Building Bridges—What Can Oman Learn From The U.K. Startup Ecosystem?
It wasn’t too long ago that ambitious British tech startups - along with the government agencies charged with nurturing domestic innovation - would look to the Bay Area for inspiration and advice on how to create and develop a growth-friendly ecosystem. Thus, businesses from the U.K. would take part in trade missions, not simply to meet customers and suppliers but also to listen and learn from the experience of California’s tech entrepreneurs and VCs.
Times have changed a little. The domestic startup ecosystem is more mature and while exploratory missions to Silicon Valley still take place, it may be that the U.K. experience also has something to teach tech innovators from elsewhere in the world - particularly those regions where entrepreneurship is less well embedded.
Witness, a recent announcement from Plexal, an innovation center located in East London at the site of the Olympic Park. Earlier this month, Plexalannounced it had launched a Rapid Innovation Accelerator initiative in partnership with AL JABR, Oman’s innovation development company.
The purpose of the (by necessity) virtual accelerator is to help entrepreneurs working in Oman develop and ultimately scale up their solutions, with a particular emphasis on how to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.
Questions Of Geography
But what does a U.K.-based innovation center have to offer to entrepreneurs working in a very different cultural, political, and economic environment? I spoke to Plexal’s managing director, Andrew Roughan, to find out.
As Roughan explains, Plexal, although created by property developer Delancey, was very much a product of the U.K. government’s plans to ensure that the 2012 Olympics left an economic and social legacy in East London.
“We are closely aligned with the government,” says Roughan. “One by-product of that is that we have been on the trail of inbound trade missions.” One of those missions was from Oman. For Plexal it was an opportunity to demonstrate what the center had achieved while also explaining the methodology used to nurture innovation. As a result, a working relationship developed.
A Bigger Picture
Fast forward to the present day and Oman -like every country - is wrestling with the Covid-19 pandemic. Behind that, there is a bigger picture. As a nation, it is looking ahead to a future when demand for oil will fall as the world transitions to net-zero carbon. Thus, developing an innovation-led entrepreneurial economy is seen as essential.
Against this backdrop, Plexal is providing a program designed to speed the development of businesses selected to take part. All well and good - but isn’t there a danger of mapping essentially British solutions onto situations specific to Oman?
As Roughan sees it, there is a mix of the local and universal. “Some issues relating to product development are generic and some are very specific,” he says.
In that respect, Roughan says partnership has been key. “We needed a very capable local partner,” he says. “And we found that AL JABR. In addition, the project is supported by Imperial College London's Centre for Financial Technology, SME development organisation, RIYADA, and Oman's Ministry of Transport. All this sits in the context of a relationship between the two governments, as demonstrated by the participation of the UK Oman Digital Hub - established to increase the digital skills base across Oman - and the British Embassy in Muscat.
Over the six week span of the program, participants will take part in workshops and have access to mentors. Many of the mentors come from the U.K. These include: Helen Panzarino, Rapid Innovation Program Director at the Centre for Financial Technology and David Ripert, CEO of Poplar Studios. However, there is also input from Omani partners. “We have a very diverse group of contributors,” says Roughan.
So what can the brits offer? Well, reflected in the program is the recognition that the U.K. innovation community has proved resilient in the face of a global public health emergency that has still got some way to run. In particular, technology has been crucial in helping businesses to continue to operate and find customers , even in the face of lockdowns. Equally technology has enabled businesses of all sizes to pivot into new markets - indeed, many tech companies have themselves pivoted. The lessons learned are embedded program.
A Two Way Street
Roughan says that in addition to providing support for Omani businesses, links established may also be good for British startups. He cites Cyberowl. A cohort member of the LORCA cybersecurity accelerator (based at Plexal. The company specialises in security solutions for the maritime, transport and utilities sectors, Roughan says in terms of making contacts, it has benefited from the Oman initiative.
And links could be important. For good or ill - and for this writer, it’s the latter - Britain has left the European Union with only a thin trade deal. Building links with the rest of the world outside the E.U. may well be the key to future prosperity. Like Oman, Britain is also in a period of transition.