Virtual incubation is here to stay

How COVID changed the way we mentor entrepreneurs

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Wa'ed's Entrepreneurship Innovation Ecosystem reinvented itself. In three days, we transferred the entirety of our mentoring, incubation and training programs online.

Looking back, it is clear the pandemic has fundamentally changed how businesses are incubated. The practice of virtual incubation -- training start-up entrepreneurs over the web -- is now the norm, born of necessity, but here to stay.


Dr. Sarah Ghaleb is the head of Wa'ed's Enterpreneurship & Innovation Ecosystem

The pandemic forced us to reevaluate how we serve entrepreneurs. Before COVID-19, incubation was a hands-on, labor-intensive experience. Start-up founders travelled to hubs such as Wa'ed to receive training and support and to network, raise money and share ideas.

But during a pandemic, physical interaction became a no-no.

We discovered that virtual innovation was more efficient. During 2020, Wa'ed incubated start-ups that created 109 new jobs, generated 3.5 million SAR in combined sales and attracted 10 million SAR in outside investment.


With delivery via broadband internet, Wa'ed was able to cover 100 percent of Saudi Arabia, instead of the roughly 25 percent we reached with our pre-COVID strategies.

Hindsight is 20-20, but looking back, it should have come as no surprise that virtual incubation would have major advantages.


Wa'ed's June 16 Google Startup Grind featured Ryan Feit, bottom right, the co-founder and CEO of Miami-based SeedInvest, one of the world's most successful equity crowdfunding platforms.

A big advantage is that virtual incubation allows data analytics to better track start-ups as they work toward performance outcomes on the way to market.  

Another reason virtual incubation went from emergency solution to industry standard is that many start-ups are in survival mode during COVID and thus open to online help and advice.

That's what we are observing at Wa'ed. The companies we incubate are eager to learn if virtual incubation can give them traction during the COVID crisis.


Virtual incubation has spurred innovations such as Bubble, a virtual meeting app from Last Link for Information and Technology, a Wa'ed incubation company.

Virtual incubation is letting Wa'ed reach bigger audiences faster. A virtual incubation session lets us pull in experts from around the world, and saves time and money.

We can also better pair entrepreneurs with investors and key stakeholders through Wa'ed's Innovation Entrepreneurship Society, the Gulf's largest association of entrepreneurs.

Virtual incubation is also evolving. The growth in web-based training is spawning new businesses and web applications that are refining and enhancing the virtual incubation experience, making it more life-like and tactile.

Consider "Bubble," a communications app for webinars and virtual gatherings from a Wa'ed incubated company, Last Link for Information and Technology. Bubble, which is in beta, brings real-life meeting experiences to the digital world.  Participants move icon bubbles on a screen to enter and exit small conversations at large online gatherings.


Taqi Sleel, founder of Last Link for Information and Technology, a Wa'ed incubation company, is developing "Bubble" to navigate virtual meetings. 

The experience is similar to walking through a convention hall, exploring smaller discussions of interest while screening out background noise from the larger group.

Taqi Sleel, co-founder and chief operations officer of Last Link, said virtual gatherings are fertile ground for app developers like himself.

"Virtual gatherings bring possibilities for new modes of interaction," Taqi said. "A lot of innovative energy is going into virtual communications for a long time to come."