Gitex, the Middle East’s largest technology exhibition is one of the most important events for those in the technology sector. It is the show that brings different industries together, to demonstrate the latest innovations and gadgets. Traditionally, it was the telecoms companies that dominated, the likes of Etisalat and Huawei led vast sections of the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), showcasing the technologies of the future, from robot chefs to flying cars.
While the Etisalat stand continues to attract visitors, who this year queued up to get a glimpse of the “mind controlled” car and Huawei’s multiple screens gave one the sensation of walking through a forest, it was the Gitex Future Stars (GFS) section that provided a more realistic glimpse to the future.
This section of Gitex, which focuses on startups from across the world, has over the past two editions become the focal point, or rather the most interesting aspect of this exhibition. Combining Ai Everything, Fintech Surge, Future Blockchain Summit and Marketing Mania, GFS provides startups a platform to showcase their solutions, network and attract investors.
This year, DWTC announced that Gitex Future Stars will be rebranded to North Star with the slogan “many journeys, one destination”. It seems that this part of the exhibition has become big enough to warrant a standalone event, aiming to evolve into something along the lines of Slush, Europe’s largest startup event.
The move reflects the growing importance of startups to the economy of the Middle East region. There were far more startups present this year from across the world, mainly from the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt as well as India and France. Startups in fintech, logistics, SaaS, healthtech and edtech dominated. Large swatches of the hall were taken up by country pavilions, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, keen to highlight their own startups and their entrepreneurship ecosystems.
Dubai’s in5 announced at Gitex that its startups have, to date, raised Dh1.4 billion ($381 million) in angel and VC funding, of which 80 per cent was raised in the last three years.
“This is a big milestone for us,” said Ammar Al Malik, managing director of Dubai Internet City (DIC). “It shows there is a ramp up in the interest in startups, there is a ramp up in companies in tech and we think this trend will continue.”
Most of these investments went to fintech, e-commerce and foodtech startups according to Al Malik, with interest growing in the agritech and nanotech space. Dubai Internet City, home to in5, was founded two decades ago initially focused on attracting big tech corporations. Today, its focus is on building a tech community with underpinned by startups and innovation.
“We’ve been adapting for 20 years, we are making more spaces for the community so they can meet,” says Al Malik. “We need to have more tech centres in this region, you need to develop talent across the region for the whole region. If you don’t have tech being developed here, that means the talent is not here.”
Both in5 and DIC are partnering with universities to provide opportunities for student entrepreneurs in the region. Two years ago, Wamda highlighted the student innovators showcasing their graduate projects at Gitex, who complained of a lack of direction and support post-graduation in commercialising their research. This year, the organisers had a stage dedicated to these youth entrepreneurs, discussing their challenges and opportunities.
Women entrepreneurs were given centre stage thanks to the TiE Women Global Pitch Competition. The winner, Neha Jain, founder and CEO of India-based Zerocircle was awarded $75,000 for her sustainable packaging materials that help companies become carbon neutral. Second place was Myra Arshad, co-founder of Canada-based ALT TEX, who won $15,000 for her sustainable polyester alternative, providing clothes manufacturers with a more sustainable and ethical material and placing third was Farah Emara, co-founder and CEO of Egypt-based FreshSource, who won $10,000 for her startup that provides last-mile solutions for farmers.
“Diversity in business drives innovation. Eliminating barriers that thwart the success of women-owned businesses is an economic imperative,” said Ashish Panjabi, president of the Dubai Chapter of TiE. “We are and will always remain focused on eliminating the structural barriers that female entrepreneurs experience and always aim at investing in women to drive positive change and economic prosperity.”