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July 1, 2021updated 16 Jan 2023 2:46pm

How Microsoft is connecting leading corporates with the best in Middle Eastern B2B tech start-ups

What are larger enterprises looking for from their start-up partners and where do participating entrepreneurs stand the most to gain?

By Pete Barden

Microsoft’s GrowthX Accelerator, a virtual programme providing extensive access to Microsoft platforms and corporate partners, is a major boost for – and significant recognition of – the Middle East’s dynamic and fast-growing B2B tech ecosystem.

B2B tech start-ups

Those seeking to build bridges have traditionally seen more success bringing global start-ups to large enterprises in the region, but had fewer wins when it comes to equivalent corporate partnerships with local players. (Photo by Chaliya/Shutterstock)

The enthusiasm surrounding its announcement also reflects a growing appetite among large corporates in the region to find new and better avenues for tapping into local innovation and talent.

Such attitudes are captured in the rollcall of multinational enterprises engaging with GrowthX, a programme designed to bridge the gap between corporates and B2B start-ups. In conversation, regional business leaders admit that such levels of buy-in reflects a significant shift in attitude.

Those seeking to build bridges have traditionally seen more success bringing global start-ups to large enterprises in the region, but had fewer wins when it comes to equivalent corporate partnerships with local players. As the ecosystem grows, however, there is an increasing willingness on the part of corporate players to foster local entrepreneurship.

Local solutions

One multinational keen to leverage regional talent through GrowthX is Unilever. Asad Rehman, Unilever’s regional director of media and digital transformation, acknowledges local partnerships remain in their relative infancy, but he is clearly enthused by the programme’s transformative potential.

“The is an incredible amount of innovation going on across the region,” Rehman says. “Globally, Unilever has a great track-record of supporting and partnering with start-ups through a number of initiatives. Previously in the Middle East, however, we possibly thought the critical mass didn’t yet exist for us to launch such programmes here.

“Therefore, by joining with Microsoft, we’re taking something of a leap of faith, testing the ecosystem out and also prepping internally in order to embrace these opportunities. I’m personally incredibly excited; in terms of the next stage of development, the region feels ready to make a massive leap forward.”

Real-world problems

The talk of internal preparation is indicative of how participating corporates are keen to maximise the value of any partnership arising from the programme. Too often, accelerators are designed around a problem statement that is hypothetical in nature and not backed by live clients. GrowthX aims pair the right solution provider with the right industry partner, driving maximum value for both sides.

Executives and consultants engaged in the process stress the need for participating start-ups to be focused on “real-world problems”. It is also incumbent on participating corporates to identify the challenges they’re hoping to address – “If you look for a solution without a problem, you’ll have a lot more difficulty when it comes to implementation,” believes Rehman.

Etihad Aviation Group knows what it is looking for from GrowthX participants. “Sustainability, automation and solutions that can help enhance guest and employee experience,” says Kai Ling Ting, innovation lead for digital technology and innovation. “The right cultural fit happens when start-up partners understand our priorities and share our vision of what could be, working with us in a collaborative and agile manner towards achieving that goal.”

Unilever has identified two key areas of focus: telemedicine and hygiene; and the leveraging of first-party data. “We’re certainly not taking a shotgun approach, but there’s a lot of scope within those spaces,” says Rahman. “We’ve assembled a seven-to-eight-person team who are real experts in terms of the challenges we face in these areas. They will be investing considerable time and effort helping start-up partners finetune their product proposition, helping them get ready for the unique market requirements.”

Collaboration is king

Etihad, Unilever, Akbank, are among the first cohort of corporate engagement partners, with players such as KPMG and Accenture also bringing a selection of use cases from their extensive client lists – more partner announcements are expected imminently. They will help forge partnerships across the start-up-corporate divide, as well as serve in a knowledge partner and mentoring capacity.

The number one reason a start-up fails is that it’s not addressing a market need. The best way to know you’re solving a problem is working with tier one corporates and governments. The value of having a safe and supportive entry point into a large organisation is huge, but, as one participating director puts it, “nobody can make it alone; it’s about creating an entire ecosystem, collaborating together to solve the biggest pain points in the region. It’s hugely exciting.”

All are in agreement that greater collaboration and mutual understanding will drive progress.

“Speak to start-ups in the region, I hear a couple of common complaints,” another consultant based in the region explains. “The regulatory framework is not always supportive for those looking to experiment and adapt quickly; and there is a lack of access to mentorship and capital. Programmes such as GrowthX are directly addressing these issues and bringing maturity into the market incredibly quickly.”

The journey towards becoming a global tech and entrepreneurship hub is well underway, prompting greater urgency for start-ups that are not yet part of the ecosystem to engage. “There is so much potential in the region and [Etihad] looks forward to seeing the innovative solutions that will come forward to address the problems we have,” says Ting.

“If you’re considering this market, the time is now,” agrees Rehman. “We’re going to see an increase in government spending, an increase in economic activity. The socio-political environment is also changing. My message to any entrepreneur would be you need to embrace this opportunity.”

Apply now for Microsoft’s Growth x Accelerator – and register to attend Microsoft For Startups’ webinar series, Highway to 100 Unicorns

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