Where will the next wave of innovation come from?
Dr Vikas Nand Kumar Batheja is the co-founder and director of Capital College in Dubai
The global pandemic has created panic, industrial disruption, and affected people - to say the least. While there is a lot of uncertainty lurking around, if looked at closely, there are numerous opportunities that entrepreneurs and corporations could perhaps capitalise upon. History has been a witness to it where crises like SARS in the early 2000s catalysed the growth of e-commerce companies like China’s Alibaba and other established companies that initially ventured as startups like Uber and Airbnb. Analysing a similar business model, the Middle Eastern region is also implementing long-term plans for economic growth with a pivotal role played by technology. Following the coronavirus outbreak, UAE announced a cumulative package of over $34 billion while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took a similar pathway with over $32 billion invested in its development. While on a macro level, there are many job-creating opportunities, it is necessary to retrospect on how entrepreneurs and startups can take advantage of the crisis with innovation at the forefront.
Remote work and the need for a digital system for mental health
Covid-19 has expedited remote working and online education and calling applications took a prominent place for scheduling meetings, homeschooling and to even connect individually. Zoom was one of the highest downloaded applications of this year and alongside other video calling applications, it has minimised disruption in workplaces and streamlining processes. This has also created opportunities for tech-based companies to shift their services online rather than suspending businesses altogether.
But one challenge has been the workforce coming together to continue working remotely in a manner that is efficient and streamlined. For many, this is has been a testing period which has taken a toll on their mental health and overall morale. Hence, it will be interesting to see how mental health will be integrated into digital systems and how effectively startups can take charge with the support of digitisation.
One Egypt-based company, Shezlong, offers a psychotherapy platform to its residents and its online customers. Through this, people can meet licensed and professional therapists and share their worries and anxieties digitally. Recently, the company announced it had raised $500,000 in funding and with its collaboration with Dubai Expo 2020, the startup plans to provide 15,000 free therapy sessions with diverse specialisations to improve mental health and create further awareness.
Chaos often leads to the development of opportunities. In retrospect, innovation thrives when a crisis arises. This is quite apt for the healthtech industry. UAE’s Ministry of Health is already in talks with mobile operator du to develop and execute the country’s first virtual hospital which will allow people to avail healthcare facilities from the comfort of their homes. The Ministry is already in the process offering online healthcare facilities along with the development of a telemedicine application. These services have been implemented in many UAE hospitals to avoid further exposure to the contagious infection. On the flip side, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health has established a few e-health strategies that will improve the accessibility and quality of these facilities. All of these are creating more opportunities for individuals to thrive in this challenging business market.
More artificial intelligence
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed AI as a top priority through the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. The two countries have committed to placing ‘smart’ solutions to transform businesses, government and schools. During the lockdown, the UAE’s Dubai Police integrated AI solutions to distinguish vehicles belonging to those working in the vital sectors and those who had breached lockdown rules.
AI is also being used across airports and by airlines in the region. Etihad Airways uses AI and automation to screen passengers for any visible symptoms of the coronavirus in a bid to prevent any potential transmission. Additionally, the UAE has also launched the first AI university named after His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed. The university can serve as a strong platform to foster and nurture students who aspire to become prominent members of the AI industry. There is little doubt that artificial intelligence will shape the future of the Middle East.
Evolution of e-commerce
Social distancing will still remain for some time yet, and shoppers are likely to continue to refrain from attending gatherings or going to supermarkets to buy their essentials. Instead they will continue to bank on online platforms that are supported with contactless deliveries. With the Middle East regarded as one of the fastest-growing e-commerce markets, it gives an optimistic insight into this industry and aspiring business owners must consider e-commerce as an essential offering. One relevant example is the success story of InstaShop which was acquired by Delivery Hero for about $360 million. In less than four years, the startup had amassed more than 350,000 active users and expanded across major hubs in the Middle East region.
The e-commerce market is estimated to reach over $48 billion by 2021 and a substantial portion of this will come from mobile shopping. As per a survey conducted by PwC, the consumption of mobile payment gateways in the Middle East increased by 25 per cent when compared to the average usage in 2018. Similarly, post the pandemic, there was increasing popularity in these channels when it rose to 31 per cent while 44 per cent of the consumers only placed orders through their mobile devices.
Certainly, the global economy has taken a severe hit due to the pandemic where millions of people and families have been affected. It is now crucial to analyse the large scale problem with entrepreneurial ideas led by technology and innovation. Although some have gained momentum, there is a lot to explore and execute.