The GCC’s evolution as a technology hub is exciting, and one we are proud to be part of. As we continue to meet members of our ecosystem from around the region, we are inspired by the potential of technology to help drive our economic block forward.

John Kilmartin, Executive Director of ICT, tells us more about Startup Bahrain, and shares his views on why Bahrain is an ideal home for any startup looking to launch and grow in MENA.

In a few lines, introduce Startup Bahrain to our readers…

Startup Bahrain is a community initiative made up of startups, corporates, investors, incubators, educational institutions and the Bahrain government to promote an entrepreneurial and startup culture in Bahrain. While focusing on tech startups, the initiative seeks to help and promote startups in every sector and at every stage.The main areas which startup Bahrain focuses on are: community, incubators, funding, education, corporates and policy & regulation. Considerable efforts are being made in each pillar to make Bahrain a great place for startup or scale companies to prosper not only regionally but also globally.

Recently we have seen an increase in the number of startup companies in Bahrain, and Internationally recognised incubators and accelerators have been established to cater to the growing number of local and international startups among the various sectors.

Why Bahrain? What makes it special?

Bahrain offers an excellent location from which to access opportunities in the region. It allows for 100% foreign ownership, has a highly educated and bilingual local workforce and the lowest operating costs in the region. And this isn’t just us saying that, KPMG have completed a comprehensive analysis of the various costs that a business would incur and they’ve found that Bahrain is 30-40% more cost effective than Dubai. This, along with our highly competitive taxation system means that Bahrain is an ideal location from which entrepreneurs can start their businesses and scale up to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the MENA Region.To give an example, PayTabs, one of our most successful startups launched operations in the Kingdom because they found it easier to set up and do business at a local, regional, and international level from their HQ in Bahrain. The company offers payment processing solutions and fraud prevention and is a great example of a startup that was able to serve a gap in the market and expand.

FinTech in particular is an area we are very keen to expand on. Bahrain has historically been a financial hub for the region, with the sector being a key part of our economy for over 40 years. Additionally, the Central Bank of Bahrain, the Kingdom’s sole regulator, has been especially innovative and open to the new technologies that are disrupting the sector. For example, they have recently launched a Regulatory Sandbox that will revolutionise the sector and will allow startups to test their products before becoming fully licensed to operate. There are also a number of initiatives still planned, including shariah-compliant FinTech, crowdfunding regulations, new bankruptcy laws, and several new funding schemes, and we’re very excited to see how these initiatives transform the sector.

More generally, on the ecosystem, Bahrain first deregulated the telecommunications sector in 2004, the first country in the region to do so. This has allowed for greater competition (we now have over 20 telecommunications companies operating in the sector) and reduced costs for business and individuals.

Tell us a little about the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Bahrain. Where is it now and what does the future of tech look like in Bahrain?

Bahrain is a hotbed for entrepreneurship and has long been regarded as one of the Gulf’s technological pioneers. Over the past two years, a number of incubators and accelerators have established a presence in Bahrain and many more entrepreneurship-focused events are being held year round. Most notably, C5 Accelerate launched operations in 2015 as the first cloud accelerator in partnership with AWS in the Middle East and Africa region, and just recently Brinc, in partnership with Batelco, announced plans to launch Brinc’s operations in the Middle East. Brinc will offer programs and services tailored for Emerging Technology founders in the region. Additionally, CH9 is a business accelerator that helps startups tap into new markets.Of course, we can’t talk about successful ecosystems without talking about one of the essential building blocks, the human capital, required to allow companies to truly thrive. In Bahrain, around 70% of the employees in the ICT sector are nationals. Likewise, a survey by Ernst & Young found that 70% of young Bahrainis were interested in the idea of starting their own business, twice as much as anywhere else in the Gulf. In fact, the Bahrain model is endorsed by UNIDO as the best SME model development in the world, with over 40 countries following it.

Another important component to building a supportive ecosystem is ensuring that mentorship and networking opportunities are available. We host a diverse range of exciting events and activities targeting startups and entrepreneurs, from small scale networking dinners to large conferences with leading international speakers. Just this year, the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Region celebrated their 10th anniversary with a hugely successful event, with participation rates increasing 39% from the previous year. The event allowed my team and I, along with young startups, to network with tech entrepreneurs from the region. We heard great speeches from successful Arab entrepreneurs, including the co-founder of Souq.com, Ronaldo Mouchawer, the founder of Quanergy, Louay El Dada and Omar Samra who moved from the corporate world to entrepreneurship.

The Bahrain Development Bank also hosts a series of events under the banner InvestED aimed at education. The event brings together regional and international investors and offers a platform for dialogue and learning. In addition to that, the annual MENA Angel Investor summit, which is hosted by Tenmou, also provides a platform to connect angel investors with high-potential, innovative entrepreneurs from the MENA region and raise awareness on angel investment.

Seedstars World has also now come to the Gulf, and will send the most promising startups to their bootcamp and their investor forums (as part of the Global Seedstars Summits).

All of this means that Bahrain is creating a hub of innovation for the future, the Kingdom is a small market, but that – along with the liberal business environment – helps make it an ideal location for innovation and testing. With such a high level of public and private sector support available for SMEs and start-ups – Tech companies and start-ups can use Bahrain as a way to develop and test new products and services before accessing the Saudi market and others in the region.

What makes Startup Bahrain a unique resource / partner to entrepreneurs?

We launched Startup Bahrain as a brand to foster a sense of a community and unison within the startup ecosystem. Startup Bahrain works closely with entities like the EDB, Tamkeen, Bahrain Development Bank (more specifically the Rowad program), and Tenmou.Under the banner of the initiative, we participate in a number of international events to introduce potential investors, startups, and students to the Kingdom and the truly amazing things that we are doing to further improve our ecosystem. Last year, we participated in Web Summit, Lisbon, which is the largest technology conference in the world, and we were truly impressed with what we saw. To give you an idea of the scale of the event, last year’s conference had over 50,000 attendees.

This year, we are participating in Futur En Seine, which is the largest digital festival in Europe. This is the only event that combines entrepreneurs, with well-known businesses, research labs, and public authorities. Two Bahraini startups; Akalati and Fish.Me, will also be attending the event because we don’t think it’s enough for investors and companies to hear from us, we’d like them to speak to people that have done it and who have interesting offerings and potential. This way, they are able to speak to their peers and learn firsthand about the ecosystem in Bahrain, and why it is such an interesting location for them.

Of course, we can’t be doing all these great things in Bahrain without updating startups and investors, and so we work very closely with Startup Magazine, which is the Kingdom’s leading digital publication for startups, entrepreneurs, the business community and the future of the startup ecosystem. This magazine covers all the events around startups and entrepreneurship, concentrating all news related to the startup ecosystem in Bahrain in one location.

What are you most proud of at Startup Bahrain?

It is incredibly difficult to choose one single aspect of Startup Bahrain that we are most proud of, although I would have to say in my personal view, the one aspect I am most proud of is that we have active entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are the core of the ecosystem and without them, the ecosystem will not exist. It is the pool of ideas and enthusiasm of startups like Getbaqala, where you can order your groceries online, or One GCC, which is a digital, cloud based, platform supporting the nationalization of GCC jobs or exa.io, which is a cloud based high-speed 3D rendering platform that will keep the ecosystem expanding further.These entrepreneurs are great advocates for their needs, and it is my pleasure to be working with them closely to identify what those needs are and to try to have the government be responsive to those needs. The Bahraini Government has heavily invested in supporting entrepreneurs through the implementation of new regulations to support an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

With the addition of accelerators and incubators emerging across the country like C5, CH9, Brinc, and Rukn, it is becoming increasingly more feasible for entrepreneurs to access their needs in developing their business ideas. Brinc is especially exciting as it offers programs and services for IoT hardware. This will provide opportunity for startups to access mentorship, as well as their expertise in manufacturing as well as gain exposure to international investors.

How can entrepreneurs apply or get involved?

To get involved, entrepreneurs or interested individuals can begin by visiting startupbahrain.com or sending an email to startup@bahrain.com. Another effective way get involved is to attend any of the numerous events that are held throughout the year and network with investors and entrepreneurs who are taking a part in this ecosystem. A calendar of events is posted on startupbahrain.com.

Note: All images courtesy of Startup Bahrain