Visiting a Bustling Incubator in Dubai

By Alexandra Talty

Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki brought a Silicon Valley-vibe to their Dubai incubator, AstroLabs (Photo courtesy of AstroLabs).

It is a Monday afternoon in Dubai’s bustling Jumeriah Lake Towers, or JLT. The development looks like a futuristic scene from the movie Her, with its 80 multi-use skyscrapers jutting dramatically into the skyline. Nestled into “Cluster R” — all clusters are alphabetically-designated, too new to have a name — is one of Dubai’s hottest coworking spaces, AstroLabs.

Conceived by Louis Lebbos and Muhammed Mekki after they launched their own regional e-commerce company, AstroLabs is entering its second year, and hosts 77 startups.

Inside the space, the influence of Silicon Valley is everywhere. On one wall hangs a red cursive sign reading, “Make it Happen.” Polaroid-like portraits of members are pinned to a board, with their company and name listed underneath. There is a chalkboard where people indicate where they’re from, places as diverse as Kansas City, Missouri and Vietnam.

Both co-founders were educated in the United States and spent part of their careers there. After some time in Silicon Valley, Mekki was inspired by the potential of technology in the world and decided to move to the Gulf to “leverage the strengths of Dubai.”

And it has some unique strengths. Dubai boasts one of the highest mobile subscription rates in the world (higher than the US), along with strong internet connectivity, something that generally cannot be taken for granted in the Middle East. But perhaps most important, the city is within a four-hour flight of two billion people, making it a perfect springboard for international business, including key emerging markets like India.

Arash Jalali (foreground) and Ehson Sinaki look over a recent clip in a conference room. Both work for Limit Lines, an international digital branding agency based in London, Tehran and the UAE, (Photo Credit: Alexandra Talty).

In addition to the coworking space, there is a coding cave, a prayer and relaxation room, a meeting room, and a mobile device development lab. The lab, co-designed with Google, is a crowd favorite, with various versions of tablets and phones for testing. Connected to the space is a coffee shop that offers hip, swirled lattes and free WiFi.

Initially established as an academy in 2013, AstroLabs owes its existence to Mekki and Lebbos’ success at their previous company, Namshi, now part of Rocket Internet’s Global Fashion Group. After leaving the e-commerce portal, they decided to help other regional entrepreneurs.

Named after an astrolabe, a medieval navigational instrument that was honed by Arabs in the tenth century, the academy aimed to “curate a community of doers.” It offered a three-day intensive workshop to kickstart nascent companies, with classes on things like marketing and teambuilding. After encountering hundreds of regional companies, Mekki and Lebbos realized they could establish a physical community as well. In spring 2015, AstroLabs Dubai was born.

For many, the coworking space’s biggest draw is how easy it makes it to acquire what’s called a free-zone company license. Philip Bahoshy, founder of MAGNiTT, left a different coworking space in Dubai Marina to come to AstroLabs because he needed that license. A license enables an entrepreneur to set up in one of Dubai’s “Free Zones,” pay no corporate or personal tax and retain 100% foreign ownership. By obtaining a license through AstroLabs, startups are able to waive the first-year upfront costs (they are baked into the monthly membership fee), in addition to not needing to have a dedicated permanent address.

The main coworking space at AstroLabs is usually packed by midday. For a break from the hubbub, startups can use small meeting rooms or the prayer and relaxation room (Photo credit: Alexandra Talty).

This flexibility makes it an “easier decision to test out the Dubai market,” says Mekki. Currently, AstroLabs is the only non-governmental co-working space to offer this perk.

“It is about getting off the plane and getting to work,” says Mekki. This is part of the reason AstroLabs attracts growing global companies that want to enter the region, like Deliveroo, a restaurant delivery operation started in Britain.

When it joined AstroLabs in October, Deliveroo had three employees. After launching in Dubai in November, it grew to 17 employees, before setting up its own office in May.

AstroLab members are a mix of international companies like Deliveroo interested in entering the Dubai market to gain access to the Middle East and regional startups, like the Egyptian networking event app Eventtus, which came to Dubai to grow its business, seek out investors and eventually enter other markets like the Gulf, Europe or the United States. Membership costs range from 750 Arab Emirate Dirhams (about $200US) for solo practitioners who only work at night well into the thousands for companies with lots of employees that want a full range of services. Everybody gets special access to mentors.

Dubai is an ideal gateway into the complex Middle East region. That’s why AstroLabs’ members hail from all over the world. (Photo Credit: Alexandra Talty).

“When we started we struggled with things like setting up bank accounts,” says Ninoksha D’souza, business development director for The Sound Gaarden,a music discovery and hiring platform that works out of the coworking space. In addition to the appealing “coffee shop” vibe, they like AstroLabs because it is the region’s only Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub. In addition to the brand-name recognition, Tech Hub members are granted ‘passports’ which give them access to other campuses all over the world, meaning a startup could pitch clients in London, working out of the Tech Hub office there. Access to this network gives AstroLabs a global reach.

“Since we don’t take equity we have a great mix of larger startups who can share knowledge with local startups,” says Mekki.

“The markets [in the Middle East] are very fragmented,” continues Mekki. “We’ve seen a lot of startups have success in their home markets and seek out Dubai as their regional and global platform.” (Techonomy previously covered the tech scene in Beirut.)

In addition to the relatively greater access to capital afforded by Dubai compared to other cities in the region, the UAE offers a straightforward visa process, making it an easier place to attract and acquire talent than most other countries in the Middle East. “Once you have everything setup in Dubai, you can pull in talent from anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks,” Explains Mekki. “The beauty of Dubai is that it is a great launching pad.”

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