It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. From discovering fire to inventing the wheel, medicine, and countless inventions, humanity has constantly developed solutions, products, and ideas that were inspired by personal challenges or experiences.
Take Velcro. When Swiss engineer George de Mestral went for a walk with his dog in the Alps, he found his dog was covered in fuzzy thistle-like seeds called burrs. Mestral studied how the dog’s fur and these burrs attached to each other with tiny hooks. This inspired the creation of a fabric.
Today, with unlimited access to information and technology, there are many more ways of making the kind of discovery, or developing the kind of insight, that de Mestral did. Innovation is growing at an unprecedented rate, especially in the tech industry. And whether it’s an online shopping portal or taxi services on your smartphone, imaginative people are making ‘convenience’ their business – by creating products or services that cater to people’s day-to-day needs.
Among them are the teams behind Suncart, Ogro and Mikitsune – three of the rising startups housed at Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), part of Qatar Foundation Research, Development, and Innovation. We spoke to their founders to explore their entrepreneurial journey, and the benefits of being incubated at Qatar Foundation’s hub of tech innovation and entrepreneurship.
From challenges to opportunities
“When I came to Qatar in 2015, as a bachelor, I realized I had to take care of everything – from doing my own laundry, cooking my own food, and running my house, which included buying groceries,” says Khawaja Jaffer, founder of Suncart – a delivery platform where users can order groceries for doorstep delivery. “My office was located in West Bay in Doha, and I had to walk all the way to the mall to buy only 4-5 grocery items, every other day.”
For Khawaja, the ritual of walking to a mall after work to buy just a few things seemed tedious and time-consuming. When he spoke to his colleagues and young families, they agreed that visiting a supermarket for grocery shopping so often was inconvenient. For Khawaja, this was a sign that something had to be done about it.
“I invested my own money, raised some funds from angel investors, and started Suncart at the end of 2017,” he says. And now Suncart is increasingly capturing shoppers’ attention.
I like that I work with so many different startups; that everybody helps each other. It's a really nice community that QSTP has created, and it's continuing to grow.
Like Khawaja, Dana Irshaid, co-founder of Ogro, also wanted to find a convenient solution to the basic but critical aspect of home-making: grocery shopping. “When I got married, I found it really challenging in trying to balance my full-time job and erratic working hours with managing everything at home,” she says, explaining that she struggled with various delivery service options that were available at the time. “There would always be one or two things missing, which meant I had to visit the supermarket, and the delivery times wouldn’t suit me as I would be at work.”
These are the specific aspects she wants to offer to customers of Ogro, an app that, once launched, will aim to conveniently fulfill the grocery shopping needs of households in Qatar. “My experience made me think that people should be able to do it all without hindrances, and if there's something that can make our lives easier, I definitely want to be able to offer that.”
While grocery shopping is a key element in managing a home, another aspect is to manage those living in the home – especially children, and their time.
“My idea started three years ago when I was looking online for a site, forum, or page that could give me information about all children’s activities taking place throughout Qatar,” says Dayana Abboud, Founder of Mikitsune. “I noticed that something like this didn’t exist. It's quite difficult for parents to get information about, for example, sports activities, a park, or a library in Doha.”
Dayana saw this as an opportunity to create Mikitsune, an app for parents that acts as a single source of information specifically designed to cater to children across a wide age range, from newborn to 14 years.
Building a service for everyday life
With Qatar leading the world in terms of internet penetration, and Qatar's smartphone use reaching 75 percent, companies in Qatar who launch service apps to meet the demands of daily life are positioned to thrive.
“We started in 2017, and ever since then we have been creating content to inform parents in Qatar about activities for children,” says Dayana. “We feed information into the app by sourcing it through various channels, such as social media platforms and various forums.
“It makes us very happy to see more users on the app every day. We have also had some businesses reach out to us, asking for information on how they can feature their activities on the app.”
Mikitsune is a fully self-funded project, and will eventually seek to expand to the point where parents can book classes and venues on the app, which will allow for revenue generation.
“In the second phase of the app, parents will have the opportunity to book for classes directly on the app,” Dayana explains. “We will introduce more solutions that will give parents benefits to book through Mikitsune.
“The idea is to be able to buy classes, and subscribe to them on the app with an automatic renewal system for the subscription, reducing the hassle that parents go through.”
Meanwhile, online grocery shopping is now being considered as the new frontier in global e-commerce. The 2018 Nielsen Connected Commerce Report states online purchasing of packaged and fresh groceries has surged by 15 percent in the past two years; while IGD, a research and training charity focusing on the food and grocery industry, predicts that global online grocery markets will create a $227 billion growth opportunity by 2023.
“We set up Ogro in February 2019, and the app is yet to go live, but my vision is to facilitate the way to completely eliminate the need for someone to go to a grocery store,” says Dana, explaining that the delivery timing and methods at Ogro will be on-demand, reducing delivery times.
“I don't want it to just be something that just fills in a few gaps at home. I want it to be a very personalized service. If I order something for delivery, and it is expected to be delivered within 2 to 2.5 hours, I think to myself that instead of being stuck at home for that many hours, I might as well go to the supermarket and get the groceries quicker.”
As a delivery option, Ogro will have temperature-controlled smart-lockers to be placed in office and residential buildings where groceries will be delivered, to keep them fresh. Meanwhile, Suncart, in the near future, will be delivering in returnable insulated bags that protect perishable goods; and, with sustainability in mind, the company aims to ultimately stop using regular plastic bags. “Delivery will be in insulated bags which will be emptied at the delivery location, and brought back,” says Khawaja.
“We would also like to get involved in mitigating food wastage. Hypermarkets may have items that are close to expiry, so we will develop options for distributing these items to restaurants, large pantries, and canteens for workers where large meals are cooked, so that there is quick consumption before the items expire. We can support big hypermarket chains in this logistical process.”
Supporting the growth of Qatar’s tech landscape
Online shopping has been around for more than three decades, and has come a long way, supporting economic growth in many countries. Qatar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications states that Qatar’s e-commerce market is expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2017 to $3.2 billion in 2020 . That’s great news for tech start-ups.
“We’re beginning to see a lot of online shopping, not just for groceries, but for other things as well; and there's a lot of change in the way people view online shopping in general these days,” says Dana.
“At Ogro, we want to offer a return policy as well. We want to do this to open people’s minds to online shopping.”
“In my mind, there's this abstract thing that instead of filling a bag of fruit and vegetables, we're filling time in the bag, and giving people three hours of their lives back,” says Khawaja, adding, “Getting into e-commerce, and in groceries, is exciting for me. I think historically, this is the most difficult vertical in e-commerce.
This challenge is very exciting for me, and what motivates me even more is that we are trying to build a company with a Silicon Valley mindset from day one.
Hoping to expand into the MENA region as well, Khawaja appreciates the collaborative and creative environment at QSTP that allows him to bounce ideas off fellow incubatees. As someone from a banking background with analytical skills, Khawaja is trained in gauging and analyzing opportunities and situations, and making decisions.
However, he believes the tech support and advice he receives from fellow QSTP startups is invaluable. “On a weekly basis, we get advice on technology, on how to make connections to acquire investors, and how to build a company,” he says.
Dana agrees. “Being in QSTP gives us access to some of the brightest minds in the country – students studying at Education City,” she explains. “We have benefited from having interns from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Northwestern University in Qatar (both QF partner universities).
“I like that I work with so many different startups; that everybody helps each other. It's a really nice community that QSTP has created, and it's continuing to grow.”
The support that tech entrepreneurs receive at QSTP range from subsidized business support services; training, workshops and networking events; access to prototyping facilities, funding programs, and a network of mentors.