LONDON: Sami Khoreibi is a seasoned entrepreneur and an investor in sustainable technology. Recognized by MIT Technology Review as a “Top 5 (Arab) innovator under 35,” Khoreibi is the founder and CEO of Incubayt Investments, a Dubai-based fund supporting entrepreneurs via access to capital, management and marketing insight.
A native of Toronto, Khoreibi entered the business world straight after graduation as the co-founder of Candax Energy, an international upstream oil and gas company funded by the Canadian capital markets, which he took public in 2007.
While running Candax, Khoreibi was a frequent visitor to the UAE, where he learned about the Masdar City initiative, Abu Dhabi’s ‘clean’ new city powered by sustainable energy.
“I noticed the trend in the cost of solar energy,” he told Arab News. “It was still expensive, but the cost per kilowatt was declining rapidly and looked like it would become competitive in the medium term.
“So, in 2007, we co-founded Enviromena Power Systems, one of the region’s first solar energy companies and based in Abu Dhabi. There was no venture capital ecosystem in the Gulf at that time. We raised investment from cleantech funds Zouk Capital in the UK and Good Energies in the US.” Enviromena built and operated a solar power plant in Masdar City — the first in the Middle East — and built similar plants in seven countries across the region. “It was an interesting and exciting time because we were educating the private sector, governments, utilities and the general population about the potential of renewable energy,” Khoreibi said.
Having achieved over $700 million in sales, Enviromena was acquired by a UK-based pension fund in 2017. The value of that deal was not disclosed but, according to Khoreibi, “it was a substantial exit for all involved.”
In 2019 Khoreibi launched his Dubai-based venture capital fund Incubayt as the sole investor, focusing on sustainable technology.
“We’ve done 13 investments,” he said, “all early-stage investments, from inception to Series A funding. We invest where we can add value. With 16 years in the Gulf sustainability sector, we can navigate the landscape of bringing a new idea into the region. And as our companies mature, we can leverage the ecosystem we’ve developed to help get them to the next phases of capital.”
Khoreibi hit upon one bright idea during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020. “I was thinking about how to impact the consumer side of sustainability. Something that jumped right off the page was water. The way we deliver water today is pretty much broken.
We fill a bottle made of hydrocarbons and ship it halfway across the world for people to drink 500-milliliter units. It doesn’t make any sense, either from sustainability or economic standpoint.”
“Existing water filtration systems work well but require installation and maintenance. We partnered with a Toronto design firm and a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen to develop an install-free filtration system using reverse osmosis and re-mineralization. We’re launching in the US in the coming months, then hopefully in the UAE in the fourth quarter of 2022. Incubayt developed this project from inception to the point where we can attract third-party finance.” Meanwhile, Incubayt has invested in another fund called Hatch & Boost, again out of Dubai, “which looks at de-risking the early stage of a business.” Incubayt is a minority shareholder, and Khoreibi is the non-executive chairperson.
One beneficiary of Hatch & Boost is a smart agriculture company, World of Farming, which grows animal fodder ‘vertically’ and without soil. “It’s non-imported fodder, healthier, more sustainable, and at a lower cost,” Khoreibi said. For Khoreibi, investment is about a positive environmental impact instead of focusing on specific industries.
“We’re sector agnostic,” he said, “as long as we’re disrupting the sector with sustainability. We’re also looking at waste management, specifically around compost. “It’s just about coming up with a better product at a lower cost and real value in terms of sustainability.”
Need for clean infrastructure
Khoreibi points out that for Saudi Arabia to achieve net-zero by 2060 and the UAE by 2050, there will be a significant investment in clean infrastructure.
“We believe there’s an opportunity at the earlier part of that cycle,” he said, “investing in early technologies and early business models and being at the grassroots of those net-zero initiatives.
“Enviromena was initially seeded by venture capital, and within a decade, got bought out by pension capital — which shows how quickly the cycle moves.
“And for many different sectors focused on sustainability, we could see a similar path. Today there are clearer targets, governments are aligned, and the number of entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas in the region is spectacular.”
What, in Khoreibi’s view, is spurring this renaissance of innovation and creative entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East and North Africa region?
“A couple of things are driving this rapid change,” he noted. “First is that we’ve had some successful outcomes. Historically, it took bravery to say, ‘I’m going to try to start a company, raise capital, and then have a successful exit.’ But now we’ve seen some really good funding rounds and exits in the region, for example, Careem being acquired by Uber — proving that if you have a great idea, and the urge to jump into it, there can be a successful outcome.” “Second, the capital markets are reflective of that. When we started Enviromena in 2007, it was virtually impossible to raise venture capital out of the region. It just didn’t exist. Now that ecosystem is there; it’s well-funded and ready to deploy.
“And if you marry that with a young generation of people who have seen the positive outcomes and believe, ‘If we try, we can make this happen’ — it makes for an exciting and still very nascent ecosystem.”
Building better ecosystems
Khoreibi says that what makes Incubayt unique and different is that he and his colleagues “love to get our hands dirty with the entrepreneurs.”
“We come in early, and the entrepreneurs live in our offices.” “But not because we’re saying, ‘you got to get stuff done.’ It’s more like, ‘how can we help out?’
“Plus, I was a founder and understand the pain points other founders face on the journey from idea through to a liquidity event.”
What is Khoreibi’s message to young people in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and North Africa region who are thinking of entrepreneurship rather than a salaried career?
“I would tell them first of all congratulations because there’s never been a better time. If you have a good idea, jump in there, and don’t be afraid to fail because failure is part of the entrepreneurial reality.
“There’s never been a stronger ecosystem in the region. All the trends are pushing in the right direction, and the support structures are in place.
“And if you are thinking of something that will make the world a better place, we’re all ears – feel free to contact us!”