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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Israeli who sold company to Google for $1bn wants to help UAE boost entrepreneurship

Waze co-founder Uri Levine says bringing in mentors can help to accelerate the growth of the country's start-up ecosystem

Uri Levine has invested in more than 10 start-ups since selling traffic app Waze to Google for $1bn in 2013. Courtesy of Uri Levine
Uri Levine has invested in more than 10 start-ups since selling traffic app Waze to Google for $1bn in 2013. Courtesy of Uri Levine

The co-founder of Waze, the crowdsourced traffic app sold to Google in 2013 for $1 billion, is offering to help the UAE develop a start-up ecosystem that "will create a better future for everyone".

Israeli entrepreneur Uri Levine said his home country and the UAE "are very similar in the sense that they're both small countries and they've both achieved so much in a short period of time, each one in a different way".

Israel has gained a global reputation as a start-up hub, and Mr Levine said he hopes to help the UAE boost its start-up ambitions. There are two ways of achieving this, he said.

I think it's going to be pretty amazing to be able to see 1,000 entrepreneurs out of the UAE

Uri Levine

"Number one, you try it yourself and it takes a longer period of time. Number two, you bring experienced entrepreneurs to help the local ecosystem in guidance and mentorship, so you can accelerate that process. And I think that this is something that I can actually help in the UAE.

"I would like to do that. I think it's going to be pretty amazing to be able to see 1,000 entrepreneurs out of the UAE. Not just more Careems, but rather than Careems more Ubers that buy Careems in other places."

Mr Levine's entrepreneurial experience began at Comverse, a voicemail provider that had Etisalat as a customer. It was a fast-growing business and while there he built a number of ‘start-ins’ – new business units within the company. This invoked in him a desire to strike out on his own.

He started Waze with Ehud Shabtai and Amir Shinar in 2008 but it took until 2010 for the company to figure out its "product market fit", Mr Levine said.

Product market fit is sometimes overlooked by founders but is vital to the success of any start-up, he added.

"Start-ups that did not figure out product market fit, you’ve never heard of them. They simply die out of irrelevance."

The key to product market fit is working out how something creates value, or what problem it solves.

"The reason that entrepreneurs are building start-ups is in order to make an impact, to change the world, it's not to make money," he said. "Now, if you create a lot of value to a lot of people, you will figure out how to make money out of that. Making money is a derivative of value creation, not the other way around."

Mr Levine, who left Waze following Google's acquisition, has since become a serial entrepreneur, investing in and advising more than 10 other businesses. He has not yet invested in the UAE, but is confident of the market's prospects, particularly within the context of the entrepreneurial ecosystem he is proposing.

He became the first board member of Moovit – a company similar to Waze that focused on public transport. It also achieved a $1bn exit in May this year to chip maker Intel.

He has also invested in FeeX, a company that looks to help people save money by introducing greater transparency around fee structures, particularly for retirement plans.

"My dad once told me, ‘If you don’t know how much you are paying, then you are paying too much’," Mr Levine said.

The business model of FeeX has had to adapt to different markets. It began in Israel as a consumer product, but when transported to the US it shifted as the company realised it was better geared towards financial advisers, offering them a way to easily sift through thousands of plans aimed at those saving for retirement.

"The mission that we had was basically to say, if you reduce the fees that you're paying on your retirement plan, you are going to retire richer," he said.

Another business, Fairfly, is a corporate travel management system which tracks airfares after bookings have already been made with a view to cancelling and rebooking tickets if fares drop. Roomer, meanwhile, is an attempt to create a marketplace to sell (or buy) non-refundable hotel room bookings.

All his investments share the common goal of "solving problems and figuring out different ways to create value", he said.

"And to some extent, I would say following always the same philosophy of doing good and doing well."

Mr Levine said he came to the UAE without any preconceptions with a view to speaking directly to those involved in the start-up scene – from business, government and academia.

Building a successful ecosystem involves "a combination of four or five different elements" – from business-friendly regulation to funding, developing relevant academic courses to create the engineers needed to build technology firms and encouragement of entrepreneurship in the media, he said.

"That will start to grow entrepreneurs as heroes because they are the ones that are going to change the world."

Published: December 14, 2020 09:00 AM

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