The US multitasker in search of the Saudi startup unicorn


JEDDAH: Matthew Salloway has a lot of strings on the bow. A law graduate, he established his own law firm in Manhattan and represents royal families, professional athletes, investors, celebrities, high net worth individuals and media companies.

He is also a film producer and has directed films with Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro.

But his real passion now is technology, venture capital and finding innovative US startups to launch in the Middle East and North African markets, with Saudi Arabia as a focal point.

“We are very bullish on Saudi Arabia as a country in terms of the technology ecosystem. We are very focused on bringing many of our technology companies to the region,” the CEO of GSI Ventures and co-founder of SIP Global Partners told Arab News, adding that he is certain the “incredibly positive” outlook in Kingdom will help making it the “next Silicon Valley in the region.”

“We are one of 15 companies actually licensed by the Saudi Ministry of Investment under the Venture Initiative. So we’re a company that’s very keen on helping our technologies grow into that ecosystem.”

GSI stands for growth, sustainability and integrity. The firm has a strong profile in venture and technology investing, with a strong focus on the MENA region.

Salloway said there was “no other country in the region” that could match the Kingdom in supporting startups.

“If you look at the numbers, you can see how much focus tech has on venture capital… In the first half of 2020, $95 million was invested in Saudi Arabia-based startups. It was the largest in history so far; In 2015 it was $7 million.”

With the government investing billions in startups and venture capital through bodies like the Public Investment Fund, and establishing and building a healthy ecosystem for the market, Salloway is confident, saying it will make it “easy” for companies to enter the Saudi market.

“We want to be part of the evolution of the ecosystem as entrepreneurs, founders and investors sort of grow into the space. You will obviously need time as it is new to the kingdom. But based on the progress that has been made over the past few years, both by the government and the numbers we’re seeing, I think this sets the stage for an incredibly strong tech ecosystem and hub,” he said .

Salloway added that the reason the kingdom can compete in global markets is a young population, with 70 percent of people under the age of 40, high smartphone adoption and a sophisticated, technological user base.

But he warned that the process will not be completed overnight. By cultivating a culture that seeks to innovate, equipping people with the right skills through training, teaching people how to start and run businesses, and how to create sales and marketing plans, the Kingdom can continue to grow this ecosystem and more unicorns how to introduce careem .

A unicorn is an industry term used to describe a privately held startup valued at over $1 billion.

“Technically, out of 5 million companies, only 3 become unicorns. So the numbers are incredibly stacked against you. To be competitive you have to start a lot of businesses and there will be failures,” Salloway said.

One area that could spawn a major Saudi startup unicorn is gaming. “With the high adoption of gaming technology, there is a great opportunity for someone in the gaming space to start a business in the region that is based in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Statistically, 14 percent of the world’s players are from the Middle East, totaling 300 million. “It’s a $5 billion deal with the only problem being that many of the games played in the region are from international developers,” he added.

The coronavirus pandemic, Salloway said, has only increased the importance of technology investments.

Through GSI Ventures, Salloway is excited to bring 5G technology to the Kingdom and describes it as a $14 trillion global opportunity, not only in terms of technological implementation but also the benefits it can bring to the world healthcare bringing digital health, artificial intelligence and smart cities.

“Saudi Arabia specifically spends more per capita on 5G, for the country, for the users and for the people of Saudi Arabia than any other country in the world,” he said.

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