Earlier this month, local real estate, and retail conglomerate, Majid-Al-Futtaim commences the first phase of its Launchpad Accelerator Program. The initiative aims to boost and attract startups and SMEs in strategic sectors to support economic development. Communicate speaks with Joe Abi Akl, Chief Corporate Development Officer at Majid Al Futtaim Holding to further understand the program’s objectives.
To enhance Majid Al Futtaim’s role as a collaborative partner in supporting entrepreneurs and start-up businesses in the UAE and MENA region, the real estate and retail conglomerate announced, the “Launchpad,” an accelerator program that opens the floor to SMEs to strengthen their commercial viability by gaining access to business growth incentives, mentorship programs and assets that enable innovation.
The first phase of this program attracted around 200 SME entries from across the Middle East. 14 winners have been announced, from 23 shortlists across three categories – home-grown, health & beauty, and, prop-tech.
Communicate spoke to Joe Abi Akl, Chief Corporate Development Officer at Majid Al Futtaim Holding, who has been leading strategy and operations for this program. Abi Akl discusses the vision behind the initiative, and its effect on the region’s start-up and SME ecosystem.
The Launchpad provides SMEs across the MENA region with culturally appropriate, innovative, and sustainable solutions, thus opening doors to new capabilities in the form of construction, digital development, and consumer experiences.
With that stated, the question remains, “How does Majid Al Futtaim benefit from this?” Abi Akl explains, “The entrepreneurial ecosystem has always been a priority for us. Our malls have actively been working with home-grown and local suppliers. This has always been a part of our DNA; except this time, we’re doing it through this program.”
“In UAE and even the KSA, there is a lot of work being done by the public sector and governments to promote entrepreneurship, to support SMEs. The authorities are already doing everything to help them set up in the terms of legal logistics, financing, and more importantly, access to customers. What is remaining, in my opinion, is how a start-up based in the UAE can get easy access to the market in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Majid Al Futtaim operates across the region with 600 million customers. Since it's a very fragmented region, and we still don't have full flexibility on the mobility of people and goods, through this program we aim to leverage the start-up ecosystem while allowing them to launch in multiple locations in collaboration with us while also expanding our retail database at the same time,” he adds.
Abi Akl further elaborates on what the winners and the shortlisted SMEs in the first phase of the program are promised, “What these enterprises are going to get in return of placing their trust in us, is a lot more than an investment to scale up. We will support them across the value chain, which particularly will differ from one category to another. Then we're going to offer them access to our existing footprint – community spaces and malls. We’re also going to support them in better understanding their customers through effective consumer data tools. Finally, we allow them to market with us, integrate them into our loyalty program if they wish to do that” he says.
The Launchpad accelerator program is developed in partnership with AstroLabs, a technology ecosystem builder in the MENA region.
Roland Daher, CEO of AstroLabs commented on their active contribution to the program, "The Launchpad Program is a milestone in our journey of accelerating innovation for industry leaders in MENA and growth through strategic expansion into new markets, customer segments, and channels by plugging future-forward companies into Majid Al Futtaim’s value chain. Startups and SMEs have a lot to offer, and while eager to work with large players like Majid Al Futtaim, may not have access or are not fully equipped to operate at that level. On the other hand, large enterprise players understand the need for continuous innovation in staying ahead of the market curb, which makes building an open ecosystem of top-breed startups and SMEs crucial for their current and long-term growth strategies. A key factor to the success of this initiative was the involvement and commitment of Majid Al Futtaim's senior leadership and business unit heads, working closely with the AstroLabs team to identify market opportunities these emerging businesses will be solving for. We engaged our extensive local & global innovation network to source the top offerings in their respective verticals and drive potential synergies that will be at the forefront of Majid Al Futtaim’s long-term business and economic growth."
Majid Al Futtaim is focusing on delivering these diverse benefits to the shortlisted enterprises to strengthen their commercial viability across the region. A host of additional benefits provided by Microsoft, complementing Majid Al Futtaim’s range of services ensure SMEs are armed with best-in-class capabilities from both organizations.
“Within 80 markets, we're 45,000 employees of over 150 nationalities. We have the proper governance, setup, capabilities, and the right partners to pull off something like this. So, the whole idea of the Launchpad, started maybe a year and a half ago. It took us more time to conceptualize it, and gather the internal team for it,” Abi Akl explains.
Ramy Fares, Director of Retail, Travel & Transport for the Middle East and Africa at Microsoft was on the judging panel for the first phase of the program. He tells Communicate how working with start-ups sits at the core foundation of Microsoft. “Our vision is to become the enabler, to enable every organization and individual to achieve more. To live this vision and mission every day, we must work with SMEs continuously, which we do through multiple venues. One is through Microsoft for start-ups - our Microsoft Venture Fund allows us to invest intentionally in start-ups that have smart ideas around some of the emerging technologies solving fundamental problems. The other things that we do are bring start-ups and introduce them to our key enterprise customers, allowing them to accelerate our customers' innovation,” Fares says.
Launchpad is scheduled to take place biannually, with different themes every cycle. Abi Akl expects the number of entries to increase with every cycle. One challenge he believes the team will face in the next steps of this initiative is to resonate with these start-ups in a systematic way without overwhelming them. “SMEs have limited resources and are still in the process of sorting their operations out. Dealing with an organization as vast as ours can be overwhelming. Which is why we’re dedicating a team to support and follow-up with them,” explains Abi Akl.
The growth of SMEs is integral to creating job opportunities in any part of the world. While the MENA region has proved itself proactive in building its start-up ecosystem, there is still a huge gap between the existing corporations and these small and medium enterprises and businesses. With this accelerator program, Majid Al Futtaim is taking the first step forward in bridging that gap.