Abu Dhabi grad school aims to help bridge AI programmer gap

Emirates unit of Israeli VC platform deepens ties with MBZ University of Artificial Intelligence, OurCrowd’s Sabah al-Binali tells The Circuit


MBZUAI Professor Tei-Wei Kuo (left), MBZUAI Vice President Sultan Al Hajji, OurCrowd Arabia Executive Chairman Sabah al-Binali and investor Saad Shakhshir at signing of agreement in Abu Dhabi

When OurCrowd put down roots in the United Arab Emirates and built a startup focused on making sense of financial data, the Israeli venture capital platform found two of its first programmers at the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence.

The computer science graduate school was established in 2019 as part of the UAE’s push to become a Middle East spawning ground for technology businesses. Now, Jerusalem-based OurCrowd, which established a subsidiary in Abu Dhabi two years ago, sees the university as a source of high-value programming talent for young tech companies in its investment portfolio that are looking to operate in the Gulf.

“Within Israel, there’s a huge supply of engineers and scientists and programmers, but the demand for them is even greater,” Sabah al-Binali, executive chairman of OurCrowd Arabia, told The Circuit. In Abu Dhabi, he said, “we can get top people from around the world.”

To anchor the relationship, OurCrowd signed a memorandum of understanding with the university last week designed to help attract AI companies to Abu Dhabi and channel graduates into jobs at some of the startups financed by the crowdfunding firm. The agreement will help OurCrowd demonstrate its value in the oil-rich Gulf state, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords, al-Binali said.

The MOU calls for OurCrowd and the university, known as MBZUAI, to establish an AI-focused venture capital investment fund with the goal of attracting both international and domestic AI companies to use the campus as a technology accelerator for scaling up in size. Students from MBZUAI would be guided to internships and job opportunities at companies funded by OurCrowd that operate in the UAE, Israel and around the world.

It also establishes a strategic relationship between MBZUAI and Integrated Data Intelligence (IDI), OurCrowd’s fintech subsidiary in Abu Dhabi, to collaborate on research projects in applying AI technologies to a widening range of industries. In addition, partnerships are envisioned with government entities and related businesses.

“Part of MBZUAI’s existence is to foster entrepreneurship and this partnership creates a mechanism for incubating startups and creating local opportunities for the university’s pipeline of talent,” Sultan Al Hajji, the university’s vice president of public affairs, said in a May 9 statement. “Through this strategic partnership with OurCrowd Arabia, MBZUAI is forging ahead with its mission to develop a dynamic, vibrant, AI ecosystem that will help to position Abu Dhabi as a global center for AI.”

The university, which first started classes in 2021, has about 260 students from more than 25 countries, who are enrolled for master’s and doctoral degrees in computer vision, machine learning and natural language processing. It was conceived in 2018 as part of a national strategy for making the UAE a global leader in AI. Eric Xing, a former professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is the school’s president.

OurCrowd, founded by American-Israeli entrepreneur Jon Medved in 2013, enables smaller investors to participate in financing startups and bet on large returns if the companies are bought or go public. More than 224,000 people are registered to invest through OurCrowd in amounts as small as $10,000. The firm has provided funds for more than 400 companies, including Beyond Meat, Innoviz and Freightos, which trade on the Nasdaq.

After the UAE and Israel established diplomatic ties, OurCrowd was one of the first venture capital firms to set up operations in the Gulf nation, hiring al-Binali and opening an office in the Abu Dhabi Global Market free zone. It announced an agreement  with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, or ADIO, last November to create an AI tech hub and invest $60 million in the emirate. IDI, which enables businesses to organize vast troves of financial data through AI, is a joint venture between OurCrowd and ADIO.

Among OurCrowd-funded companies active in the UAE are ThetaRay, which helps banks track financial transactions and sniff out fraud; and Intell-Act, which uses AI to monitor cameras in airports, avoid flight delays and make operations more efficient.

Central to OurCrowd’s strategy was treating the UAE “as a two-way bridge, not one way,” al-Binali said. “It’s not just how can I benefit, but how can I benefit the potential partners.”

As funding has tightened from venture capital funds in the U.S. because of bank collapses and the global economic slowdown, tech companies have increasingly been looking at the Gulf states, pumped up this year by high oil prices, as a source for cash. Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala $284 billion sovereign wealth fund put out word that it’s ready to help finance promising tech companies while warning that due diligence will be intense.

“The overall, overarching perception today amongst a lot of our VC colleagues is that everybody should go to the Middle East and raise capital, because that’s where the money is,” Ibrahim Ajami, Mubadala Capital’s head of ventures, told the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., earlier this month, adding, “there’s a very high bar for it. Investors are much more sophisticated.”

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