Time and again, research has shown that eight out of 10 start-ups fail within the first 18 months of existence. But, what if there was an entrepreneurial ecosystem that could help start-ups at every step of the way – giving them training, funding, mentorship and guidance as a one-stop-shop solution? The Abu Dhabi-based accelerator Flat6Labs offers all this and more. We spoke to Nina Curley, Managing Director, Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi, to get a detailed overview…

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During their launch event in Abu Dhabi

Tell us about Flat6Labs. How did it come about and what was the inspiration behind this initiative?

The idea for Flat6Labs initially arose at Sawari Ventures in 2010 out of a desire to provide a full stack solution for technology entrepreneurs in the Arab region. We wanted to support them with acceleration programmes at the seed level, to help them develop viable, scalable ideas, and to provide continued backing at the follow-on and Series A rounds with angel and VC investment.

Do you tend to lean towards start-ups of a particular industry?

We focus on start-ups that have a software or digital product. The hardware concepts we’ve looked at are also focusing on software as a primary differentiating factor in their businesses. Within digital, we’re relatively agnostic.

You’ve recently announced your launch within the UAE. What attracted you to this market? How do you perceive it being different from your previous operations across the Middle East?

We decided to launch in Abu Dhabi for two primary reasons. Firstly, we knew that our partnership with twofour54 would enable us to offer our start-ups a unique value proposition. For instance, we can provide added support through twofour54’s intaj and Creative Lab programmes, with film and media production, hiring creatives and freelancers, and mentorship from media experts. Additionally, the infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, the smartphone penetration rates in the UAE and the proximity of industries that have a vested interest in supporting entrepreneurship, all make Abu Dhabi an excellent market for launching digital products.

We also have a deep commitment in Abu Dhabi to supporting local entrepreneurship. To that end, we’re partnering with universities to deliver training in lean methodology, and to offer coaching to help students develop business concepts, while also working in partnership with others, including NYU Abu Dhabi and VentureSouq, to provide angel training to potential angel investors in the UAE.

What is the criteria based on which a start-up can join Flat6Labs?

Start-ups can apply to Flat6Labs if they have a digital product, which could range from software as a service (SaaS) to a mobile application, e-commerce platform, analytics product, education technology, gaming product, digital content site, or media and film product, and more. Generally, we take early stage start-ups, but we’re open to later stages if the start-ups fit our seed funding model.

Can you share the different modules that a start-up goes through as part of the Flat6Labs programme? What are the major benefits?

Once a start-up joins Flat6Labs, its team participates in an initial bootcamp, which offers training in the crucial skill sets and practical approaches that start-ups need to build a scalable business. This includes key modules such as customer discovery, marketing, team building, and leadership and culture. We begin by assessing metrics that we can track throughout the cycle, taking a deep look into each company’s value proposition, revenue model, proposed sales channels, and their go-to market strategy. We’re hands on and work with world-class experts; this cycle we’ll be partnering with T2VC – a Silicon Valley innovation design firm, and Exoventure – a Virginia-based venture capital management firm with extensive expertise working with emerging technology entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

After the bootcamp, we take the start-ups through three modules:

The three step process!
First month: Product development
Second month: Acquiring customers and gaining traction in the market
Third month: Growth and early traction

At the beginning of the cycle, start-ups are also matched with mentors, after a Mentor Pitch day, so that they can work with coaches and mentors throughout the cycle. By the time start-ups debut their ideas to investors at a final Demo Day, they will have benefitted from the training, the mentorship, the seed funding, the free, sunny office space, and a multitude of perks and services that we offer through our network.

What sets us apart from other standard accelerators, however, is the quality of our community. I know many of our community members personally, and can attest to their incredibly valuable expertise as well as their deep commitment to the start-up process.

How do you think you differentiate from other similar accelerator programmes in the region?

Flat6Labs is the only regional programme with established regular programmes in the three leading digital markets in the Arab world, and we’re also the only regional member of the Global Accelerator Network, which was established by TechStars – one of the leading accelerator programmes in the world, originally based in Boulder, Colorado. Aside from those factors, I’d say that locally we differentiate ourselves by the kind of culture we espouse: we value founder-friendly terms, a culture based on transparency, a hands-on, experiential approach to training, and a culture that truly supports mentors, with unique content streams and exclusive gatherings. We’re delighted to have as many amazing mentors as we have, and we work to guarantee that they are well-matched with start-ups based upon experienced synergies to product the maximum value on both sides. While we do our best to allow relationships to build organically, we also encourage companies to offer mentors equity as the relationship progresses.

Tell us about your partnership with twofour54.

Thanks to our partnership with twofour54, we are able to offer our start-ups support with company registration and visa acquisition – this is in addition to the seed funding that we offer. Essentially, this makes Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi one of the simplest routes to getting set up in the UAE. We also offer an incredible, well-lit, spacious office space, which twofour54 has built – enhanced with breakout meeting rooms, private phone rooms and training spaces.

A cornerstone of our partnership, as I mentioned earlier, is our agreement with Creative Lab and intaj to support start-ups during the media production process. Finally, twofour54 also offers start-ups discounted office space
after graduation.

What kind of funding support do you offer?

We provide $30,000 to $50,000 in seed funding in exchange for a seven to 15 per cent equity stake, and we match angels in the follow-on round, with up to $100,000 per company.

When is your first cycle in UAE going to kick-start? What is in store for 2015?

Our first cycle will kick-off in early March. We’ll host our Demo Day during the first week of June, giving the community a chance to connect with our start-ups. We have a lot in store! Following the launch of the cycle, we’ll also be hosting the GCC finals for Venture Scout in March, co-organising an angel training event in April, and we have a few more events up our sleeve that I can share with you once they’re finalised.

How many start-ups do you work with in each cycle?

We work with eight to 10 per cycle.

Do you offer any kind of post-graduation support to the participants? Do they become part of your start-up network?

The start-ups we support are always a part of the regional Flat6Labs community. What this means is that not only do we support them with free office space for two months after graduation and office options for the duration of their time in Abu Dhabi, but we also work to continually facilitate connections and mentor support for start-ups. Start-ups that join our network also get unique access to Flat6Labs graduates in Saudi Arabia and Egypt – one of the underestimated benefits of joining is being able to trade ideas and develop partnerships with a unique set of companies in the three biggest digital markets in the Middle East and North Africa.

Rushika Bhatia Editor

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.

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