The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa) recently launched their new initiative titled Access Sharjah, with a goal to help support and build the entrepreneurship community in the region. Their new program focuses on the digital content and publishing sector and has welcomed 14 startups into the program. Communicate got to have an exclusive chat with Najla Al Midfa, CEO of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, to understand more about the program and what it holds for the city and the region in the field of entrepreneurship.
What is Access Sharjah?
Access Sharjah is Sheraa’s global corporate innovation platform, that connects startups with leading public and private entities in Sharjah and across the UAE- facilitating access to [key] markets. The program connects startups to key stakeholders and potential clients, provides business setup support, and includes the opportunity to win a $100,000 grant to establish a base in Sharjah. It also provides corporates with the opportunity to engage with innovative startups from around the world, to help co-develop solutions to business challenges and deepen business ties.
The UAE aims to become a global hub for creative industries that attracts the strongest, most innovative companies the world has to offer while also nurturing the growth of domestic companies to compete on a global stage. With its focus on publishing, Sharjah has emerged as a leading city in realizing UAE’s vision of becoming a global hub for creative industries.
Why did you focus the first edition on start-ups in the digital books and publishing sector?
As the publishing capital of the UAE, Sharjah has a unique system of publishing ecosystem institutions, such as the Emirates Publishers Association and Sharjah Publishing City. The emirate’s rich history of promoting literature, publishing, and other book-related industries have led the city to be named UNESCO World Book Capital in 2019.
In celebration of this title, and given the strength of the industry in Sharjah, we saw an opportunity to offer a distinctive program that supports the growth of startups in the digital content and publishing sector.
What were the criteria for choosing the selected start-ups? Can you explain the process?
The publishing value chain is a complex ecosystem of stakeholders. We first started scouting for participants; by identifying startups that could address any weaknesses in the region’s publishing ecosystem, that might prevent the Arab publishing industry from growing and reaching a global audience. After receiving applications from over 250 startups, we handpicked fourteen startups focused on resolving these gaps, based on the quality of their idea, scalability, and their use of emerging technologies.
What were the gaps you discovered in the region’s publishing ecosystem?
Gaps in the publishing and content creation value chain, which begins with artistic creation and ends with consumption, have prevented the Arab publishing industry from establishing a strong, integrated regional market despite surging interest in more Arabic content. Some longstanding, systemic publishing industry challenges – which are beginning to be solved by technology – are self-publishing, connecting publishers, agents, and authors to transact rights, finding highly skilled publishing professionals for translating and editing manuscripts, printing on-demand to reduce printing costs, as well as retail and distribution.
There are significant industry efforts to integrate authors, translators, publishers, distributors, and retailers into a well-functioning regional publishing ecosystem, but more programs such as Access Sharjah are needed to fill critical gaps in the publishing value chain to enable Arab publishers to reach broader regional and global markets.
What are some of the opportunities and benefits that the selected start-ups receive within the program?
Startups in the Access Sharjah program receive access to:
- $100K cash prize, to the winning startup.
- A pool of skilled human capital from a world-class University City with over 30,000 students and 100+ degree programs, providing a critical mass of talent.
- Connections to key stakeholders and potential clients.
- Media coverage with PR features through Sheraa’s dedicated agency.
- Business set up support with access to rent-free co-working spaces and subsidized licensing through Sheraa’s free zone partners.
- Personalized mentorship and coaching by Sheraa’s team of experts and a network of global mentors.
What are the next editions of Access Sharjah going to focus on?
While this edition is focused on solidifying Sharjah’s competitiveness in an industry we are already a leader in, future editions will support corporate partners in targeting broader challenges, such as sustainable management of water resources, increasing access to sustainable energy, combating climate change, and advanced manufacturing, to name a few.
Our goal is to attract startups with cutting edge business models that address these challenges through emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous technologies, 3D printing, and the internet of things.
The goal is to spur the growth of knowledge-intensive businesses in the emirate and make Sharjah the regional hub for startups, that will have a transformative socioeconomic impact in the UAE and globally.
In these tough times, what is your advice to start-ups and entrepreneurs?
Many startups and founders are dealing with the personal and business challenges brought on by these anxious and unusual times. However, communal crises such as these are best met with communal responses. Everyone in our ecosystem – startups, investors, mentors, and service providers alike – need to come together and provide support for one another.
Sheraa is developing resources under the #SmallBizUAE campaign to help startups navigate this difficult period. This includes a series of webinars, curated resources on managing a business through the crisis, as well as a Slack channel – SmallBizUAE – for entrepreneurs and ecosystem stakeholders across the UAE to connect and share advice. For Sheraa’s portfolio startups, we are also providing dedicated office hours, introductions to potential partners and customers, as well as promotion on our social media channels.