How Qatar Is Building Its Own Version of Silicon Valley

A new generation of tech entrepreneurs are turning their ideas into reality at Qatar Science & Technology Park.

Silicon Valley has become a global byword for high technology and the archetype of a tech innovation ecosystem that supplies everything a startup can’t succeed without.

For Qatar, Silicon Valley is a source of inspiration as it prepares for a post-petrochemical economy – but not a cause for imitation. Instead, it is blending the essence of the U.S. West Coast’s tech landscape with its own unique approach, characteristics, and advantages. Leading the way in developing this Middle East ecosystem for technology and innovation is Qatar Foundation (QF), a nonprofit organization supporting Qatar’s development through its education, research, and community development initiatives.

Take Stellic, a “pathfinder” platform that allows students to identify the right courses and make the right choices to graduate on time. The company, which started as a student project at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus, is now being used at two US universities, with three more soon to follow. But Stellic might never have been more than an idea without access to the expert mentorship, incubation, funding, and environment of diverse backgrounds and ideas that Qatar’s innovation ecosystem offers.

“We don’t look to match Silicon Valley,” says Hayfa Al-Abdulla, Innovation Director at Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), Qatar’s leading tech innovation and entrepreneurship hub, and part of QF. “But in our way, on our scale, we can achieve something similar.”

QSTP, a “free zone,” houses international companies such as Microsoft, Shell, ExxonMobil, Cisco, Siemens, and local tech-focused firms. They are advancing their technologies alongside startups that, through QF, can access the funding, facilities, and networks on which nascent “techpreneurs” depend.

This community of innovators was built in phases, Al-Abdulla says: “We invited major companies to develop their technology in Qatar. Then we introduced funding and capacity-building streams, and followed that with innovation-focused programs – like QSTP’s Accelerator and Incubator – and innovation mindset education.”

QSTP’s tech-driven environment is combined with nine world-class universities and three established research institutes, all within the same location – QF’s unique Education City. This ecosystem has opened a pipeline of Qatar-based talent, where students can become researchers and tech entrepreneurs, and have the support to do it.

Other organizations are becoming part of this ecosystem. The European Innovation Academy – one of the world’s top entrepreneurship education providers – partners with QSTP to run the Arab Innovation Academy, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s largest entrepreneurship “boot camp,” where young innovators develop a startup from scratch in just two weeks. QF’s five-year deal with venture seed capital fund 500 Startups is providing funding, training, and mentorship to MENA startups, and has brought the fund’s 500 Distro Dojo accelerator program to the region.

All this makes QF an intersection of ingenuity and opportunity. “Our ecosystem isn’t about infrastructure,” says Al-Abdulla. “It’s about ideas and enabling them to develop naturally to the point where they become commercialized products. We don’t force innovation to happen. But we make sure it can.”

QSTP is home to top tech companies from around the world, and a stream of new startup.

Access to Expertise
Stellic illustrates how QF’s tech innovation environment can pave the way for startups to make their mark internationally.

Devised by a group of students from CMU-Q – one of QF’s international partner universities – and incubated at QSTP, Stellic is now based in the San Francisco area, with its platform being used in Mexico as well as the US and Qatar.

The support of CMU-Q professors was crucial in developing Stellic, according to its CEO Sabih Bin Wasi. “At QF, you have top-quality education in universities that are the right size and have some of the world’s best professors,” he says.

“They’re creative thinkers whom you can approach about your ideas even if they don’t teach you, and who want to help you improve those ideas.“Without this mentorship, and without incubating Stellic at QSTP – removing so many logistical obstacles startups face, putting us in a position to pitch to clients – we couldn’t have reached where we’ve reached.”

The diversity within QF – home to students and staff of more than 100 nationalities from different universities, and multicultural academic and RDI expertise – helps drive innovation through the flow and exchange of ideas, says Bin Wasi, who also believes Qatar’s location gives it great access to new sales markets and tech talent. “The more Qatar capitalizes on these advantages, the more tech entrepreneurs and success stories it will produce.”

Entrepreneurship Impact
Another QF-born tech venture, Meddy, started by trying to find an answer to a question Qatar’s residents used to ask every day: How do I find the right doctor?

While studying at CMU-Q, co-founders Haris Aghadi and Abdulla Al Khenji developed a one-stop online platform for users to search for doctors, submit and view recommendations, and book appointments.

Now, each month, up to 100,000 people use Meddy, which is also QSTP-based and whose network now holds information on more than 4,000 doctors in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Its latest move is into clinic management software and using tech to improve the patient experience.

“We aim to keep capturing a bigger part of the health care value chain, streamlining everything through technology,” says Aghadi, who sees an entrepreneurial sea change emerging within Qatar.

Meddy – a doctor-finding platform created by QF students – is among Qatar’s latest startup successes.

“Qatar is doing a great job in setting up incubators, free zones, and co-working spaces, making it easier to get startups off the ground,” he said. “This is encouraging a lot of graduates and young people to consider entrepreneurship or joining early-stage startups as a serious career option, instead of going into oil and gas, or banking. This is having an impact on the country’s job creation and economic diversification.”

For Qatar, that matters more than any Silicon Valley comparison. But as Al-Abdulla says: “What we want to achieve, regionally, is similar to what Silicon Valley achieved, which is why we have an innovation community where every tech company and tech entrepreneur can find their place.

“We can create and leverage our IP, generating new products, impact, and economic value, and people from around the world want to work with us. Our goal is to be a regional driving force for innovation – an innovation destination. And we’re open to everyone to help us realize that goal.”

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