x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dubai's Dragon's Den has entrepreneurs fired up

The Life: Affluent individuals gather in Dubai to run the rule over start-up businesses and finance seekers.

Yves Vekemans, the chief executive of Hercules Trophy International, right, presents his company to a potential investor.
Yves Vekemans, the chief executive of Hercules Trophy International, right, presents his company to a potential investor.

Picture the popular television show Dragon's Den, but instead of a dark room teeming with judges' egos and cynicism, try a plush Dubai hotel, a wide selection of canapes and 50 dragons breathing mostly good vibes.

This is the format of an event aimed at fostering relationships between entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Sponsored by the angel investment group Envestors, the most recent gathering was held last week at Dubai's Palace Hotel.

While there are other financing options for Emirati entrepreneurs, such as the Khalifa Fund and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, angel investment - capital provided by affluent individuals for a business start-up - is still in its infancy in the UAE.

On this night, three entrepreneurs were given eight minutes to pitch for funding and given a mild grilling by prospective investors.

A combination of local start-ups and small international companies, the reactions to the pitches were as varied as the ideas.

Michael Jansen, the chairman and chief executive of Screampoint, a US software solutions company, pitched his concept as "Google Earth for the professional".

Mr Jansen was seeking his eighth round of capital to develop his product and sell it to prospective clients.

"This is looking pretty good, better than most rounds," Mr Jansen said. "I would not be surprised if out of this group of investors, 10 to 15 come on board."

"One person just came here and said he has a guy with Dh20 million [US$5.44m] 'who wants to see you tomorrow'," he said.

Another investor, Rami Shamaa, the vice president of EFG-Hermes Private Equity, conceded Mr Jansen was "impressive" but said he was reluctant to get involved.

"I questioned why he was asking for more cash, having signed big deals and already raised capital a number of times," Mr Shamaa said.

Not all the entrepreneurs were confident about receiving funding.

Yves Vekemans kicked off the evening's proceedings with an overview of his company, Hercules Trophy International, which runs an outdoor team-building competition.

"I have no idea how many [investors] might contact us, I have no expectations in that sense," he said.

Mr Vekemans's company is moving headquarters from Belgium to Dubai and wants to raise money in order to market the concept to North America and the Middle East. The company has expanded successfully in recent years into Spain, Holland and France.

Hercules Trophy International sought finance once before in New York, an experience Mr Vekemans is keen to forget.

"There were a lot of people who are challenging you on every point and it's not a constructive environment," he said. "This event is much more positive."

Envestors runs events every quarter and takes a commission if a deal is agreed between investors and entrepreneurs.

The only local company seeking finance was a start-up online shopping mall, looking to compete with Souq.com. Shihab Khalil, the managing director of ShopMidEast, said the website had signed two retailers and hoped to launch within three months.

"Raising money is always daunting - it's not the easiest process, especially in these times," Mr Khalil said. "But we've seen some interest and people have come up to us tonight and offered meetings."