Sharjah startup hub picks up new funding

Sheraa accelerator graduates first class of startups, nets AED3m for new entrepreneurship tracts

Sharjah startup accelerator Sheraa last week secured a further AED3m ($817,000) in funding, as the initiative marked the graduation of its first intake of entrepreneurs

The grants from Air Arabia, Sharjah Environment Co (Bee’ah) and Crescent Enterprises will go towards funding Sheraa’s co-working space and four-month bootcamp, which aims to help graduates in the emirate convert ideas into viable businesses.

Using the funds, Sheraa will launch entrepreneurship tracts in travel and tourism, sustainability and social enterprise, said general manager Najla Al-Midfa.

“[Each company] has committed a sum of AED1m to help Sheraa create young entrepreneurs in their respective fields,” she said. “They have demonstrated their faith and belief in the next generation.”

Sheraa, which launched in 2016, seeks to position Sharjah as hive for startups and a launchpad for would-be entrepreneurs. Located on the American University of Sharjah campus, its accelerator programmes offers promising startups free business licences, office space, access to seed funding and mentoring support.

Al-Midfa said the city’s draws include a 25,000-strong student population and lower costs than those offered by more established emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“The university is a natural home for talent,” said Al-Midfa, a UAE national who was born in Sharjah. “It makes sense to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem around it.”

The first cohort of startups to graduate from Sheraa’s accelerator programme comprised 10 teams, with 18 co-founders, 13 nationalities and an average age of 25. Their business models ranged from an energy consumption app, to an Emirati breakfast delivery service, a student peer-to-peer platform, and a portraiture service that renders images in wooden blocks.

Over the past four months, the teams have built their products, developed their services and engaged with potential clients and customers, with several starting to gain traction and see first revenues.

Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, chair of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority and patron of Sheraa, said the teams had entered the bootcamp as students but were graduating as entrepreneurs. “Platforms like Sheraa shine a light on Sharjah as a hub of young entrepreneurial talent,” she said.

Each of the 10 graduating teams received up to AED35,000 in grants, with a possible increase to AED50,000 earmarked for teams in future cycles.

Local organisations have also offered their assistance. Sharjah International Airport Free Zone has helped startups with licenses, while Sharjah Asset Management, the emirate’s investment arm, has pledged five per cent of its annual procurement to buying from these young companies, giving Sheraa-backed ventures access to the market and government contracts.

“Our focus is really not on funding, it’s on giving them that non-financial support,” noted Al-Midfa

Many of the businesses are working to address what they feel are inadequacies in the country. Noha Mahdi, creator of volunteering startup The Mawada Project, hopes to offer young people in the UAE new channels through which to donate their time and skills.

“Children in Dubai live a very comfortable, privileged life and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to really go out and interact with people who are different from them on the socioeconomic scale,” she said.

The support from Sheraa has been critical in getting the platform live, she added. “From workshops and market research, to business development and legal advice [Sheraa] has taken The Mawada Project from idea to implementation.

“The funding we received we’ve used to expand our team and bring talent on board. We are in the early operational stages and have only worked with 80 or 90 kids so far, but I think there is so much more than needs to be done.”

Nida Sumar, founder of food streamlining app Keza, said some of the biggest benefits were the mentorship and networking opportunities offered to businesses. “We understood the importance of having not just connections, but the right connections. And we really found that in Sheraa.”