Step this week concluded its first ever online edition, Step Anywhere, only six months after the ninth edition of Step Conference, the UAE's largest tech festival, which was physically held in Dubai right before Covid-19 hit the region.
The online gathering attracted tens of hundreds of attendees over the course of three days, presenting a plethora of live talks, panel discussions and workshops featuring speakers from across the world.
“This is very special. Although we have done very large physical events that can be stressful, doing this for the first time can make you feel anxious,” said Ray Dargham, co-founder and CEO of Step. “This is not a webinar, we have networking, live stage and multiple sessions happening at the same time, in addition to tonnes of exhibitors showcasing and doing their own content and agenda. People at home can watch and meet peers, and this is what events are about. You can get a lot out of online events more than physical events.”
Discussions at the event revolved primarily around the Covid-19 pandemic, tackling trends and opportunities, ways of survival and an outlook for the future post-crisis from the perspective of investors, entrepreneurs and governments. The event also shed light on diverse emerging industries such as agritech, proptech, edtech and fintech among others.
Investors from the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region and beyond discussed the impact of the pandemic and how the volatility in oil prices and the uncertainty in supply and demand has affected their funding decisions.
“The events that happened this year led to a change in investment activity, a lot of the deals that were waiting for exits got delayed which put pressure on cash flows, and deployment strategies have been deviating from a new reality,” said Walid Mansour, managing partner at MEVP Capital Limited.
However, volatility always existed in the region, it was just further emphasised by the Covid-19 outbreak.
“If you believe in the fundamentals of the startups you are investing in, the case remains the same,” said Shane Shin, founding partner of Shorooq Partners. “There is always an inherent layer of risk. From geopolitical to environmental, risks become market conditions in the Mena region.”
“Covid-19 is not a blessing but it has forced a lot of founders who have been a bit loose to become more adaptive than they already were,” said Kalsoom Lakhani, founder of I2I Ventures. “You need to have a high risk appetite anyways operating in our markets, and Covid-19 hitting the market the way it did forced both investors and entrepreneurs to adapt really quickly and innovate.”
Kushal Shah, founder of Dubai Angel Investors, highlighted the role of angel investors in driving the investment wheel in the region and unlocking the ecosystem. Besides helping founders raise funds, they also encourage industry players to start investing in startups.
“Founders are becoming more intelligent in terms of choosing their funders. The credentialising you get from investment from an [angel network] is much more deeper than what you get from VCs, you have so many eyes looking into your company. Our pipeline from February to March went through the roof. Covid-19 had a massive impact, because everyone wanted to digitise and repurpose everything,” said Shah.
Christine Tsai, CEO and founding partner of 500 Startups, believes in a few indicators that startups will go forward, whether in pandemic or otherwise. “First there is speed, how quickly can they execute. Also, how caution are the founders, they need to be able to listen to their employees, customers and investors. On the other hand, a red flag is outsourcing core talent, founders need to make sure their core team that builds their company is actually part of the company.”
Multiple sessions and talks during the event tackled issues entrepreneurs are facing amid the crisis caused by the outbreak, as well as guidelines to survive the hit.
“Those who are innovative are the ones able to survive. The largest companies in the world came during periods of recessions, like Amazon, PayPal and eBay. This is the time for [entrepreneurs] to find opportunities to become leaders in the market,” said Jeremiah Owyang, founding partner at Kaleido Insights.
Owyang highlighted the need for innovation and research and development to be able to survive the crisis. Changing habits in a timely manner to prioritise areas for allocating a company’s resources is crucial to cope with trends such as working from home, rise in wearable technology and food delivery among others.
“People haven’t stopped doing things because of Covid-19, they are just doing them differently now. A survey we conducted showed a shift in mindset, consumers assumed they will be in the office by July, and here we are doing a virtual event in August. People have demonstrated adaptability to new realities, and startups need to do the same in a timely manners,” said Amy Johnson, head of account management at Criteo MEA.
From hydroponics to aquaponics and agrofarming, new technologies are emerging as companies look at new ways to tackle food security in the region. Agritech is one of the industries that is picking momentum amid the pandemic as it offers solutions to create more sustainable products by using better technologies and utilising fewer resources.
“We want to create resilient supply and distribution chains just because we see the value it can add to cities of any size. We use aquaponics, one of the more sustainable next-gen farming methods that uses fish to grow plants, to create systems for communities to grow their own produce,” said Jonathan Reyes, co-founder and CEO of Jordan-based Tulua.
“This is very new in the region, we have mega farms going up but we are yet to see a large uptake of the localisation of agriculture. There still needs to be more education but it is taking a long time. People will start to care about how produces are grown, especially when they experience their quality,” Reyes added.
Aquaponics uses rocks and water to deliver nutrients, consuming 95 per cent less water when compared to traditional farming methods as there is no need to use soil. The yield is significantly more than traditional farming, resulting in 30 – 40 per cent more growth than soil farming.
Yasin Aboudaoud, managing partner at Brinc Mena, believes that for investors to get involved, governments need to lay the foundation to make it attractive for them. “Agritech is growing in the Middle East but at a weak pace, we don’t have the right infrastructure yet. However, there are large companies in Saudi and Bahrain interested to look on the downstream. It is in the governments' interest to do that, but there is definitely a longer time to adapt,” he said.
Founders in the space look for value chains to change in order to link new technologies in agriculture with the rising trends in the food industry, such as cloud kitchens. “Current chains are very manual, digitising them gives users accountability to measure quality and service level agreements and have a more organised supply chain,” said Mohamed Al Fayed, CEO of Grubtech.
The event featured an exhibition section where more than 100 exhibitors, including startups, accelerators, incubators and partners, showcased their programmes and products through virtual booths.
Plenty of the booths attempted to mimick physical events, featuring live talks, workshops, Q&A sessions and experiences in addition to virtual tours to attract visitors.
Step’s next event is Step Saudi, set to take place next November and will be the event organiser’s second virtual gathering.