a much longer period with startup companies based on university inventions, and transferring technology to existing companies. Such is the potential of high quality universities.

Universities (and sometimes large companies such as Qualcomm, PayPal, Microsoft) can also create fertile ground for startups by facilitating the learning and application of new technology platforms, for example the Internet of Things (IoT), quadcopters and bio-mimetic robotics.

By virtue of being the first in the world to get access to and tinker with these platforms, students and researchers are well positioned to develop real-world applications for them and start tech companies. We see several students dropping out of undergraduate or postgraduate studies to pursue these startup ideas.

The above scenarios largely do not apply in Kuwait, and a majority of countries in the world.

China is one of the few countries that has transitioned from an early stage ecosystem to a more advanced stage in the last decade, but China is uniquely positioned because of its authoritarian regime, which allows it to make large investments in incubators and seed funds quickly without taking these through democratic processes of consensus building and collective decisions.

China also has a large cash surplus from its manufacturing revenues.

How do the other countries ride the startup wave?

Other than a few notable exceptions, we see numerous copy-paste ideas of Uber, market aggregators, online ticketing and such.

There is nothing wrong in going after such ideas (entrepreneurship is all about creating value and profiting, both over the short term and long term), as long as the founders realize that it could be a short-lived opportunity and understand the limitations of scale and that the window of opportunity could close soon.

The reason why some of these opportunities are short-lived is that the market, which seems attractive, might mature and become better organized quickly, reducing the revenue potential. The more farsighted players in the ecosystem - namely the government, incubators and universities - have to plan for the long-term.

What tools do we need to build startups?

Tools are important for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Current programming languages, design software, microprocessor and microcontroller coding, 3D printing, PCB design and fabrication, and simulation software, must be widely disseminated with a sense of discovery and ‘tinkering’.

Good avenues for this are high schools, universities, makerspaces, competitions and conferences.

The human element is also very important. Many startup ideas are sparked when founders find themselves affected by a particular challenge. If the same problem/challenge affects enough people, and if the founders have the tools and the imagination to devise a solution, you have the basics for a startup.

How to seed startups

Coworking space Mefazec is trying its best to facilitate quality startups in Kuwait.

One way of defining a quality startup is a company that sustains for a significant period of time (over a decade), creates hundreds of jobs (which it can do if it is scalable), creates wealth for all stakeholders and contributes to the GDP growth of a country.

One powerful way to seed startups is to collide two different worlds.

Take programmers, engineers and designers on a fishing trawler to see first-hand the workflow of that operation, or take them to a hospital’s diagnostics center to see how hundreds of patients are handled or even to a farm at harvest time.

These experiences seed thought processes (sometimes called domain immersion) that lead to innovative products. For example, Practo, was born out of the frustration of booking doctors appointments.

The other equally important steps, like business planning, team building, finance, marketing, handling government regulations/rules, can be handled easily by supporting organizations such as incubators.

The main thing is to come upon an idea with ‘legs’ and follow through quickly.

Feature image via Nuwait.

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