Aiming high: the rise of start ups

With Abu Dhabi named one of the world's top 20 cities for opportunities in a recent poll, Vision explores the growing success of SMEs on an international scale

What do General Motors, Disney and MTV have in common, besides being wildly successful American companies? The answer is they were all founded during recessions, which should an encouraging thought for those taking part in this year’s Young Entrepreneur Competition, an annual event run by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai.

University, college and high school students from across the Emirates recently competed to come up with the best business ideas in categories like fashion, healthcare and the environment. Although the current financial climate isn’t ideal for ‘high-income potential’ businesses – pharmaceutical giants, for instance – there was a spike in low- and middle-income potential start-ups following the 2008 financial crash, and Emiratis are well-positioned to start dreaming big.

Abu Dhabi recently made it into a top-20 list of the world’s best cities for business opportunities, culture and innovation in a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Stockholm, home of Spotify, was fourth, despite its tiny population, and New York took the top spot.

The rate at which new start-ups were popping up in Abu Dhabi doubled in 2009 when financial requirements to register a new business were scrapped, and a “creative lab” was set up the same year by the city’s media zone, twofour54, to fund and mentor entrepreneurs. In 2012, twofour54 teamed up with Ubisoft, the first major games company to make Abu Dhabi its regional headquarters, and set up a gaming academy to train future employees.

To continue building its reputation, Abu Dhabi should look to Austin, Texas, which is starting to rival Silicon Valley as a magnet for young businesses. Currently home to Facebook and Google, Austin was ranked the world’s best city for start-ups this year by Under30CEO (a platform for young entrepreneurs), due to a combination of tax incentives, a top local university, a thriving arts scene, low living costs and an enormous annual networking event for the creative and tech industries (SXSW).

London’s “Silicon Roundabout” – now rebranded ”Tech City” – also demonstrates the power of networking, with start-ups clustering in one small area and multiplying fast. The number of tech companies in east London has exploded from 200 to 1,300 since 2010, and Google has announced plans to build US$1.6bn headquarters in the same area.

At a recent talk focused on London’s economy, urban theorist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, pointed out that financial crises often coincide with great innovations. “We're living in an age of constant, chronic, creative destruction,” he said. “And we have to get used to it.”