Bounding Ahead

Saudi Arabia pledges $1 billion for AI startup accelerator at LEAP24

Artificial intelligence dominates the agenda this year at the Riyadh conference that is touted as the biggest tech exhibition in the world

LEAP24 opened at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh on Monday. (Photo: LEAP)

LEAP24 opened at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh on Monday. (Photo: LEAP)

With Ramadan expected next week, business events in the Gulf are reaching a frenzied pace before quiet sets in during the holy month.

Touted as the biggest tech exhibition in the world, LEAP24 got underway in Riyadh this morning, with many of the major players represented, including Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Dell, Cisco, SAP, Amazon Web Services, Alibaba and Huawei.

The kingdom was quick to break news at the conference, announcing a $1 billion commitment to its new accelerator for artificial intelligence startups. 

Abdullah Alswaha, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, announced the government’s massive capital injection into the program, which is less than one year old.

The accelerator, known as GAIA, is a collaboration between the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority, the National Technology Development Program and the U.S.-headquartered global AI community New Native. The project – based out of Riyadh’s startup space The Garage, which opened last year – has already recruited nearly 50 AI startups.

Indeed, AI would appear to be dominating the LEAP agenda: The kingdom’s flag carrier, Saudia, is introducing its virtual travel assistant over the four-day gathering.

Also working the event is Mohammad the humanoid robot, a “male” counterpart to Sara, who stole the show at last year’s conference with her Arab dancing and speaking in different Mideastern dialects.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to grant citizenship to a robot. Named Sophia and created by the Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics, she made her debut at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh that year. 

More than 1,800 international and local exhibitors, including 600 startups, are populating the exhibition floor at the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, and the Saudi government is showing off 30 of its agencies to highlight its national digitalization drive.

Meta executive Greg Marra will be speaking about building the metaverse to a largely receptive crowd: the GCC is one of the fastest growing markets for digital currencies, gaming and augmented reality.

Zayad Salem will talk about the future of sports in the kingdom, from his perch as head of sports operations at Kijami Saudi Arabia.

And from the cap table: Noor Sweid, Managing Partner of Dubai VC fund Global Ventures; Reema Khan, CEO of U.S. private equity fund Green Sands Equity and Chris Rust, Partner of Silicon Valley VC fund Clear Ventures, are set to speak.