Dubai Future Accelerators: the emirate is a “petri dish of innovation”

The Head of Programme at Dubai Future Accelerators tells Katie Boucher that the second cycle of the programme includes a requirement for AI, blockchain and telemedicine

Like a juggernaut train, the unstoppable drive to innovate pushes us ever further into an unfamiliar future. In Dubai, a city known for its eagle-eyed focus on the horizon, this is taking place even more rapidly thanks to initiatives such as the Dubai Future Accelerators Programme (DFA), a government-backed venture that seeks to partner innovative companies and entrepreneurs directly with government entities in order to spearhead new technologies.

Last year’s programme saw advances made in the fields of transport and medicine, thanks to successful partnerships with Hyperloop One (the supersonic transport solution pioneered by Elon Musk) and Honeywell. With five new government entities on board, bringing the total to 12, Dubai looks set to become a “petri dish of innovation”, according to Paul Smith, the programme’s head.

“We’re very much about offering the resource, the expertise and infrastructure of government,” says Smith, also co-founder of Ignite, one of Europe’s leading accelerator programmes. “We invite companies who have a vision of the future like the leadership of Dubai has and an idea of how the world will look in 15 or 20 years.”

Of the 30 companies invited to participate in the programme’s first nine-week cycle, which finished in November last year, 19 received commercial contracts or MoUs (memorandums of understanding) from government entities, says Smith, “which was more than we hoped for.”

This year, with participants including Du and Etisalat, the UAE’s two biggest telecoms providers, as well as the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (Immigration), new challenges for the second cycle have been set, including a requirement for AI, blockchain (the technology behind Bitcoin), and telemedicine.

Dubai is at the crossroads of the world for travelers, and it makes sense for businesses to consider it

Paul Smith, Managing Director, Dubai Future Accelerators

The DFA programme offers successful applicants office space to build, test and deploy their prototypes over a nine-week period. It is not, says Smith, a procurement exercise, nor does it take equity in the company.

“It’s very much about seeing what happens when you bring new technology and brilliant teams and give them access to the resource of government and seeing if we can create something greater than the sum of its parts.”

Having direct access to government – and the vast mine of data and expertise it holds – is a stand-out feature of the programme. “Government are sat on not just personal data but data around how cities are built,” says Smith, “how they operate, how industry works at scale across lots of cities in the region and all of this knowledge is siloed; it just doesn’t get exposed very often.”

It is the facilitation of this private-public partnership that could enable Dubai to become a pioneer in the realm of frontier technology. “Most governments in the world can’t move as fast as Dubai and that is the big USP of this programme," says Smith, "to do these deals in six or nine or 12 weeks and establish a framework for working together. So the thing that is accelerated is the relationship. It doesn’t have to happen in months and years, which is commonplace in the rest of the world.”

Far from retaining whatever new technology results from the programme in Dubai, the aim is to make it available worldwide. “There are very few programmes in the world – you can count them on one hand – that open their doors to new tech start-ups like this – and where the specific outcome is to look at the bigger picture,” says Smith.

So is Dubai to become the next Silicon Valley?

“The roots of Silicon Valley go back to the 1920s and 30s so it’s difficult to imitate that kind of legacy,” says Smith. “Dubai is trying to do something unique. It’s at the crossroads of the world for travelers and therefore it makes sense for businesses to consider it.”