NDRC Interview: Maha Al Balushi, MD of Techween, Oman Technology Fund

After studying in Oman and Singapore, picking up two diplomas in IT, a degree in Internet Applications, and finally a Master's in IT product Management, Maha Al Balushi's importance to the Omani ecosystem is clear to see. 

“I knew it was coming,” laughs Maha Al Balushi, as her impact on the technology startup scene in Oman comes into focus.

After studying in Oman and Singapore, picking up two diplomas in IT, a degree in Internet Applications, and finally a Master's in IT product Management, Al Balushi's importance to the Omani ecosystem was already on the rise.

Now, only a few years later, the evidence is everywhere. 

NDRC recently revealed plans to help run a new early-stage startup accelerator in Oman, in partnership with the Oman Technology Fund (OTF).

The initial contact between the OTF and NDRC came about through Dublin-based venture capital firm Atlantic Bridge Partners, due to OTF’s international investment activities.

The partnership highlights both organisations’ shared principles regarding the start-up ecosystem, with NDRC providing training and expertise to early-stage technology companies in Oman.

I’m a plug-and-play kind of person

- Maha Al Balushi

Al Balushi, MD of OTF, travelled to Dublin last week to launch the programme, with her experience in the technology startup space an obvious boon to the partnership.

Al Balushi has been all over the ecosystem since returning to Oman from Singapore, immediately joining the government-led Information Technology Authority, where she pioneered its SAS incubators, early flag-carriers for the country's fresh push into the digital startup space.

“The technology startup space was already in my mind before I travelled to study,” Al Balushi told NDRC. “I knew it was coming,” she said of what is now a government-led focus on future technologies, and business growth.

With the SAS incubation programme, Al Balushi was behind several international missions for Omani startups. For example, a few years ago she brought a cohort to Greece, showing these entrepreneurs what a challenging market looks like ahead of what was an inevitable, if short-term, oil-price led Omani crash.

“We were about to have a financial crisis, so I wanted them to experience what a challenging market looked like, and how those Greek startups are surviving,” she said. How are they surviving? “They become creative!”

From there, following the successful creation of SAS, Al Balushi moved to the Research Council in Oman, where she worked on the development of the Innovation Park Muscat (IPM), the newest and most ambitious science and technology development in Oman.

“There, I developed their incubation programme,” said Al Balushi, with IPM’s construction soon to be complete, and soon to house her next project.

Knowing that it could succeed, Al Balushi was brought in by OTF earlier this year, with Techween the latest approach to developing a new, entrepreneurial environment in the Middle East.

Techween is a pre-seed accelerator programme in Muscat. Up to ten young ventures from Oman and the surrounding region will be selected by OTF to participate. NDRC will provide accelerator expertise and personnel throughout the three-month programme, with OTF investing the required capital in the companies.

“I joined the day we (OTF) launched the programme,” laughed Al Balushi, with the wheels in motion several months before the NDRC announcement.

Al Balushi will now manage the accelerator from beginning to end, with the first ever cohort taking up office space at IPM in January.

The programme will include a two-week visit by the Omani ventures to Dublin in early 2018 to exchange learnings with Irish startups. Over the course of the programme, the NDRC team will work intensively with each startup, helping them to understand the value that their company can offer customers, their strategy for growth and getting them ready to meet the demands both of investors and the international marketplace. 

The technology startup space was already in my mind before I travelled to study. I knew it was coming.

- Maha Al Balushi

Culturally, Al Balushi thinks Oman needs most work, with intent no problem whatsoever. IPM’s construction, as well as a swathe of incubation and acceleration ideas in recent years, shows that. The first Oman-based venture capital firm was established last year with a $129 million fund.

But lessons will need to be learned for pre-seed entrepreneurs.

Omani’s will be receptive to the programme, according to Al Balushi, whose interest in building up the ecosystem comes up again and again. 

“I’m a plug-and-play kind of person,” she says, with networking something clearly prominent in her skillset.

“We’d like to see Oman becoming the hub for innovation and technology acceleration in the region. I think we have the criteria to manage that from a political and geographic standpoint and the new accelerator programme will help us with this,” she said.

OTF is a $200 million initiative established by the government-backed Oman Investment Fund (OIF) in 2016. It has recently partnered with 500 Startups, a San Francisco-based VC fund and global accelerator network, to train and accelerate growth of later-stage technology startups.