At the forefront of innovation

At the forefront of innovation

How Riyadh-based The Garage is contributing to a flourishing startup culture in Saudi Arabia

 In the heart of Riyadh, nestled within the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), lies a space entirely focused on entrepreneurship: The Garage. What was once an underutilized parking structure has transformed into the largest startup district in the Middle East. Achieving this milestone is, simply put, no small feat. The inception of The Garage was unveiled to the world during the inaugural LEAP conference in 2022, which revealed the transformation of the 28,000 sq. m. site from parking garage to startup campus. “Many of the big cities that are tech hubs worldwide have similar structures or locations, so Station F (the Paris-based startup incubator) was cited as one of the inspirations,” says Omar Al-Shabaan, CEO of The Garage. “But the unique part about The Garage is that it’s bringing a new business model combining a workspace, combining incubation and acceleration as programs to be delivered, in addition to a co-living place.”

 Collaboratively developed by the KSA Ministry of Communication and IT (MCIT), KACST, and the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones (which is also the operator of the campus), The Garage officially opened doors in September 2023. And yet, before that, the team worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone knew what the brand stood for. The team created a temporary Garage. They took three floors in the Innovation Tower in Riyadh, and created a temporary location there, where it launched the first cohort of the accelerator called The Garage Plus. The team also started hosting a monthly event called the Garage Disrupt, which aims to bring the ecosystem together, bring startups to pitch in front of investors, and take part in networking and thought leadership. This allowed the creation of the brand and the awareness around the brand. By the time The Garage was launched in September 2023, the community of startups already knew about it.

Upon opening, The Garage essentially became a bustling startup campus, adjacent to all of the national labs in KACST. And it’s not just about adjacency. All the startups that join The Garage have the opportunity to access to these labs, and to utilize them based on the protocol and the agreement with KACST, which gives innovators and entrepreneurs a very distinctive edge, and be able to test their innovations or their products. With 26 meeting rooms, an event space of 4,000 sq. m. that can accommodate up to 1,000 people at a time, plenty of food and beverage options, and even a napping zone, The Garage offers startups a conducive atmosphere to innovate. Here, it’s important to note that The Garage focuses on early-stage startups that are in post-ideation, which means the startups that already finished the ideation process, and now are in the process of establishing their startups, or are already selling and have the revenue, and they are already trying to grow.

 Such startups can join The Garage through the diverse range of programs it offers, which are both operated by The Garage, as well as hosted by the venue. It is a noteworthy list of initiatives, which includes names like The Garage Plus, Garage Incubator, GAIA, MVP Lab, Antler, Boost, and Garage Disrupt. The Garage Plus is the flagship accelerator, in partnership with Google for Startups. It’s a post-ideation, post-revenue growth accelerator that is sector-agnostic and global, meaning that it hosts startups from all around the world. So far, three cohorts have completed this non-equity program, with 49 startups having graduated from more than 14 countries in different sectors. The fourth cohort is currently in the process of starting its journey; the mandate is for the program to accelerate 100 startups a year.

 Complementing this is the Garage Incubator, which focuses on deep tech startups. “We have incubated 24 startups from eight countries, and recently we changed the format of the incubator to become cohort-based where we are committed to incubate 25 startups in deep tech every year,” Al-Shabaan says. “And we’re launching the first cohort during Q2 of 2024.”

 Another collaborative program is in partnership with the Kingdom’s National Technology Development Program (NTDP), and it’s called the MVP Lab. Its mandate is to graduate and train 1,000 minimum viable products (MVPs) in the next three years. Armed with an idea or a prototype, The Garage supports these locally based startups to turn those dreams into reality, with funding and grants in the offing from NTDP upon completion of the program. “We have graduated 150 MVPs or startups across three cohorts, and now, we have accepted the fourth and the fifth cohort with the total of 110 new startups,” Al- Shabaan adds.

 Additionally, The Garage hosts programs like GAIA, focused on generative artificial intelligence (AI) startups, which was launched by NTDP and the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA), the Antler program, which originated from Singapore and is a day zero investor, the Thousand Miles program by the Saudi National Industrial Development and Logistics Program (NIDLP) to support SMEs in the industrial and logistics fields, and, the Boost Initiative, also by NTDP, to support tech entrepreneurs in this sector. Here, it’s important to note that post-incubation, startups will continue to benefit from being part of The Garage’s ecosystem. Alumni can retain access to the location, along with access to the community’s networking opportunities.

 Networking is an important element of what The Garage does. It hosts the Garage Disrupt event, where it encourages all startups -whether part of any of the campus’ programs or not- to join and network. The event takes place on a monthly or bimonthly basis, and it hosts between 400-500 individuals from the startup ecosystem.

 In addition, Al-Shabaan states that the venture capital (VC) community is an integral part of The Garage, where they meet startups during investor events, and they are also invited to all the networking opportunities. “Since we opened, we have hosted more than 20 events, attracting investors and showcasing startups,” Al-Shabaan notes.

 Other benefits of being part of The Garage’s community are manifold. The venue has full-time programmers on board who support any startup with any task required to enhance their technology- free of charge. Additionally, with the requirement for international entrepreneurs to set up their startup in Saudi Arabia to be part of some of the programs,

 The Garage has a partnership with the Ministry of Investments Saudi Arabia (MISA) to assist them with this process. With all this and much more in place, it’s clear that it’s full steam ahead for The Garage and its future. “What’s keeping us busy right now is first of all, making sure that the community that we are cultivating is a community of the best startups from all around the world, and supporting them with the right services,” Al Shabaan says. “Secondly, increasing the number of programs and creating new programs that can cater to a larger audience of startups and entrepreneurs. Also, creating more partnerships that can add value, whether on the VC scene or on others.” This is integral for The Garage, Al-Shabaan notes, and it is evident in the existing partnerships it has with the likes of NDTP, MISA, Google and more. “You can never work alone in the startup ecosystem,” Al-Shabaan declares. “You need to collaborate.”

 Governed by such a mindset, Al-Shabaan believes that the future is bright for the startup scene in Saudi Arabia. “In 2023, Saudi Arabia ranked first when it comes to VC funding in the MENA region for the first time, which shows that there’s a huge growth and interest and excitement about startups,” he says. “There are multiple unicorns that were made, and there are more to come, which means that the startup ecosystem in Saudi Arabia is growing at a very fast pace. This means creating jobs. This means wealth. This means contribution to gross domestic product. This means finding disruptive innovations that would make people’s lives better- and to be part of all of this, to be one of the enablers to for this to happen, is definitely very exciting.”

 Devina Divecha is an independent writer, editor, emcee and media consultant. With more than 10 years of experience under her belt, her work has appeared in a number of publications including Skift, SUPPER, HOTELSmag, Destinations of the World News, Spinneys Magazine, Entrepreneur Middle East, and more. She holds a BSc in Business from the London School of Economics and an MA in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield.

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