FROM GIRTH TO GROWTH

Oman 2018 | TELECOMS & IT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Yousuf Ali Al-Harthy, CEO of the Oman Technology Fund (OTF), on strategies, investment criteria, and target sectors.

Yousuf Ali Al-Harthy
BIOGRAPHY
Yousuf Ali Al-Harthy is the CEO of OTF. He has been a technologist and entrepreneur for over 20 years. During this time he founded a number startups after working for organizations and institutions in both the public and private sectors. He is well known and recognized as an expert in the field of IT for the many roles he has played in developing and shaping the ICT industry in Oman. He holds a master’s degree in information technology form RMIT University in Australia and double degrees in IT and business from the US.

What does OTF consist of, and what strategy has allowed it to flourish in Oman?

OTF, as a venture capital fund, invests in high-growth-potential technology startups. To start with and in order to build something long lasting and sustainable, it must be based on market conditions and external economic forces. At the core OTF is an investment fund where return is something that we are greatly measured on and is a paramount indication of the effectiveness of our work. However, OTF has what we call the double bottom line, which includes commercial sustainability, having our commercial returns on par with the investment venture capital industry, and having an impact on the national economy. We have to make sound investments based on the merit of each investment. It is also worth mentioning that OTF is not limited to investment in Omanis and invests in any excellent idea or innovation. Geography wise, we invest all over the world with a primary focus on the Middle East; we want investment opportunities available in Oman to be open to everyone.

What are your main criteria for investment?

There are three criteria for our investments. First, does the idea solve a large-enough problem? In other words, it must address a regional or global problem so that the market size will warrant the investment. Secondly, it must serve a real need; we want something that is based on innovative technology that addresses an important need. Thirdly, the economics must work in terms of how the idea is monetized. In terms of stages, OTF invests in startups at a very early stage that only have an idea and an incomplete product; we invest and provide support in terms of training and how to scale these companies. Another stage we invest in is startups that have an idea and product ready but now want to acquire customers, which requires a higher investment. We also provide investment for companies' growth in more mature tech companies that may want to go regional or global, and need an investment for this expansion. We also invest into other funds in places such as Silicon Valley, Ireland, and more.

Where does OTF currently stand in regards to the programs it offers, and how do they differ from the ones offered by other funds?

The idea is to have Oman as a hub to connect talent and provide venture capital money. As OTF provides multi-stage investments, entrepreneurs find receiving investments from OTF very useful as we provide a route to receive a great investment and excellent training. Our program here is run by one of the top-seven accelerator programs in Silicon Valley and the other one is run in partnership with Europe's top accelerator NDRC. OTF launched its Techween incubator program in December 2017 with 10 investments in partnership with NDRC. The application process attracted 160 applications, out of which OTF invested in 10 of them. When our first program, OTF Wadi Accelerator, launched at the end of 2017, we received 400+ applications from all around the world and five of them were deemed suitable for our investment. The OTF VC (Jasoor) made two investments in 2017, meaning OTF has invested into 17 deals overall. In addition to investment money, OTF shareholders own many companies, which gives us the ability to open markets to the startups that are sometimes more important than the funding through these companies. The combination of great program and an investment path way all the way form ideation to growth, coupled with market access, provides great value proposition.

Which sectors does OTF regularly invest in?

We prefer to have an investment where there is defensible technology involved. Areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics are extremely interesting to us for various reasons such as that these innovations typically solve real world problems in areas such as tech agriculture, fisheries, and manufacturing. In addition, these technologies are difficult to replicate, giving us a competitive advantage. This fits well within the five sectors that Oman has identified; IoT/Robotics can be used almost anywhere, be it in logistics, manufacturing, food processing, or even mining. The areas of interest to us also include data analytics and cybersecurity. We are also interested into food technology, as Oman has been making a substantial investment in this area. Finally, we have seen a number of new technologies rising around the oil industry due to the country's major involvement and know-how in this sector.