In its second year, Unbound Bahrain was its biggest yet and composed of 35 per cent corporates and brand executives, 35 per cent founders and entrepreneurs, 15 per cent digital and media agencies, five per cent government and trade agencies, five per cent investors and five per cent journalists.
Day one saw contributions on the culture of innovation from Amazon, the challenges of managing passenger experience in an age of disruption from Bahrain Airport Company and opening remarks from HE Khalid Al Rumaihi, Chief Executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) highlighting Bahrain’s maturing start-up culture.
Over 100 start-ups from across the world exhibited at this year’s Unbound Bahrain event with large delegations from UK, India, Hong Kong and the wider MENA region. Major international and regional corporate tech players such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Zain and CrediMax partnered with the event to meet with and hopefully build relationships with early emerging market players.
In an exclusive interview with Banker Middle East, Daniel Seal, Founder and CEO of Unbound shared his thoughts on the fintech ecosystem in the region. What are your views on the fintech sector in the Middle East?
The Middle East presents an exciting opportunity for the world of fintech as it has huge untapped potential to be global leaders in the finance sector. They have already made several innovative developments in boosting financial inclusion and empowering the unbanked by creating new payment methods.
Not only this but the region is dedicated to nurturing new fintechs. So, in my view, in the next two to three years the fintech sector in the Middle East will boom with more payments, cashless economies and will disrupt the financial sector.
As a successful entrepreneur, yourself, from your experience, what do you think appeals most to corporations and governments about fintech companies?
The big thing in the industry now is finding innovative solutions to help the unbanked, progress towards a cashless economy, make mobile payments mainstream and find ways for the practical application of blockchain.
I think what appeals to corporates and governments in the Middle East, is that you’ve got a huge opportunity and a huge area of potential, which gives entrepreneurs the ability to see what happens elsewhere in the world and build products relevant to that marketplace, not even including looking at Islamic finance and other opportunities available.
Looking at the banking and finance sector in this region, where do you see opportunities for fintech’s?
There is huge potential for the growth in regulatory tech with the demand for innovative AI and quantum computing solutions. Large corporates are looking to invest in start-ups that can streamline the compliance process and reduce costs due to regulation breaches and there is a lot of opportunities there for start-ups.
The region should also take use of sandbox and mentorship programmes that are popping up in the region as this will be great incubators for growth. Then of course, there is endless opportunity in blockchain, payments, mobile application and developing a cashless economy across the middle east.
From your point of view, what are the major challenges faced by fintech companies?
It’s regulation—it’s if you’re dealing with mobile payments, with bandwidth and with data. I think the whole Middle East is undergoing an interesting digital transformation from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based economy.
This is an important time for fintechs as they need to ensure the infrastructure is there with the telcos and ensure the banks are willing to accept new ideas and new technologies. Secondly, make sure that they have the bandwidth and the talent to be able to develop those and lastly, have the entrepreneurial mindset.
Some of these challenges have already started to be addressed with Vision 2021 of the UAE who are championing entrepreneurship and you’re seeing this as well as in Bahrain.
Harbouring an environment that nurtures entrepreneurship and encourages experimenting with new technologies for banks, corporates and governments to embrace change and to give the right regulatory framework through sound boxes, the right corporate framework through acceptance and protection of IP and the ability for investment and funds to flow through to the growing economy.
There has always been a debate about banks and fintechs. What are your views on this? And how do you imagine a symbiotic ecosystem between the two?
I’m a big believer that collaboration is the key to any business, whether it’s in banking and fintech or it’s in the media sector, across industries and across vertical. Doing something alone, may give you more ownership but all the challenges that affect one company affect the other. Collaboration is the key.
If you see across the whole digital economy the concept of sharing economy, sharing knowledge helps, because if your business is good and my business is good, both our businesses benefit. Only if you’re a direct competitor is there concern but the banks need fintech, otherwise you’ll see what happened with, for example, TransferWise where people are now stopping their banks transferring money because they can do it cheaper with TransferWise and what you want to make sure is that the banks do not lose out by missed opportunities.
It reminds me of Blockbuster who were offered to buy Netflix a few years ago, they declined, and now Netflix is more valuable than Disney and Blockbuster is bankrupt, so sometimes the older institutions need to embrace and engage the younger more dynamic technology.
In terms of pace and development in this area, how would you compare this region to the rest of the world?
You’re seeing the Bahrain Fintech Bay with Abu Dhabi Global Markets, with others, that there is growth and speed developing in fintech in the Middle East and GCC. It is taking time, but again as you’ve got a region that is not really used to taxes, the concept of financial reporting, financial inclusion hasn’t really been there because people have kept their monies to themselves so, obviously, there is a culture change for the individuals and for international companies.
Everyone thinks that the GCC and the Middle East is an exciting place for fintech, so I think in the coming years we’re going to see it speeding up and getting more excited. In your role as Founder and CEO of Unbound, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of your work? I think the challenge for any Founder and CEO, is making sure that your business is growing rapidly and making sure that you have the infrastructure, the team and the capacity around you to deliver.
I think that is what’s very important for any entrepreneur—dream big, be bold, be ambitious and you’ll figure out how to deliver and make it all happen. It’s all about fulfilling your dreams and creating exciting opportunities. It’s about impacting society and doing some cool stuff in the tech sector. So, to summarise, it’s about dreaming big, working hard, delivering, having fun and not taking yourself too seriously.
Commenting on Bahrain’s commitment to building a strong start-up ecosystem, Al Rumaihi said, “The region has woken up to start-up potential. Bahrain is going to become a leading hub for start-ups, already start-ups can pilot their product and scale it beyond Bahrain.
You have a Government here who is willing and able to help startups succeed.” Complimenting that point, Sheikh Abdulla Al-Khalifa, Director of Communications, Zain Bahrain, explained, “Corporations are recognising the power and influence of regional start-ups, your Careem, Fetchr, Talabat are all disrupting traditional business models so corporations are adopting one of two solutions: find skills and resources to compliment them or find ambitious start-ups to partner with and help them develop.”
“Corporates need to partner with start-ups. Corporates are looking to transform recruitment and develop their existing employees. start-ups provide that linkage for them to solve problems.
Culture, values, needs and skills make high performers; imagine what this could do to businesses,” said Sahiqa Bennett, Co-Founder of Searchie, an Ai powered talent solution, who was also a finalist in the AWS Battle of the Startups competition at Unbound Bahrain.