Generation start-up: Innowork looks to bridge skill gaps through AI

Dubai-based firm plans to raise $10m in Series A by March 2020

Innowork founder and CEO Peer Mohaideen Sait.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)


When Peer Mohaideen Sait graduated in chemistry in 1998 from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, like scores of other graduates, he was primed for a career in science.

However, unlike other graduates, he harboured a deep desire to join the corporate world — an unlikely career trajectory for many science graduates in India in the 1990s.

Today, the 43-year old founder and chief executive of Innowork, a Dubai-based artificial intelligence-backed learning and skills development platform, is helping orient new employees and hone the skills of existing workers across all kinds of business.

"The era when we graduated and the era in which people are graduating now is totally different because at that time you didn't know whether you would get a job or not," says Mr Sait.

After working as a researcher with the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Mr Sait joined the research and development department of Unibeton, a cement company in Abu Dhabi, as a chemist working primarily in quality assurance.

He soon realised that he wanted to develop by learning various management skills, as well as IT capabilities such as coding.

"I practiced Lean Six Sigma consulting. Every year, I started to learn new certifications. If you look at my CV, every year I would complete at least two-to-three courses," says Mr Sait, who has a Master of Business Administration degree from the Hult Business School, as well as executive MBA qualifications from Harvard and Wharton.

While working for the Abu Dhabi Municipality, he realised that most corporations, small businesses, and government offices faced the same challenges in terms of developing their new recruits.

"I gave consulting [services] to 100+ companies. For every company, the biggest challenge is to improve the skills of the employees to the next level," he says.

"The first challenge is [determining] what competencies are required for each role in the company. Second, if there are five business development managers, for instance, how [compatible are they for] the competencies required for the role," he adds.

Between 2014 and 2016, Mr Sait hired four MBA graduates to build a skill ontology —  a structured resource for identifying and developing skills.

The team collected 150,000 job titles globally, profiling what skills would be needed for those recruited to these positions. They also partnered with various learning resources such as Udemy to provide more than 100,000 courses to enable new recruits to gain the necessary skills during their orientation phase. The software helps identify any gaps in skills and automatically recommends courses for the recruits to study.

"During onboarding, the system can also recommend the new joiner for another position that best matches his skills," says Mr Sait.

Following orientation, the employee's performance is also evaluated with another software that allows for daily feedback, appreciation and rating from line managers.

"Based on that, the company can decide on bonuses, promotion, succession planning and [if] someone is on emergency leave, [it] helps to decide who is the best person to replace them," says Mr Sait.

Next year, Innowork, which currently has 10,000 users for its products, plans to launch its software on a "freemium" basis to start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr Sait's company, which raised $2.5 million in angel investment from prominent Emirati investors including the Al Masaood Group, is working on its Series A round. The company plans to raise $10m before March 2020 from angel investors and venture capital funds and is looking to embark on an expansion to the US, South East Asia and Europe.

Innowork currently runs two offices in Dubai and in the southern Indian city of Chennai, which covers the back-end of the operations with a staff of 32.

The company plans to add 100,000 enterprise users for each of its products by 2020 and targets reaching a million enterprise customers the following year. The company also plans to add one million start-ups and SMEs to its customer base in two years.

A new focus for Mr Sait is also reaching out to universities to help develop curricula that match the skill sets required by industry and an evolving labour market.

"One of the challenges in the world is a mismatch between what students are learning and what the workforce wants," says Mr Sait.

"In the future, we want to go into the next level, to the university level and implement a similar approach but with changes and [help connect] the university with the corporate world," he adds.

Innowork is planning a 2020 launch for the product.

He believes that 95 per cent of graduates will transition into roles they were not prepared for, citing his own trajectory as an example. With technology, he observes, the learning and development that happens during this transition can be more easily identified and achieved.


Date started: May 2017

Founder: Peer Mohaideen Sait

Based: Dubai

Sector: Learning and development

Staff: 38

Investment: $2.5 million from various Emirati investors including Al Masaood Group