#STEP2016: Middle East Tech Startups Get Interactive

It’s a different vibe from the minute you’re at the registration booth. Or more appropriately, a storage container painted sky blue and tangerine orange.

When entering the Dubai-hosted STEP conference, it feels more outdoor music festival-y than a gathering of 4,000-plus venture capitalists, digital whizzes and startups. It’s the largest of its kind in the MENA region.

Here, attendees are armed with wristbands that replace business cards and cash when scanned. Instead of grabbing a program, there’s a STEP conference phone app. It sends you new feed updates like ‘grab a 10 minute massage at ___ booth’ and ‘food trucks are open!’

“Ten years ago, it wasn’t cool to be an entrepreneur,” one speaker reminisces during a panel on fundraising.

From the rate of manbuns and people networking on beanbag chairs, it’s clear tides have turned.

“Prior to launching STEP, we felt that the existing conferences in the Middle East were either too niche in its topics or too traditional in the way they were run,” STEP co-founder Ray Dargham said in this interview. Fast forward to five years later. The best of investors and entrepreneurs in the area flock here to connect in a jam-packed two days.

Buzzing Around

“It takes 13 milliseconds for the brain to process a message,” Jochen Bischoff from Facebook emphasizes in his presentation (yes, Google and Facebook are super engaged here). The STEP schedule seems to be inspired by that nugget. Two stages are simultaneously filled with panels and presentations, each 30ish minutes max. Meanwhile, workshops with titles like ‘design for non designers,’ pitch competitions and mentoring have their own corners of the conference.

While the appeal is pointed to young Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, this kind of event is not meant for just a millennial crowd. It’s for anyone who understands that tech startups like Uber got its 40-billion dollar price tag in part from digital buzz. It’s for people embracing that the ways to sell tech are changing, and user experience needs more overhead.

Saudi Presence

Saudi Arabia is consuming the digital landscape. It has the highest YouTube consumption in the world and is tweeting more than any country in the Arab region. Makes sense that this interactive experience is gaining momentum.

Enter KAUST, with a bunch of graduates from their startup accelerator programs and a fund for high-tech innovations. One participant, Polyinspect, nabbed the highly competitive Seed Stage Pitch award. “We are very excited to see the first fruits of our hard work,” said Ozan Sonmez from the Entrepreneurship Center, who’s been mentoring them through the process. “We guide them to achieve more in a shorter time frame…we’ll soon see more startups getting recognition in the Kingdom and region.”

“There is for sure a real passion for innovation in the region and its time to unlock it,”  said Amal Dokhan from the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center, who was on deck to teach a design thinking workshop to a packed room. “Design thinking as a process enables creativity in products and services and offers tools like mapping the journey of customers to identify gaps and opportunities.”

Looking into the sea of young-forward thinkers in the mixture of pink stage lighting and warm glow of smartphones, there’s an undercurrent you can almost feel. A global movement a hungry crowd is ready and anxious to be a part of.

“I want to create the largest showcase of startups in the presence of investment funds. We aim to see loads of investment deals coming out of this event,” says Dargham.

For 48 hours, the place is saturated with an energy of new connections and motivational ‘tread fearlessly’ speeches integral to budding entrepreneurs’ ears.

All of this in the midst of foosball tables and free ice cream trucks.