Put on your virtual reality headsets and enter a new dimension.
That is the message that Shaffra, a metaverse-as-a-service platform, has been trying to get across the UAE and the wider Gulf region.
The start-up is focusing on how corporates and large entities such as government agencies can benefit from using the metaverse technology today.
It has its offices at the Dubai International Financial Centre Innovation Hub – the largest cluster of FinTech and innovation companies in the region.
Metaverse-as-a-service, or MaaS, can simply be described as an enterprise solution that will enable businesses to penetrate the metaverse with their own virtual worlds for various uses.
Shaffra’s 3D engine offers an affordable solution for government agencies and corporates to build their own virtual worlds, thereby simplifying the process of entering the metaverse for everyone.
With its immersive interface, Shaffra says its aim is to transform the traditional ways of engaging with customers in a virtual space.
Through the start-up's 3D technology, users can interact and collaborate with each other and with digital assets in real time.
“Our platform empowers organisations to deliver a more engaging and memorable experience for their customers, employees and partners,” says Alfred Manasseh, one of the three founders and Shaffra’s chief metaverse and operating officer.
With a customised metaverse platform, organisations can “reach new audiences”, he says.
They can also “increase engagement” as well as “offer new and exciting experiences” while scaling their business and keeping operations cost-effective.
The idea for Shaffra, which means “code” in Arabic, came about when one of Mr Manasseh’s customers from his side business – a legal advisory firm – was looking to get a crypto licence in the UAE.
“That’s when I reached out to my university friends of 20 years – we studied together in Canada – and we decided to create a crypto exchange,” says Mr Manasseh, 37, a Lebanese national
“But then we thought about how we were going to really differentiate ourselves from the other major crypto exchanges that are out there. At the time, it was mainly Binance and Coinbase, and there were a few local start-ups as well.”
They decided to use the different types of metaverse technology for businesses and corporates “because there is nothing really out there of the sort”, he says.
“The crypto exchange is still on our mind, but then it can become part of our overall or overarching solution. So at that point, we completely pivoted our start-up idea,” he adds.
The company was registered with the DIFC Innovation hub, which allowed it to seek investors.
As is the case with any start-up journey, the beginning was tough for Shaffra, too.
“I don't know how many VCs [venture capitalists] or how many investors we met. It was about the same time when there was a major crypto winter, a major crypto crash, so anything that was emerging tech and new, and anything that was related to the metaverse, was considered risky. We were getting turned down a lot,” says Mr Manasseh.
The company then started tapping into the ecosystem of the UAE government sector.
“There was the whole government initiative in terms of the Dubai Metaverse Strategy. And then, we started hearing about Abu Dhabi – what they’re doing in this domain,” says Mr Manasseh.
The metaverse can potentially contribute about $15 billion to GCC economies by 2030, with Dubai alone expected to generate $4 billion and create 40,000 new jobs within the next five years, according to PwC. Dubai launched its metaverse strategy in July 2022.
This growth is driven by factors such as increasing internet penetration, rising demand for virtual events and conferences, and the growing popularity of gaming and social media, the consultancy says.
According to Gartner, by 2026 at least 25 per cent of people will spend a minimum of one hour every day in the metaverse for different purposes such as work, shopping, education and even entertainment.
In December last year, Shaffra managed to attract investment of $220,000 from an accelerator that is funded by regional start-up accelerator programme Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi, according to Mr Manasseh.
“That allowed us to start working on our MVP [minimum viable product],” he says.
In March, Shaffra won its first bid to build the metaverse for the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, following which, the company got a lot of interest from Saudi investors.
The company is now in the process of wrapping up its seed round, or pre-series A round, of funding of about $1.5 million.
It aims to close the round by the first quarter of 2024, and has set a valuation target of $100 million.
Omantel, the largest mobile operator in Oman, is other company in the region that Shaffra is working with.
“Investors in this region come with a vision, and that’s what I like about them,” Mr Manasseh says.
“Our pipeline is growing strongly, though when we first started, we understood that adoption is a big issue here in the region.
“The way we look at it is that the metaverse should really be an extension of the business’s operations. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel or recreate things that are already out there. We want to integrate whatever solution is out there and enhance the experience of the users.”
Shaffra is initially focusing on governments and large corporates. With two customers in its fold, the company is in active negotiations with many more.
“By the end of this year, we would be having between seven and 10 active customers, ranging from different telecoms, different government departments and in the banking and events sector as well, Mr Manasseh says.
“Initially, those customers are going to enable us to build the features required for specific industries … The same goes for banks, for police departments, and for any kind of service-orientated industry.”
He says that the company, which works on a monthly subscription fee ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 a month, will start to become profitable and self-sustaining once it crosses the 10 client-mark.
Going ahead, Shaffra plans to launch its operations in Saudi Arabia. “We have very good traction in terms of sales pipeline in Saudi Arabia. The same goes for Oman,” Mr Manasseh says.
The company is also in the process of filing its patents in the US, he adds.
The next venture Shaffra plans to tap into is the gaming industry.
“What we focus on is ease of access. So, we built our engine to be used on many devices, be it on the web browser, on a VR headset, on a desktop or on a mobile application. Our USP [unique selling proposition] is flexibility of hosting,” says Mr Manasseh.
“No platform is truly as device agnostic as ours.”
Q&A with Alfred Manasseh co-founder and chief operating officer of Shaffra
What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?
I've always been fascinated by Tesla's vision and their dedication to sustainable energy. If I could have been a part of any other venture, Tesla would be a top pick. Their approach to integrating cutting-edge technology with sustainability truly resonates with me.
What is your next big dream to make happen?
My next significant ambition is to democratise global talent access and revolutionise the learning landscape through the metaverse and AI. I envision a world where geographical boundaries become irrelevant, and anyone, from any corner of the globe, can have access to top-tier education and skill development opportunities.
By integrating Shaffra's metaverse technology and advanced AI tools, we can create hyper-realistic, interactive and personalised learning environments. This not only makes education more immersive but also tailors the experience to individual learning styles and paces. My dream is to bridge the global knowledge gap, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their location or background, has the tools and opportunities to reach their full potential.
What new skills have you learnt since launching Shaffra?
Launching Shaffra has been a transformative journey for me. Beyond enhancing my technical knowledge and understanding of the metaverse, I've learnt the importance of resilience, adaptability, and cultivating a customer-first mindset.
Every day brings new challenges, and going through the evolving metaverse landscape has tuned my skills in strategic planning and visionary thinking.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
If I had the chance to begin our journey with Shaffra anew, I would prioritise developing parallel solutions – one focusing on government-centric applications and the other on our Shaffra builder tool for democratising metaverse access.
Who is your role model?
Leonardo da Vinci. A polymath! He merged art, science, engineering, and imagination in ways no one had ever done. In many ways, the metaverse is our modern-day canvas, combining arts, science, and engineering in ways that are only limited by our own imagination.
Where do you want to be in five years?
In five years, I see Shaffra becoming the go-to platform for metaverse integrations across industries. Personally, I aim to be at the forefront of metaverse evolution, contributing to research, development, and building a global community around this technology.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to remain relentlessly curious and adaptable. The business landscape is dynamic and the only constant is change. Also, always remember why you started your journey; your passion and vision will serve as your guiding light during turbulent times.