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Equidistant from London and Seoul, Dubai's accessibility to so much of the business world has earned the emirate its own star on the map among the corporate elite. Now it's gaining the attention and investment of the global startup community too.
Just ask Iraqi-American Muhammed Mekki, who is co-founder, with fellow McKinsey & Co. consultant Louis Lebbos, of AstroLabs, the only Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The hub launched in October 2015 in the DMCC Free Zone, which since its establishment in 2002 as a strategic initiative of the Government of Dubai to create a commodities marketplace has blossomed to encompass 11,500 registered companies. Asked what the DMCC team has learned over 13 years, Krysta Fox, director of Free Zone, DMCC, says, "The most important lesson we have learned is to listen to our community and ensure that everything we do is with our community in mind ... There are a few things you need to get right to make it work — the right development and infrastructure, the right regulatory framework, and the right ways of connecting the community to you and each other."
Mekki knows how to connect: After graduating from Stanford University, he and Lebbos co-founded e-commerce firm Namshi in Dubai, scaling from two people to 200 and raising more than $20 million in venture capital. For their next act, they wanted to help grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region, starting with an education platform. Their work teaching people at about 150 tech firms in the region how to scale up technology coincided with DMCC's strategy to attract more tech companies, and with the global growth of the co-working concept. Google in particular is partnering with organizations in key cities to launch a network of tech hubs that now is nearing two dozen, with the December opening of another hub in Amsterdam.
"We discussed with them the potential of opening one here in Dubai," Mekki says. "It's the place where the most serious entrepreneurs are based and the venture capital is concentrated. And the Gulf market here is the most robust."
As that pitch proceeded, AstroLabs was deepening its relationship with DMCC in order to pitch its tent in the zone.
"What we've done with the DMCC is create a bespoke product for tech entrepreneurs to set up an entity with no up-front cost, and a subsidized license," he says. A monthly membership fee gives those chosen entrepreneurs the ability to open a bank account and establish residency. "Within a few weeks the entity is set up, and a few weeks after that, they have residency, without the typical delays found in the US or European markets," says Mekki.