In 2017, we covered the journey of KAUST startup Sadeem—a company that provides solar-powered smart city solutions for flood, traffic and environmental monitoring, saving money and lives in real-time—from its inception. Read about the company’s achievements—and expansion—as the startup’s story continues below.
An international spotlight focused on Sadeem and its four co-founders, KAUST Ph.D. graduates Mustafa Mousa, Ahmad Dehwah and Esteban Canepa and former KAUST Professor Christian Claudel, in late 2017. The company had just won the Best Global Startup award in Dubai, UAE, at the 37th Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX) Technology Week.
“This was bulletproof evidence that Sadeem held promise—and not just on a local basis,” Dehwah said.
“After GITEX, we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s make Sadeem something real in every single sense of the word,'” added Canepa.
Sadeem officially incorporated in Saudi Arabia in January 2018, and the startup began receiving interest from municipalities and other potential customers from around the world—but the hard work of building a company had only just begun.
“We started by focusing on getting the company into shape—having employees, a business model and finance and other systems needed for the operation of a company,” Dehwah explained. “Regardless of the size of a company, there are certain basics it has to have. We worked to make sure Sadeem’s ‘backbone’ was ready to accommodate potential expansion, attract talented new hires and create an international profile.”
In tandem with building the company and growing the team, the startup carried out four major projects in 2018, installing smart city sensors in Austin, Texas, U.S.; the UAE; Mexico City; and Madinah. The sensors in each location monitor conditions specifically requested by city planners and government entities. For Austin, this is ice and floods; for the UAE and Mexico City, floods and traffic; and for Madinah, traffic, floods and air quality.
A Digital City
Madinah is Sadeem’s most ambitious project to date. As the second holiest city in Islam after Makkah, it receives millions of pilgrims to its holy sites each year.
“The Madinah Development Authority engaged with us and saw the importance of smart technologies and digitizing a city,” explained Mousa. “The Madinah sensors collect information and send it to a database, and the database visualizes the information on a platform. The Development Authority can then monitor this information on a daily or hourly basis, analyzing it to provide better utilities and services to maintain the city and improve the quality of living for residents and visitors alike.”
During the project, Madinah’s Development Authority specifically requested Sadeem’s air quality and environmental monitoring sensor, called the Aura. It was in the pipeline but not quite ready, but the team delivered the Aura on a time-constrained basis, receiving excellent feedback from the Development Authority for the entire project.
“The value of the product is priceless,” noted Dehwah. “With a small investment, there is a huge return for potential outcomes for the city—for example, through air quality monitoring, you can reduce the load in local hospitals, which also reduces area traffic.”
The success of the project has brought in other leads from Madinah and also from other cities’ development authorities.
“We start a project in a city—like planting a seed—and expand it and customize it to what the city needs,” Mousa said. “A highlight has been building on the success of our Equa sensor for floods and traffic and then adding the Aura sensor to this solution. We aim to improve and enhance both while expanding our network.”
The team’s Equa sensor featured in their pilot projects in urban Mexico City and in the UAE.
“These two projects were also planting seeds to start engaging with governments,” explained Canepa. “In some areas, the technology is more easily adopted, depending on the city’s culture and other factors. But, through each project we gain experience, allowing for more ambitious projects with expanded solutions in the future.”
“We see ourselves as engaging in a continuous development process for state-of-the-art monitoring solutions, creating a ‘global solution’ for everybody,” Dehwah said. “Our customers co-evolve with us and with our solutions.”
In 2019, the Sadeem team embarked on a further unique project—installing seven sensors for floods, traffic and environmental monitoring in the Saudi city of Taif in less than one day. The system will be connected directly to the city’s Crisis and Disaster Management Center, a first for the company.
“Because our systems are plug-and-play, cutting-edge and convenient and we don’t use any of the city’s infrastructure with them, they can be installed quickly and easily,” explained Dehwah. “And, they can engage with any other solution with no extra cost.”
Growing the Sadeem ‘Family’
In 2018, the startup hit another milestone, hiring its first employee, Ahmed Al-Hadi, who had just completed his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals. The company soon expanded to 10 full-time employees from six different countries—including 40 percent female employees.
“We’ve invested a lot in creating a team environment, and a core part of our identity is our international team,” Canepa said. “Our multiculturalism allows us to enter markets more easily—we speak different languages and understand the behaviors and cultures in different places.”
“One of our greatest successes so far is our team,” continued Dehwah. “They’ve been pushing our technologies hard to reach the highest levels.”
Sadeem’s employees regularly go beyond their job descriptions, taking part in all aspects of the company, from cleaning the lab to assembling sensor nodes to meeting a potential investor or client.
“We want a team that can be as good as—or even better—than we are,” said Mousa. “We want people who can be creators and innovators and not just do what they’re told. It’s been challenging for us to find these people because they’ve had to begin the company from scratch—all our new departments have started with them.”
“Our employees have the chance to come and explore with us and unlock their potential,” Dehwah said. “They can come to design a solution and build things and see them with their eyes. In a successful startup, what you learn in one year may be equivalent to what you learn in two to three years in larger companies, as you’re involved in the company’s full scope.” “What you do in Sadeem matters and is so impactful,” added Canepa. “Your talent is being put into building technologies to make cities more resilient and help face the planet’s challenges in the coming decades.”
Opportunities for Young Entrepreneurs
Startups like Sadeem often function as a starting block for young programmers and engineers. In addition to the expertise of the founding team, Sadeem continues to search for the best and the brightest in the Kingdom to work for the company.
Somayah Shafaamri, software architect at Sadeem, always wanted to work in a startup. Working for the company is her first job after graduating from Effat University in 2017 with a degree in electrical and computer engineering.
“It’s a great experience,” she said. “You discover yourself and learn which path you’d like to take in the future. You make a lot of decisions independently and you learn. I’ve already helped in releasing a new version of the Equa sensor, and I designed some of its new features—this was a wonderful moment for me.”
“In a startup, as the startup grows, you also grow,” added Lubna Al Hajsalem, Sadeem’s business analyst. Al Hajsalem received her degree in banking and finance from Dar Al-Hekma University in 2018. “It’s easier here to move ahead in your career compared to in a larger organization, and you also know you’re helping to save lives and the environment.”
“We are all making Sadeem grow into a bigger and better company, and this makes us better employees,” original hire Ahmed Al-Hadi said.
Alyaa Al Jabri, software developer at Sadeem, who graduated from Effat University with a degree in computer science in 2017, noted the diversity of nationalities at the startup appeals to her.
“You learn a lot by dealing with different nationalities,” she said. “We have great respect for each other—and we’ve all improved our communication skills.”
Marlon Diaz, Sadeem’s hardware specialist and a KAUST master’s degree graduate in mechanical engineering (’12), added, “The close environment of Sadeem is nice—it’s really a small family. When you start something new, you really feel the impact of what you’re doing, and that also makes a positive impact on the company and your co-workers.”
“It can be challenging at a startup due to the level of responsibility each person has,” Al-Hadi said. “When there’s an issue, you have to fix it yourself, but that challenge is a good experience.”
Diaz was part of Sadeem’s project deployment in Madinah, and noted, “It was amazing to be part of the milestone of building a project in Madinah—a really important city—and knowing Sadeem is part of that—in terms of the Kingdom and for the Muslim community. Together, we’re making Sadeem better and more impactful for the Kingdom and for Vision 2030 as well.”
New Solutions for a Bright Future
As the Sadeem team members look to the future for their sensors and projects, they continue to focus on the unique nature of each city in which they work.
“Cities are like living organisms, and each one has different problems,” stated Canepa. “I believe as we move forward, we will start building a portfolio of solutions. These have to be novel in different ways with the same level of flexibility and non-invasiveness for a city. We aim to carry out commercial projects with cities while also building products for them.”
“We’ve taken a research project from the labs of KAUST and built it into a Saudi startup,” Mousa added. “From this project, we can now deliver services to government entities that solve key urban planning challenges. We want to keep the Sadeem family growing and spread the company’s voice—not only locally or in the Middle East but globally.”