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Daniel Seal ... Unbound founder

Bahrain is beta testing gateway to region, says startup expert

MANAMA, March 12, 2019

By Sree Bhat & Lawson Misquitta
Bahrain has the potential to become a great startup hub, especially targeting the regional market needs, says an international expert on entrepreneurship and thought leader on innovation and digital transformation.
 
Speaking exclusively to TradeArabia on the sidelines of the Unbound Bahrain festival at the Bahrain National Theatre, Daniel Seal, Founder & CEO of Unbound, said the country has always been seen as a beta testing gateway to the region.
 
“What’s great about Bahrain is the warmth of its people, the friendliness around and the kingdom’s open for business message,” he said.  
 
Seal is a serial entrepreneur and Unbound bridges the gap between entrepreneurs, corporates and governments to fuel a digital future. He hosts Unbound’s award-winning innovation festival series which takes place in Singapore, London, Miami and Bahrain and collectively attract over 20,000 delegates from around the world. 
 
Unbound Bahrain was the anchor event of Startup Bahrain Week, held under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince, Deputy Supreme Commander and Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), last week.
 
The event, held on March 6 and 7 in partnership with the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) and supported by StartUp Bahrain, celebrated the Kingdom’s commitment to fuelling a digital future for the Mena region.
 
“What excites me about the kingdom is that it has always been a business centre in the region with a modern outlook and a young population which has the desire to do something new,” he added.
He also urges youngsters never to be discouraged by failure. “Sometimes you get things right and sometimes they go wrong, but you should never let that get in the way of fulfilling your dreams.”
 
Excerpts from the interview:
Unbound is a powerful brand… what’s in the name?
When you look at innovation, it is mainly about disrupting the status quo and bringing something new to the pre-existing, which are sometimes bounded by restrictions. The reason we took the name ‘Unbound’ is to highlight the fact that one is only limited by the ideas one has, and anything is possible when restrictions don’t get your way. At Unbound, we promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and talent. Our message is: Create what you would like and make an impact on the society or community around you. If you have an interesting idea, it doesn’t matter whether you are 16 or 60.
 
What is your mission, globally?
We want to connect corporates, governments and brands with investors, entrepreneurs/startups and innovators. It is very important to realise that creating an innovation ecosystem isn’t just about startups and investors. Governments, corporates, universities, researchers and academia also play a major role. How the whole business community can be brought together to promote that ecosystem is important. Without every part playing a role, it will be hard to build a sustainable ecosystem.
 
You have Unbound festivals around the world, why did you choose Bahrain as one of the destinations?
I was very interested in the GCC region as it was becoming more overt and looking to develop a knowledge-based and digital economy. But the challenge was finding the right partners. I was lucky to meet with Mr Khalid Al Rumaihi, Chief Executive of Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB), at our event in Singapore some years back, and learn from him about the business-friendly climate in the kingdom. It is under his guidance and inspiration we were able to bring Unbound to Bahrain.
EDB is an amazing organisation and Al Rumaihi an incredible leader, a visionary who understands what Bahrain needs. The endorsement, partnership and support of EDB and the resources of Tamkeen and other institutions have enabled us to host successful festivals in Bahrain.
 
What makes Bahrain a startup hub?
What excites me about the kingdom is that the country has always been a business centre and a pioneer in the region, whether it’s been financial services, aviation, oil and gas or tourism. It also provides the ability to have foreign ownership. The kingdom has been seen as a beta testing gateway to the region.  
What’s great about Bahrain is its warmth and its strong ‘open for business’ message. Bahrain has a great workforce and wonderful platforms and businesses can access the entire region from here. These are great advantages to have for startups.
 
How can we ‘unbound’ the innovative spirit of youngsters in the kingdom?
The region is on the cusp of major economic changes with programmes such as the Saudi 2030 Vision, UAE Vision 2021 and Bahrain Vision 2030 giving a new direction to the economies. The challenge now is how this region can transform from an oil and energy-based economy into a digital and knowledge-based economy. The GCC states are doing well in using the resources generated from the oil wealth to investing in next-generation technologies. Youngsters should take this opportunity and work hard to improve the society around them. The worst that can happen is that the idea won’t work, but the best will be that you can create something fantastic.  
 
What are some of the advantages and constraints they face compared to other regions?
Every region has its strengths and weaknesses. It is ‘grass is always greener on the other side’. The biggest advantage is that the region is currently underdeveloped in the technology space and startups here have the opportunity to fill that space and they have a big market in the GCC. Business is based on opportunity and market desire. Here, you have the desire and also a very supportive government.
What builds a great company is having talented people with good ideas and the ability to execute them. And you need good infrastructure and sound legislation. Here, in Bahrain, you have a government willing to try new ideas, strong universities producing talented people with the right skills, and you have platforms such as FinTechBay, Brinc and other accelerators. These are great advantages to have.
 
How do you compare Bahrain to other global hubs?
You can’t compare London, Silicon Valley and Singapore to Bahrain. They are different environments and at different stages of development. Silicon Valley is not where Bahrain should be looking at; it should look to this region. The GCC entrepreneur has different challenges to that of an entrepreneur based in Europe or the US. So don’t be obsessed with trying to build unicorns, concentrate on building a business that solves the problems affecting your market that can be scaled up. The GCC is a huge region and what has worked in Bahrain could work in the entire region and that is a big opportunity for local startups. What is cool about this region is that there are a lot of young talented entrepreneurs who want to make an impact.
 
What are the areas that you see have good potential for startups in Bahrain?
The areas that startups can look at are: financial services, energy technology, environmental technology, healthcare and infrastructure. There are many possibilities and it is important to build products addressing the specific issues that are affecting this region. Entrepreneurs could develop a business aimed at providing a solution in a specific market, which could then be transferred to other markets in the region.
 
What are the key challenges startups face working with corporates?
It’s the same challenge globally.  Corporates want to innovate, but they move slowly. When you are a startup, you are nimble, agile and quick. The two work on different desires and different levels of hungriness. But they have to meet somewhere and that’s why they come to us at Unbound. The first thing we try and do is to manage the expectations on both sides. Startups need corporates and vice versa. Both sides need to understand how the other side works.  
 
Does size matter in retaining the innovative spirit of a company?
I don’t believe size matters if passion and energy are there. When you are a smaller company with two people and make a mistake, you can deal with it; but if you are a larger company with hundreds of people, mistakes will be costly. So when you get bigger, you tend to take fewer risks. But I don’t believe that it’s either or – you can be a bigger company with an innovative spirit and a small company with a conservative outlook.
 
How important is it for startups and investors to be on the same page?
There is always going to be tension between entrepreneurs and investors. A good investor knows how to back and manage entrepreneurs. Being an investor is not just putting money in a business, he/she need to know how to back and nurture talent. I think the challenge that people face in the region is that of managing expectations. A lot of investors has never been entrepreneurs and they find it difficult to understand how it works. They need a greater understanding of the trials and tribulations affecting the startups. And startups need to understand that if they are taking someone’s money they need to do things in the right way. One of my missions is to try and make investors understand what entrepreneurs are looking for.
 
Are you happy with your achievements so far as the founder of Unbound?
We are six years old. Every founder will say that they are happy and at the same time frustrated. We are happy since we are still growing even after six years, and have set up four offices around the world and look to further develop and grow with the help of my team. But like many entrepreneurs, I am always frustrated that we could be doing more. You have to be constantly thinking of doing more. We are only as big as the dreams we have.
 
Your advice to young entrepreneurs ….
It is important to never be discouraged by failure; sometimes you get things right and sometimes they go wrong, but you should never let that get in the way of your next venture. 



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