Expert outlines challenges, opportunities in Kuwait
KUWAIT: In an Interview, Jared Willis from Berkeley Research Group Kuwait, outlined the objectives and vision of the first Innovation Lab in Kuwait being launched by National Company for Cleaning and spoke about risks and opportunities in supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Kuwait. Excerpts:
Question: What are the elements of the program?
Willis: The program will include a one-week course to introduce foundational concepts to entrepreneurs that will enable them to map out, build and learn how to monetize their ideas. This course will use the Business Model Canvas and Lean Startup methodologies pioneered by Jerry Engel, an associate professor at the Haas School of Business and founder of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Berkeley. Business Model Canvas is a strategic management and lean startup template for developing new or business models. Lean Startup is a scientific approach to creating and managing startups to get a desired product to customers’ hands faster.
Following the one-week course, the selected teams will be given a reasonable budget to undertake an intensive period of customer discovery lasting four weeks to allow the teams to identify their customers by taking their main assumptions about who their customers are, the exact problem they are proposing to solve for the customer, how the customer will buy that solution and turning these assumptions into hypotheses that will be tested. During this four-week period, BRG and Kuwait Ventures will conduct office hours and coaching sessions with the teams in which we will brainstorm jointly and provide support and guidance. At the end of this phase, our team will collect feedback on milestones reached and make a recommendation to the NCC on which teams of entrepreneurs are worthy of consideration for further mentoring and training and potential investment by NCC.
Question: How will you judge the program’s outcome?
Willis: Our goal is to give a return-on-investment to NCC and set in place partnerships and strategic collaborations that are the foundation of future success for NCC and the entrepreneurs. Since we are looking to solve a business problem facing NCC and its subsidiaries, we are open to a wide range of potential outcomes. For instance, it is possible that several teams will be incubated by NCC and become subsidiaries. It is also possible that individuals will be hired by NCC outright if that makes the most sense to both sides. A successful outcome would also be venture capital investment by NCC in several companies whether or not they are directly related to NCC’s core lines of business. We also have high expectations for teams coming from within NCC and are hoping to give them the space and support they need to solve a problem that they face from up-close but perhaps didn’t have the time needed to develop a dynamic solution.
Question: Who is eligible to apply for this program?
Willis: The Innovation Lab is open to any Kuwaiti or foreign national currently residing in Kuwait. I think that is unique in that most if not all of the current programs are only open to Kuwaiti nationals, which is a wonderful phenomenon, but we believe there is untapped talent and ideas among all the residents of Kuwait, which NCC stands to benefit from. We have been actively reaching out to other stakeholders in the entrepreneurial community in Kuwait to explain the program and recruit participants. We believe that this is an opportunity for a “win-win” between NCC, entrepreneurs and the incubation, acceleration and/or government organizations that provided initial support for the projects we match with NCC.
Question: What constitutes a relevant project?
Willis: For this Innovation Lab, we are casting a relatively wide net for potential applicants and there are minimal restrictions on relevant projects. The program is open to individuals, teams, current companies and employees from NCC and its subsidiaries. Although the Innovation Lab is not limited to certain sectors, top priority is given to projects relevant to NCC’s core business lines. These include municipal waste management, environmental waste management, indoor cleaning, pest control, agriculture, valet parking and landscaping among others.
Question: How will you support the youth? Are there specific terms and conditions?
Willis: Unlike perhaps other incubation or government mechanisms to engage and support Kuwait’s youth, this program is not intended as a public relations or corporate social responsibility mechanism for NCC nor is it subject to a traditional “cookie cutter” approach. At our core, we at BRG are business consultants and we are looking to solve a strategic business challenge faced by NCC through engaging with motivated, creative and hard-working entrepreneurs in Kuwait. We and NCC are open to a wide range of outcomes and the next steps of our collaboration will be determined by the outcomes of this first Innovation Lab.
Question: What is your advice to potential applicants?
Willis: My advice to potential applicants who have not ventured into entrepreneurship before is to try and think outside the box. There is a wonderful energy in Kuwait right now and it’s easy to see why many look at initial success stories and try to replicate them. I think the best ideas come from those “ah-hah” moments when a particular problem arises or when passion feeds into an idea. NCC operates in some fields that are ripe for innovation and new ideas such as recycling, agriculture, cleaning and waste management. This is a unique opportunity to quickly test that “ah-hah” moment and potentially turn it into a scalable business with the assistance and investment of an established strategic partner.
For those with pre-existing startups, this is a great chance to test your idea with a large company that has a wide range of customers and business lines, and forge a unique strategic collaboration. There is a huge opportunity for mutual benefit and I think this will be the beginning of a trend across Kuwait with other large corporations.
Question: How did you develop this program?
Willis: BRG developed this program in coordination with our partners at Kuwait Ventures using inspiration from similar corporate programs that exist outside of Kuwait as well as by looking at the gaps and challenges facing current programs being run in Kuwait. We believe it maximizes the chances of success and will serve the business and strategic goals of the entrepreneurs and NCC. I hope it becomes a model for other programs and initiatives in Kuwait, tapping into the unique energy and talents of local entrepreneurs to inject innovation into established companies.
Question: What do you see as the challenges and opportunities facing the Kuwaiti entrepreneurial community?
Willis: In July 2017, BRG Kuwait completed a study on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Kuwait and in particular investigated the issue of location – where Kuwaiti startups choose to start their companies, strategic considerations faced when they scale, grow and/or relocate. Clearly the youth and their entrepreneurial spirit have the potential to drive economic growth and diversification of Kuwait’s economy. Nowhere else in the region is there the talent, support and diversity behind the entrepreneurial phenomenon as in Kuwait, which is why it has attracted so much attention in Kuwait and the broader GCC.
Still, we found that the business environment and legal structure, despite recent reforms, is an impediment to businesses scaling and keeping their headquarters in Kuwait and there is a risk to lose startups to places like the UAE, which have positioned themselves as an open and friendly place to do business and have put the necessary legal, immigration and other reforms in place. We also found that the emphasis on food and beverage enterprises in Kuwait or really any locally-focused businesses that rely on the spending power of Kuwaiti nationals will struggle to have the intended impact on the economy unless these businesses scale and attract revenue from outside Kuwait, or Kuwait begins to attract large amounts of tourists locally. Despite these challenges, I think there is broader awareness of the reforms required to ensure that Kuwaiti companies grow and remain rooted in Kuwait, and a healthy dialogue on the strategic areas and sectors that the country needs to invest in, starting with the youth. Our collaboration with NCC is proof of the recognition that the future lies in tapping and harnessing this entrepreneurial energy, and I expect the results to speak for themselves.