Dubai’s TURN8 accelerator bets on tech startups

Yousif Almutawa talks to Vision about how TURN8 is helping global start-ups grow their ideas, and why innovation requires patience and a long-term investment strategy 

In a dusty, industrial part of Dubai, promising tech ideas gathered from around the world come to life at TURN8. From interactive billboards that could be accessible to the average Joe to DIY kits that help people make working robots from everyday junk, the start-up accelerator is constantly on the hunt for innovative ideas in emerging markets.

DP World, one of the world’s largest port operators, started TURN8 as part of its innovation drive. Now, the accelerator is getting ready for its sixth round. This means only 10 teams would make the cut for its accelerator programme and receive funding to help get their ideas off the ground.

The number of the emirate’s start-up hubs has been steadily increasing over the past few years, helped by Dubai government’s agenda to foster innovation and across various sectors from tech to fashion and design. In a recent HSBC survey, Dubai was ranked the second-best city in the world after Singapore for expatriates looking to start a business.

Yousif Almutawa, Chief Information officer at DP World, says the TURN8 fund is the only accelerator in the emirate offering funding and coaching to start-ups, as most other hubs provide subsidised licensing and working spaces. “All the other ones have more of a real estate model… if we’re talking about Silicon Valley type accelerator, this is probably the only one.”

The seed accelerator provides early stage investment and incubation in a fast paced environment. “We have four months where we take an early stage idea and team and develop them into a prototype and a business plan so they can present to investors and get investment to grow into the first stage,” he says.

With two rounds per year, TURN8 allocates an investment of $30,000 for each team out of 20 selected every year. It is now planning to bump that up to $35,000 to accommodate for the rising cost of living. But good ideas are hard to come by and competition among the teams is intense, as not all finalists make it to the so-called Investor Demo Day, when teams showcase their ideas to regional and international investors to shore up additional capital.

'This is not easy, you need patience and it’s a strategic thing where you don’t see results immediately. If you want a quick one, which a lot of people do, it won’t help with innovation'

Yousif Almutawa, Chief Information officer at DP World

Looking for teams with brilliant ideas, wanting to locate to Dubai and ready to give DP World a sizeable equity stake in return for pre-seed capital has it’s challenges, says Almutawa. But the company is in it for the long run, rather than making a quick buck.

“We don’t know what the future holds… We want to keep on our radar new innovations, technologies and start-ups coming up,” he says. “We get 10 to 15 per cent equity in the business, hoping that one day one of them may be the next Google or Facebook and we can have a good exit.”

However, “most of them fail and we have to accept that”, he adds. “This is not easy, you need patience and it’s a strategic thing where you don’t see results immediately. If you want a quick one, which a lot of people do, it won’t help with innovation.”

Among its start-ups is KinTrans, which designed Hands Can Talk, a device that improves communication between deaf people and others. The device translates sign language used by the deaf into voice and text so they can “explore their full potential in a hearing world and have a better job, better service at airports, restaurants, malls, and hospitals,” says Mohamed Elwazer, KinTrans Founder and CEO.

KinTrans’ customers would be public and private sector entities, making it free for the hearing-impaired.

“Our idea is the most intuitive experience, yet at zero dollars for deaf people. They don’t pay, simply because we are speaking and not paying any money to speak and they shouldn’t either,” he says. Elwazer will have a soft launch for the device in the UAE and the GCC in February and a hard launch in the US three months later.

So far, TURN8 had five rounds and invested in 51 companies. It scouts for ideas online, and visits different regions including the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asia and CIS countries. It also had start-ups from developed countries such as the US, Australia and the UK.