x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hub Dubai set to bring start-ups and entrepreneurs together

Aman Merchant is re-looking at the Hub, a collaborative global workspace, that is part incubator and part community.

From left: Hebah Fisher, Habib Al-Assaad, Aman Merchant and Markos Desta at The Hub under construction at Dubai Downtown.  Jaime Puebla / The National
From left: Hebah Fisher, Habib Al-Assaad, Aman Merchant and Markos Desta at The Hub under construction at Dubai Downtown. Jaime Puebla / The National

At an entrepreneurship conference in Barcelona four years ago, a Dubai businessman came across a global network of collaborative workspaces.

During the event, Aman Merchant met Jonathan Robinson, a British anthropologist behind the initiative called The Hub, which Mr Merchant describes as “part incubator, part innovation centre, part community centre”. Given his interest in business education, he wanted to bring the idea to his hometown.

A year earlier, another Dubai resident, Habib Al Assaad, had come across the same initiative and had expressed a similar interest.

“Hub Global in London introduced me to Habib in true Hub culture,” Mr Merchant says.

That was back in 2009, and since then the two have been working to fine-tune the idea in the Dubai context. Similar workspaces such as the Shelter in Al Quoz Industrial Area and The Pavilion Downtown Dubai are temporarily closed. Now the Archives in Safa Park is the only competitor. But where others provide free Wi-Fi with desk space and events for entrepreneurs, the Hub promises to be a members’ club and a business incubator as well as where one can meet potential investors and entrepreneurs from around the globe.

There are now more than 40 Hubs in cities such as San Francisco,Amsterdam and Mumbai. The initiative is headquartered in Vienna, having started in London in 2006.

The Dubai entrepreneurs started the Hub as a non-profit back in 2009 and tried for three years to make it work. It did not have a physical space then, and organised meetings in public places centred around learning and networking events.

“But it was difficult to get the local community and investors together,” Mr Merchant said. “When you start something pioneering, you chart new territory and find out new things.”

The Karachi-born entrepreneur, who moved to Dubai when he was a year old with his parents, has not given up on the city. He also runs the Future Leadership Academy, which helps children to develop leadership skills in Dubai, among other enterprises.

This time, he is building the Hub in Dubai Downtown, and it will function as a social enterprise. Since the UAE does not provide a licence for social enterprise, the Hub team has got more than one licence to cover its activities that include education and services.

The services will be offered for a charge, but the fees have yet to be worked out, but possibly starting at Dh100 a month. The global Hubs have a membership structure based on the number of hours one uses the space for.

With investment running into millions of dirhams, the Hub will have 5,000 sq ft of indoor space and 3,000 sq ft of outdoor space near Souq Al Bahar. It will also start with a couple of private office spaces, which will be sub-leased. It expects to start operations next month.

Richard Leighton, a 30-year-old social entrepreneur and a special projects manager at the London College of Fashion, who now works out of London Hub is particularly interested.

He has developed six business models for social enterprises in the past five years, and would like to bring his skills to Dubai.

“You need to get to know the local market,” says Mr Leighton, who has been visiting Dubai for the past five years. “And Hub Dubai can help me to network and give advice.”

The Hub Dubai team has four people, including Mr Merchant, 39, and Mr Al Assaad, 33.

This time one of their co-investors, who is behind Dubai-based venture capital fund Emerge Ventures, will be a resident in the Hub and host pitching sessions for start-ups. 

Typically “the host facilitates creative connections between entrepreneurs, whether within the local Hub or other Hubs around the world, in person or through our private online network called Hubnet,” Mr Merchant says.

Diya Khalil, a 28-year-old Jordanian, who has grown up in Dubai, expects to work out of the Hub once it is online.

Mr Khalil holds a day job as an electronics engineer, but has been working on a recycling project for around nine months. He has targeted the first quarter of next year to launch his own social enterprise.

“The Hub will allow me to work long hours from the venue, and will have events that will gravitate around like-minded people, social enterprises, education and charity,” he says.