Big Start is half the battle
"Nothing is impossible" has long been the mantra for the UAE, where skyscrapers and palm-shaped islands now dominate the landscape, not to mention plans for world-class cultural institutions such as Guggenheim and Louvre museums.
Admittedly, the country, along with the rest of the world, has taken a severe blow from the economic downturn. But even in the face of financial adversity, the entrepreneurial spirit lives on. Take Mohammad Kamishirazi. At 27 years old, he dreams of distributing "harmony waterfalls" across the Middle East. Originally from Iran, he says the product, a rectangular aqua apparatus where water cascades to form shapes, words and symbols, is already on the market in North America and Europe.
However, Mr Kamishirazi says with only two or three companies in the world manufacturing these waterfalls, the potential to fill a gap in the Middle East could be huge. In particular, he believes companies looking for fresh ways to advertise their products and services would buy into the idea. "There are probably only two or three companies in the world producing this machine, so I can be one of them and start selling it here," he says. "You see this [harmony waterfall] in showrooms, at exhibitions and in hotels; it's a new technique for advertising.
"These days, LCD displays and paintings don't attract the customer's eyes, so this will be absorbed by the first-time viewer." Of course, Mr Kamishirazi, an electronic engineering student at Al Ghurair University in Dubai, doesn't have the financial means to launch this venture himself. Instead, he's one of several hundred university students across the country that have meticulously charted their plan for success with The Big Start - a competition organised by venture capitalist firm Al Tamimi Investments in Dubai.
The December 17 deadline has passed. The applications are in. In the coming months, a select number of entrants will progress through three rounds of harsh scrutiny from business leaders and executives, until the final contestants reach an interview on June 13 with Essam Al Tamimi, the chairman of Al Tamimi Investments. Rachael Wunsch, the general manager of Al Tamimi Investments, says the winner (or winners ? more than one will be chosen if management likes a selection of proposals) will receive funding and full backing from the company to launch their business.
"We haven't specified the investment level, but we are the people putting the equity on the table, so if we are sold on the idea the amount is immaterial," she says. "Investing in local business is what we do; we take an active role in the investments we make, which is one of the things that sets our Big Start programme apart from other entrepreneurial incubator schemes." For Mr Kamishirazi, support and investment in his idea is an alluring proposition.
After spending about Dh3,000 on materials to build his experiments and prototypes, he hopes the judges will be suitably impressed to provide him with the financial backing. Mr Kamishirazi plans to make unique changes to the "harmony waterfall" should his proposal prove successful. But like a magician reluctant to reveal his tricks, he has no intention of discussing the strategy. All he will say is the product will use a composite rather than water to form black shapes, words and symbols on a white background.
Mr Kamishirazi isn't the only entrant with high hopes for the Big Start competition. Yahya Stapic, a marketing and management student at the American University of Sharjah, believes he also has a winning formula. Originally from Bosnia, Mr Stapic, 21, wants to release a line of clothing ? sweaters, hoodies, T-shirts and tank tops ? featuring the work of local artists in the UAE. "What we'd do is give local artists and designers a venue to communicate their creativity," he says. "It's a concept that's popular internationally, but not in the UAE - yet. It's fashion, but also very artistic."
To start, Mr Stapic enlisted local artists to lend their work to his company, called Twilight Internative. Online communities, such as deviantArt (www.deviantart.com), proved invaluable for networking and acquiring these contacts. The art, he says, features abstract shapes, colours and designs, and can be viewed on his new website (www.wix.com/Twilight_i/Twilight-Interactive). "I've spent a lot of time developing the idea," he says.
"I paid for the website, business cards, some prototypes, everything. I'd say I have personally invested about Dh4,000." Mr Stapic estimates Twilight Interactive will require a total investment of about Dh700,000 to Dh1,000,000 to bring the concept to fruition. He plans to outsource the manufacturing, establish a small office in the UAE and build a warehouse to store the clothing and materials.
Ms Wunsch at Al Tamimi Investments says the businesses chosen by the chairman can expect close co-operation and support while establishing the young company. "We don't say: 'fantastic you have won the competition so here's your prize money and off you go'", she says. "What we are hoping to do is form a partnership with the winner, so they will join us, set up the company and have roles and responsibilities with the support of a large organisation behind them, because in any company you have people with different skill sets alongside one another to make the business work."
She adds that while helping the budding entrepreneur launch their venture is paramount - The Big Start was formed to "give something back" to the local community by nurturing young talent - Al Tamimi Investments is also looking to make money. Despite the financial downturn, their thirst for the next big thing remains strong. "We are in the business of success," she explains. "It's a partnership, so if we're doing well and the business is doing well then it's a win-win situation for all parties concerned."
No emirate has been sounded out as a possible location for the winning proposal, although Ms Wunsch says much will depend on the nature of the business. A production company, for example, would likely be established in one of the smaller emirates, where overheads are relatively low compared to a spot along Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. But there is still much to be done before locations are considered. Al Tamimi's management team must sift through reams of application forms that cover the spectrum of industries, from retail, hospitality to e-commerce.
Earlier this month, the company had received submissions from 34 universities across the Emirates. Most came from Abu Dhabi University, which accounted for 13 per cent, while students from the American University of Dubai and University of Wollongong Dubai jointly submitted 16 per cent of the applications. The rest, she says, came from various universities throughout the country. Since launching in 2006, Al Tamimi has invested in various businesses, with 10 ventures, ranging from property, health care to hospitality. Needless to say, the portfolio will expand next year when The Big Start winners are announced.
Even at this early stage, Ms Wunsch admits a few proposals have caught her eye, but in the interest of fairness she refrains from elaborating. She is, however, more willing to talk about the emerging role of female entrepreneurs in the UAE. In early December, female students accounted for 20 per cent of all applicants to the competition. The figure is indicative of growing interest among women to become entrepreneurs, according to Ms Wunsch.
"We have some very prominent businesswomen in the region serving as role models at the government level and in the private sector," she says. "It [women in business] is still relatively new, but there are more ladies coming through." A successful businesswoman herself, Ms Wunsch is interested in female applicants and hopes to see a high number of women participating in the competition. Nicola Monpeath is one female applicant throwing her hat in the ring. A self-confessed optimist, this 20-year-old student, in her final year of a communications and media studies degree at Dubai's Middlesex University, says that finding a job as a fashion writer and editor after graduating next year could be difficult; vacancies across most industries remain in short supply.
"There are a lot of people who want the same jobs and it's not easy getting one unless you have taken internships and gained experience," she says. "It's tough to get jobs now; probably one in 10 people get them in publishing companies." But far from worrying about the future, the Indian national says the challenging market has rekindled a burning desire to launch her own business. She says that a competition attempting to turn budding entrepreneurs' dreams into reality has come at just the right time.
"I would love to own and run my own business at 20 years old," she says excitedly. "Obviously, I would get help from Al Tamimi and my family, but it would be great." Ms Monpeath hopes her proposal, in which women board a luxury business jet for the purpose of receiving nail and beauty treatments, will excite the judges. She adds the jet would take off from Abu Dhabi airport, for example, and fly a short distance while the ladies are tended to, before landing at the same hub an hour or two later.
The unusual idea came during a car trip with her father; they were having a discussion about fashion in the UAE. Talking enthusiastically about a subject close to her heart, Ms Monpeath wondered if the luxury living enjoyed by many across the Emirates could be recreated in the skies. Encouraged by her father's enthusiasm for the idea, she has considered various concepts such as hen parties and social activities for children at high altitudes. She believes women would be fascinated by her service.
But Ms Monpeath admits getting the idea off the ground, so to speak, would be no easy task. "I'd need to get approval from the Government because you can't just fly," Ms Monpeath says. "I have no clue how much this would cost, but I think it would be US$1 million (Dh3.67m) to start with. The main thing is buying the plane and sorting out the interior, and then having a ground office for bookings. I'd also need people [beauticians] and a pilot, of course."
Dreams and entrepreneurial spirit such as this, Ms Ms Wunsch says, is what The Big Start is all about. But with the entries now accounted for, the elimination must begin. The primary goal, Ms Wunsch says, is unearthing young talent, and perhaps discovering the UAE's answer to the computer software mogul Bill Gates. "Never say never," she says, when asked if The Big Start can discover a corporate star. "This is what we are looking for, a young Bill Gates. It's about finding people who have an idea, and the mechanism to make that idea a reality."
* With additional reporting by Jeffrey Todd For more information on The Big Start, visit www.thebigstart.ae