Meet the man who is leading the charge for the UAE’s tech revolution.
“The days of the full weekend are over. I really believe it’s over,” Dr Saleh Al Hashemi tells me over a cup of tea in a local café.
He’s talking the talk, too. We meet on a sweltering Saturday afternoon after he manages to find time to squeeze me into his busy schedule of meetings and international travel.
In hindsight, the amiable executive’s hectic routine personifies the frenetic pace of the tech business that he’s a huge part of.
As the CEO of Algorythma, a firm that develops technology products, and managing director of Krypto Labs, the co-working space and business incubator that funds early start-ups, Dr Saleh is constantly exposed to what’s happening in the ever-evolving industry.
Since launching in 2017, Krypto Labs, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Financial Group, has been on the lookout for the next start-up superstars.
Its competitions have attracted bright minds from around the globe, propelling Abu Dhabi into the radar of tech industry players ranging from inventors to investors.
The firm’s recently concluded Drone Innovation Start-Up Contest received 600 participants from 61 countries, with Switzerland-based start-up Voliro emerging as the overall winner to take home the $500,000 (AED 1.8 million) funding along with assistance and mentorship.
But Dr Saleh emphasises that there’s more to Krypto Labs than just providing cash incentives to budding start-ups.
To begin with, ideas have to go through a rigorous screening process to determine if they fit the criteria and overall vision of the company.
“The idea must be designed to fix a big industry problem. We’d like to support a concept that can affect billions of lives whether it’s in the field of education, science, transportation or health care,” stresses Dr Saleh.
“We want to foster innovation within the ecosystem particularly here in the country, but also in the region. That’s why we have experts from different industries to help us look into and study ideas. The idea must provide value first and foremost.
“Part of our job is to arrange for investors and founders to meet up for future collaboration. We look for potential deals, or we invest in these ideas ourselves to help further develop and make them accessible.”
Built for the industry
Looking back, Dr Saleh isn’t surprised that he’s found himself immersed in the competitive tech business.
A self-confessed bookworm, he describes his younger self as an “explorer”, always yearning to learn something new to feed his unflinching curiosity.
That inquisitiveness stayed with him until adulthood. After earning his chemical engineering degree in the US he found himself back in Abu Dhabi to work for state-owned oil company Adnoc.
“They wanted me to work in the office but I said no,” he recalls with a laugh.
“I wanted to work in the field because I knew that I would learn more by being offshore instead of sitting in the office for hours. In the end, they agreed to throw me hundreds of kilometres away to work on machines and equipment.”
It was a tough job, but Dr Saleh learned a lot by doing manual labour. More than just the technical knowledge, he savoured the opportunity to mingle with people – engineers, machine operators and field supervisors – from various cultural and educational backgrounds.
The experience broadened his skills and appreciation of people, something that would serve him well when he started to dabble in other fields such as research, education and management.
“I didn’t know it at that time but my stint in the field was good training for me. It certainly prepared me to become better in dealing with people from different levels,” he recalls.
“That knowledge comes in handy today as I constantly deal with entrepreneurs, founders, stakeholders, educators and people with various roles in our organisation.”
Today, Dr Saleh is motivated to establish the UAE’s presence at the forefront of the technological revolution that is happening around us.
“We believe that innovation can lead to fruitful gains, maybe not in the short term but in the long term,” he points out.
Krypto Labs aims to support 100 early-stage start-ups over the next three years as part of its goal to help small tech entrepreneurs with promising ideas get their feet off the ground.
“Nowadays, if you don’t innovate you will be out of business soon. So rather than wait to be disrupted, why not be the disruptor?
“Big companies have a difficulty disrupting because they have a traditional core business that is making money for them. Our advantage is that we start from technology only, so we’re flexible to adapt because we’re not following a traditional model. We’re creating our own path instead of copying the norm.”
While the company has invested in tech firms abroad, the main goal is to support and develop homegrown ideas, and market it to benefit users on a global scale.
“We have very good ideas here,” Dr Saleh affirms.
“We have all these universities that have good research centres and human capital. The GCC in general has a good ecosystem for ideas so that’s a positive area for us.”
It’s also a plus that the government embraces new technologies, seeing it as a valuable tool to achieve its future goals.
The lack of red tape also means faster development and implementation of modern ideas.
“The concept of e-services is now being implemented in government agencies. It’s good that our government is progressive and thinking ahead. This is the way everything will be going anyway, so better for us to have a head start so that we’ll be better equipped to deal with the changes as dictated by technology,” he emphasises.
With all that being said, Dr Saleh believes that the UAE is poised for bigger things technology-wise in the near future.
“Sure, it’s challenging to apply certain technologies here because we still have our limitations. But we have great minds,” he says.
Despite the frantic pace that typifies the tech race, an element of calculated restraint is also needed to ensure that things are moving in the right direction. Because at the end of the day, industry players must still ask themselves if what they’re giving, or intend to offer, provides value to the people who will be using the technology.
“With technology you have to be patient because nothing comes out in a day. But I’m excited with the possibilities and we’re getting there gradually. I’m proud to say that some of the companies that we helped launch are already in the growth phase,” beams Dr Saleh.
“People are now not just looking at Silicon Valley as the hub for great tech ideas. The industries in other countries are catching up as well.
“Do I see the UAE playing a more important role in the development of pioneering ideas Certainly. We will see magic in the next three to five years.”
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez