Gaining an uncluttered view of the Saudi startup landscape at TAQADAM’s virtual showcase

By Abdulrahman M. Aljiffry, Accelerator Manager

By some estimates, 305 million new startups launch each year. That’s nearly nine startups for every Saudi. Even the tech and innovation space is massively saturated, with 1.35 million launching annually. To be an investor in this space, then, is to be in constant pursuit of that — literally — one in a million opportunity, over and over again. And when you find those needle-in-a-haystack startups, you need to hope you’re one of the first to take notice. By the time buzz starts building, often, it’s too late.

Cultivating a culture of innovation — and investment

Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has made a deliberate and continuous effort to create a culture of innovation: an environment that welcomes and rewards experimentation through continuous awareness, education and motivation. Through a mix of celebrating local success stories, intensive training programs, competitions and accelerators, founders and investors have truly found a destination to grow, evolve and expand. Vision 2030, then, supercharged that drive with a transformation of the regulatory landscape and the market that catapulted Saudi Arabia to the forefront.

That, though, is just the beginning. As the ecosystem has matured, deeper vertical integration from the private sector partnering with startups has helped the Saudi entrepreneurship landscape, individual startups and founders stay on the cutting edge. Looking ahead, this will no doubt continue to play a meaningful factor in our collective growth, driving faster scale and impact in our daily lives — and how investors think about what comes next.

This comprehensive commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation has, not surprisingly, brought global attention to the country and founders are taking advantage of these best-in-class opportunities. Foreign investment licenses were up 70% between Q1 2019 and 2020. Venture by Invest Saudi is attracting more and more VCs and portfolio companies. Dubbed a “G20 economy with a startup mentality,” the innovation and technology emerging from Saudi Arabia right now speaks to the billions in Kingdom investment plus the access to resources, accelerators and support unique to the region.

All of this has changed the way VCs, businesses and even individuals invest. In 2021, investments in Saudi startups grew 770% to a record-high SR236 million ($548 million). The number of investors also increased significantly, up 192% year-over-year.

“A lot of this was driven by the fact that we see a lot of very strong founder talent, local talent,” Christine Tsai, 500 Global CEO, explained. Her California-based firm — one of the top 10 global VC firms — opened a Riyadh office in 2020. “Saudi Arabia has really started to develop and flourish over the past few years… We are quite excited about Saudi being a major hub for tech.”

Finding the next “needle” in Saudi Arabia
Large-scale commitments like 500 Global, though, are just a piece of this meteoric growth. Startup accelerators have, quickly, come to represent a valuable source of deal flow. Finding the right investment opportunity, especially in an increasingly competitive environment, requires proactive scoping of opportunities that have been carefully vetted.

Programs like TAQADAM, KAUST’s flagship startup accelerator, and its showcase give investors of all sizes and scopes a first-look at a startup shortlist — high-potential products, solutions, platforms and services ready to take that next step. This showcase, though, particularly stands out within the Saudi investor community. A celebration of the Saudi entrepreneurial spirit, drawing local talent and attracting and enabling founders from all over the world.

This year’s startup showcase is happening on March 10, 2022 and this hybrid event has become one of the most exciting opportunities in the region. Offering non-dilutive funding for participants, the TAQADAM showcase has quickly become the first choice for many founders. Increased competition drives up the quality of the companies involved as these startups refer others and support each other further reinforcing this virtuous cycle.

This year, 23 startups spanning tech, healthcare, fintech, food systems, sustainability, consumer services, education and more will pitch live to an in-person and virtual audience of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and investors. These founders will have just emerged from the six-month accelerator — twice the standard length for typical programs.

The longer duration also allows for increased variety of companies, especially those that are deep tech startups. More time building prototypes, deploying pilots and showing the results of those activities is key for investors looking to assess technical risk associated with these kinds of products. While there are challenges deep tech founders face, they often have incredibly differentiated products that can produce incredible outcomes.

This diversity has also resulted in TAQADAM having a wider, more diverse network. Founders from all over the world with wildly different backgrounds and skills tackle the biggest opportunities. This is also enabled by a much bigger cohort size in 2021.

The impact of startup events on your business — and your bottom line
Saudi Arabia as the most important market in the region, is welcoming to new solutions with a dynamic, digitally-savvy consumer base — true high-tech early adopters. Another exciting factor is Saudi’s incredibly nimble public sector that is moving rapidly with a serious commitment to innovation and changing the status quo. With the best startups and investors making it home, that gravitation pull will only grow stronger.

The TAQADAM Startup Accelerator Showcase provides a respite from that intensity — and a critical advantage for investors ready to dive into what’s new and next in this landscape. The focus on investor and founder presence allow for curated experience with investors from all over the region as well as a glance into the future of science and tech with KAUST as a backdrop.

With the boom in innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia — and accelerator demo days like TAQADAM. This event gives investors an open, uncluttered view of the future of innovation in KSA and beyond and offers direct access to the founders driving these seismic shifts.