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December 15, 2020updated 16 Dec 2020 5:24pm

Start-up Insights: Mentoring start-ups helps them expand

A conversation with Salma Kayali, assistant VP for strategy and innovation at Aldar.

By Sarah Williams

Property developer and manager Aldar is leading the MENA region not just in terms of its expansive portfolio and ambitious growth but also in its increasing focus on clean tech, innovation and progress. The Abu Dhabi-based company’s assistant VP for strategy and innovation, Salma Kayali, spoke with Verdict about how the property developer is leading the sector in digital transformation and mentoring start-ups.

One of the main tenets of the company, says Kayali, is to give back to the communities in which they develop and operate. And a key component is to mentor younger companies and start-ups. As part of that, Aldar is a strategic partner of Abu Dhabi’s tech ecosystem, Hub71, and operates under its Corporate Engagement program, which pairs tech start-ups with major players in every sector.

What proptech start-ups are there already in Abu Dhabi – how have they benefited from being based there?

Property technology has received real impetus across Abu Dhabi through Aldar’s partnership with Hub71. Through a $68m investment spread over the next five years, we aim to position Abu Dhabi as a leading global platform for start-ups and the early implementation of proptech functions.

This partnership will see Aldar establish a physical presence at Hub71 while mentoring start-ups, hosting innovation workshops, corporate events and pitch days on-site. The two partners will also conduct international roadshows to attract more start-ups to the region from target markets across the US, Europe and Asia. The aim is to foster a real estate innovation sandbox at Hub71 that can then help start-ups test new products and services across the Aldar portfolio.

Mentoring start-ups is a big part of Aldar’s commitment to innovation and progress – what are you looking for in a start-up you would work with?

Well, innovation is a key value of Hub71, and it is linked directly to our strategy at Aldar as a business enabler, and ultimately our goal as our mission of innovation is to become the most innovative, digital-led real estate entity in the region.

So first, we’d do our research and make sure there’s alignment with our strategy and our fields of play. Then we connect them to the right business owner or stakeholder who leads that unit for further discussion – that way, we can really go into the details and dive into the solution for any issues the start-up faces. We also guide them where special licensing is required in the UAE and support them with operational advice such as signing service-level agreements and doing strategic networking.

Hub71 is a global tech ecosystem located in the heart of Abu Dhabi that brings together key enablers for start-ups to succeed. Find out more and apply at

Ultimately, working with a big corporation enables start-ups to understand exactly how to alter their value proposition to suit the corporation and the region they operate in. It also helps them get in touch and be mentored by people who have the right expertise to help them be a more successful business model.

In terms of sectors, we are particularly interested in start-ups that are moving the world toward sustainability and cleantech. Sustainability is a huge part of progression and innovation. One of the start-ups we’ve mentored and worked with, SensGreen, is focused on clean technology, and there are some great projects in the works coming to maturity.

How is the proptech sector changing in response to COVID-19?

In some cases, Covid-19 is accelerating proptech. At Aldar, for example, the pandemic catalysed the scale-up of virtual tours for all of our available units, allowing sales and handovers to continue uninterrupted. The pandemic is also concentrating research efforts on technologies that reduce the need for human contact, such as gesture-based building controls. Take investment as a case in point.

Approximately $20bn of venture capital was invested into proptech between 2014 and 2018, providing support for more than 7,000 proptech start-ups involved in everything from AI-powered tenant portals to 3D printing and R&D for environmentally friendly building materials. While Covid-19 may dampen some investor sentiment in the short term, these innovations ultimately deliver greater, more sustainable value and funding into their development will continue apace.

What’s important right now for Aldar when conceiving new developments?

Integration of diverse smart accessibility and inclusion options are very important for Aldar. For example, when it comes to accessing a building or a community, we ensure that accessibility features are not added on later as an afterthought. We ensure to embed this at the design stage of our buildings, how we approach the blueprint, looking at the footprint of the space we’ll be developing. We start accommodating for all ranges of people at different ability levels from the very beginning, and you can tell their needs have been considered at a schematic, blueprint level. Our priority is our customers and their needs, making Aldar communities a home that embraces them and caters to their ever-changing demands.

Learn more about the Hub71 Incentive Programme in our free white paper Roadmap to Abu Dhabi: How to unlock new opportunities for your Tech Startup, which includes information on page 19 for how to be one of the few start-ups chosen to join the programme and best tips for success. Download white paper.

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