Generation Start-up: How Mental aims to boost learning and training using virtual reality

Building on its success in Abu Dhabi, the company aims to expand across the GCC and beyond

Hani Abu Ghazaleh, founder and chief executive of Abu Dhabi-based virtual reality company Mental. Photo: Mental
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Passion for computer graphics and video games led Hani Abu Ghazaleh to start Mental, a technology company focused on virtual reality.

Mr Abu Ghazaleh had a career of almost 15 years in the gaming industry, working for big companies such as Ubisoft, before he founded Mental in Abu Dhabi in 2018.

The company aims to boost learning through the use of new technology. It is also active in training employees of companies across sectors, as the use of VR technology picks up pace in the UAE and beyond.

“A combination of passion for immersive technology and the opportunity to use that to teach people for learning” was the main motivation behind starting the company, Mr Abu Ghazaleh said.

“We can actually get people to learn faster, to be more effective in their learning, to have training as an exciting exercise, rather than being dragged into the training room.”

Mental's clients in the UAE include satellite operator Yahsat, Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, better known as Taqa, and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR), the Ministry of Interior and Dubai Municipality, among others.

Immersive technologies, which include augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality, create distinct experiences by merging the physical world with digital or simulated reality. The use of VR technology is growing in different sectors, including education, entertainment, health care, construction and energy.

The immersive technologies market is estimated to grow to $1.49 trillion by 2030 from $81.82 billion in 2020, Prophecy Market Insights said in a report in September.

The global VR market was valued at $21.83 billion last year and is expected to expand by 15 per cent annually from 2022 to 2030, according to a report by Grand View Research.

“Virtual Reality has revolutionised the gaming and entertainment sectors by allowing users to immerse themselves in a highly simulated environment,” the report said.

“The growing use of this technology in instructional training, such as for teaching engineers, mechanics, pilots, field workers, defence warriors, and technicians in the manufacturing and oil and gas sectors, is propelling the market growth.”

Among the projects undertaken by Mental include “Mission to Mars”, a VR edutainment experience for Alef Education, as well as an interactive VR platform for Fanr staff to help them prepare for emergency situations and conduct site inspections.

Last month, the Hub71-based start-up also signed an agreement with Yahsat to train technicians operating in remote locations through VR technology.

Yahsat offers multi-mission satellite services in more than 150 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia and Australasia. It currently has fleet of five satellites that extend its reach to more than 80 per cent of the world’s population.

“The key value is that they [Yahsat] ship their products and antennas to remote areas. And with that, there's the complexity of training the technicians in those remote locations or even supporting them in maintenance … instead of flying somebody to all of these locations, every now and then, what we can do is basically get them to train remotely,” Mr Abu Ghazaleh said.

The global virtual reality market was valued at $21.83 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand by 15 per cent annually from 2022 to 2030, according to a report by Grand View Research. Photo: Mental

VR training is a lot more effective than traditional training “because people can train anytime from anywhere”, he said.

“Immersive learning also results in better retention of information.”

The demand for the latest technology is expected to continue to rise as its usage increases across sectors.

“There is a major investment now in what people are calling Web3. I truly believe that the next version of the internet is going to have VR and mixed reality”, boosting the demand for new technology, Mr Abu Ghazaleh says.

“So if you see this as the opportunity then we're talking about a multi-trillion dollar opportunity globally,” he said, adding that the UAE and other countries in the GCC are intensifying their efforts to adopt the new technology because of the benefits it offers.

As the adoption of the new technology increases across the region, Mental aims to expand its operations to Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest economy, as well as to other GCC countries.

“We have a very healthy pipeline of enterprise clients that are interested in working with us,” Mr Abu Ghazaleh said.

“Building on the success that we had in Abu Dhabi, we are looking at going into the rest of the UAE and to the GCC, and ultimately, globally.”

The company raised nearly $1.2 million three years ago and is planning to close a new funding round of $5 million in the next two months. The new funding is expected to help it expand its operations across the region.

It is also generating revenue as the number of clients increases, and it has been “cash flow positive” for a while, according to Mr Abu Ghazaleh.

The team at Abu Dhabi’s Hub71 has been “very supportive connecting us with the public and the private sector, doing introductions to investors, and VCs [Venture Capital companies]”, he said.

Hub71's deputy chief executive Ahmad Alwan told The National in October that about start-ups at Hub71 have raised more than Dh3.2 billion ($872 million) in funding, generated Dh2.5 billion in revenue and created 800 direct jobs since its inception in 2019 through to the third quarter of 2022.

“When you are working in a space like this one … the connections that the founders make and the support they give each other has been wonderful … everybody's rooting for everybody else's success,” Mr Abu Ghazaleh said.

COMPANY PROFILE

Founder: Hani Abu Ghazaleh
Based: Abu Dhabi, with an office in Montreal
Founded: 2018
Sector: Virtual Reality
Investment raised: $1.2 million, and nearing close of $5 million new funding round
Number of employees: 12

Q&A with Hani Abu Ghazaleh, founder and chief executive of Mental:

What successful start-ups do you wish you had started?

The types of start-ups that I really admire are the bold ones that basically go towards uncharted territories and face the challenges and the pain of being innovators and pioneers in that area … so anything that disrupts a whole industry and creates opportunities for other consumers or businesses.

An example of that is Airbnb, coming at the right time, and changing the way people are experiencing travel … nobody has done that. And it came at a perfect time when the economy was hit badly and people also wanted to travel. It provided a more economical way for people to travel but also provided a different kind of experience by helping people to stay in a home rather than a hotel.

What is your vision for the company?

The vision is to grow the company into one of the pioneering vocational training platforms in the world. I would love to see people around the world benefitting from the high-quality content that we have on the platform. I would love to see successful start-ups that start from the UAE, growing regionally and showing the world that innovation and success can start from the Mena region.

What new skills have you learnt setting up your start-up?

Being a founder of a company, it's almost like having two or three MBAs. You have to learn a lot of business skills because you have to wear many hats. There are areas like, early on, you will not be able to afford a CFO [chief financial officer] or you will not be able to sometimes afford a lawyer for every single contract that you make. So understanding all aspects of the business is a unique experience that I didn't get a chance to do previously, working in larger organisations. I also got to learn a lot about every single client that we serve, be it in the energy business or other businesses.

Who is your role model?

On the technology side, coming from the gaming industry, it's John Carmack, who built one of the first shooter games in the 1990s. He is now one of the key influencers in our industry … he is an inspiration. After all these years, almost three decades of development, he is still doing hands-on work and is not shying away from doing it.

On the business side, someone like Elon Musk … how hard he works to achieve … how ambitious he is to keep building one business after another is very admirable.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully, I will be healthy enough to continue being involved either in this business or in immersive technology. I love what I am doing and I have no plans to move away from it.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 4:00 AM
COMPANY PROFILE

Founder: Hani Abu Ghazaleh
Based: Abu Dhabi, with an office in Montreal
Founded: 2018
Sector: Virtual Reality
Investment raised: $1.2 million, and nearing close of $5 million new funding round
Number of employees: 12

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