AstroLabs partners with Google to boost Dubai tech hub status

AstroLabs Dubai, the only Google-partnered tech hub in the MENA region, is on the lookout for the best innovative technology start-ups globally, seeking to create a community that can do "some amazing things" out of Dubai.  

AstroLabs Dubai, a partnership between AstroLabs and Google, is scouting for innovative technology entrepreneurs from around the world to help them launch their start-ups in Dubai.

“What we’ve seen at AstroLabs since launching is an incredible demand globally,” said Muhammed Mekki, Founding Partner at AstroLabs, which has 24 Google-partnered tech hubs globally and recently opened its Dubai space. “One of the interesting things is that Dubai is the regional hub for tech entrepreneurship, definitely. There’s no doubt about that. What we’re trying to do with AstroLabs is lift the profile of Dubai on a global level.”

AstroLabs Dubai is the only Google-partnered tech hub in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It features a Google-supported mobile device development lab, a training facility, and meeting rooms. Start-ups can use the Google Device Lab to test their new apps. 

To date, it has some 50 start-ups working and receiving training through the AstroLabs Academy programme. Thanks to a partnership between Dubai government-entity DMCC and AstroLabs Dubai, selected start-ups are granted a DMCC Free Zone licence for the first year, with no upfront costs. This saves them close to $10,000 in licence fees.

“So far we have 27 different countries represented,” said Mekki. “The founders at AstroLabs and our partnership with the DMCC free zone enable us to offer them a licence immediately, subsidised, and they can then sponsor their own residencies, get bank accounts and get rolling.”

One of the programmes in December at AstroLabs Dubai is the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange Program. Dubai joins three other cities where the programme is running – San Francisco, London, and Seoul. It seeks to bring 12 of the best travel tech start-ups from around the world to Astrolabs for a week of mentorship with companies such as Google, Jumeirah, Emirates and others.

“That’s one example of a global programme, but we want to use this platform to raise the profile of Dubai at that level,” said Mekki.

For tech giant Google, MENA is a “thriving” region where the company has boosted its presence over the past four years, said Ivan Jakovljevic, Head of Travel, Finance and Government, MENA, at Google. This is a reflection of the region’s role globally when it comes to digital penetration and the level of digital sophistication, he said.

“In the Middle East and North Africa, we already have more than 200 million people who are actually connected to the internet. These are young people, one of the youngest populations in the world, and the number of young people still being connected is growing at a very fast pace,” he explained.

The way people connect to the internet has also fascinated the company, with Jakovljevic describing it “almost like skipping a generation” as more people in the region connect to the web for the first time using their smartphones.

“And when it comes to smartphone penetration, some of the countries we have in the region -- such as UAE and Saudi -- are actually some of the countries with the highest penetrations in the world, trailing only the South Koreas and Japans of the world, but higher than the UK and US, bringing unique opportunities for the local start-up scene to build on this trend and expand it in the region and beyond,” Jakovljevic said.

'We’re looking to create this hub for the world for start-ups to access emerging markets. There are two billion people within a four-hour flight and with all the services and investment capital and everything available here it’s a no-brainer to be able to base a team here'

Muhammed Mekki, Founding Partner at AstroLabs

On its website, AstroLabs describes the tech hub as a community for international start-ups wanting to tap into the MENA markets and beyond; for local start-ups seeking to take their companies to the next level; and for entrepreneurs working on “cool concepts” and looking for like-minded people. Mekki said around 250 companies applied, and serious and scalable ones were selected because the aim was to “create a core community that can do some amazing things”.

“Dubai is sort of the hub for the region. We’re looking to create this hub for the world for start-ups to access emerging markets. There are two billion people within a four-hour flight and with all the services and investment capital and everything available here it’s a no-brainer to be able to base a team here,” said Mekki.

Since the soft launch in April and the inauguration of the facility a few weeks ago, applications have been flowing in from regional and global “interesting” technology companies, he added.

One such start-up is UK-based Deliveroo, an upscale online food delivery service, which recently raised $70 million in Series C funding and plans to use the funds to expand in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

“They chose to come out to start at AstroLabs for their MENA office, but that’s just one example. We’ll be seeing more and more start-ups of a global scale coming here to tackle MENA and beyond,” said Mekki.