Big data success in the Middle East: how Microsoft is helping young startups

The big success stories of the tech world used to start in someone’s garage, with a bit of homemade hardware, a big dream and a lot of hard work. Today, though, for the steady stream of new would-be tech unicorns – that is businesses valued at over $1bn – there are supportive, thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems springing up all over the world. The world’s tech movers and shakers are an increasingly global bunch and there are helping hands available wherever they turn.

More than ever the new technology driving these startups is focused on data. With today’s digital economy increasingly powered by data, it is no surprise that so many commentators have begun referring to data as “the new oil”. There are huge amounts of data available in the global economy. Recent GlobalData research cites the examples of 3.5 billion Google searches and 1.3 billion Internet of Things connections per day, and 254 Exabytes (one exabyte is a billion gigabytes) of mobile broadband data traffic per year. When all this data is scattered across formats and is difficult to analyse, it’s of little value to businesses or consumers. The term ‘big data’ refers to large, diverse data sets that can be analysed to reveal patterns and trends in behaviour. The benefits of harnessing big data are huge and varied, from creating customer profiles to predictive modelling.

The key features of big data that make it so powerful are its volume (huge amounts), velocity (high speed and streaming of data), variety (different formats) and veracity (accuracy and reliability). These things make it hugely useful to businesses and consumers. For example, an online retailer can use rapidly analysed data to make a recommendation to a customer while they are browsing a website.

The amount of digital data in the world began to increase exponentially after 2010 and it is expected to keep growing 26% a year up to 2022. Alongside this, the cost of computing, including big data production, continues to fall partly because both computing power and digital storage can be rented on the cloud. In combination, these conditions create a virtuous cycle for the growth of big data in the modern economy.

And the Middle East is playing its part, with successful products and brands across big data, health tech, property tech, education tech and AI are being produced at a speedy rate. The UAE in particular has become a hotbed of startup and tech growth. According to startup data analysis company Magnitt, more than 60% of investment funding for start-ups in the MENA region was given to projects based in the UAE in 2019. And 2018 saw two Middle East-based startups scooped up in big deals by Western companies; ride-hailing app Careem was acquired by Uber for $3.1bn in 2019, while online retailer Souq.com was purchased by Amazon in 2018 for $560m.

Several major tech corporations, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter and have made their MENA HQs in the UAE. Now, with the tech ecosystem Hub71 offering networking opportunities, access to capital and global markets, as well as mentoring and business development prospects between well-established firms and young entrepreneurs – Abu Dhabi has risen in the past 18 months as a winning location for budding innovative tech startups and scaleups.

Sayed Hashish, General Manager for Microsoft UAE, which has been operating in the country for over 25 years and is a strategic partner of Hub71, explains that there is a strong startup culture and plenty of advice available for young entrepreneurs looking for their next move into the Middle East. Microsoft is a leading light in the big data industry across seven technology segments including data security, storage, processing, aggregation and integration.

“The UAE has become a hub in many areas, including technology,” he says. “Accordingly, it made a lot of sense for us to base more people here. As a matter of fact, a lot of our employees prefer to be based out of the UAE while serving the rest of the MENA region. It’s both an employee preference and a company preference, in terms of the ease of doing business in the country, the availability of good services, decent infrastructure and a good location. All those factors together made it a viable decision for us to continue to invest and grow in the UAE.”


Partnering together with state-owned Mubadala Investment Company, Microsoft helped in design thinking the already vibrant tech ecosystem in Abu Dhabi, Hub71.

The timing, says Hashish, was perfect: “Hub71 was launched to serve and build the startup ecosystem at the same time that we were starting to build our data centres, allowing us to better serve our customers. We started talking about what Microsoft could do and what other partners could do to support this effort. It was exciting, because focusing on startups is part of our core mission, to empower every business and organisation on the planet to achieve more.”

And Microsoft has certainly fulfilled that mission: in addition to helping build the huge data centres operating in the region, the company, which is the only US firm to still be worth more than $1trn after the coronavirus pandemic, has made plenty of time to mentor newer companies.

Atif Mahmood, founder of British edtech startup Teacherly, says that opening the company’s second office in Abu Dhabi (the first is in London) has given his startup the boost it needed.

“Microsoft is a partner at Hub71, and has been one of our huge supporters. We have a great partnership with them now, all because of Abu Dhabi’s Hub71.”

Now, says Mahmood, the tech giant has formed a business partnership with his once small startup, something he admits he previously could only dream of.

As many startups worldwide are struggling to find the next big step for their success, Abu Dhabi may hold the answer in terms of strategic partnerships with big tech corporates, within a comprehensive, dynamic tech ecosystem that many have found so advantageous.

The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.


Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.