Fenix deal presages Israeli VC investments into UAE tech ventures

Israel-based Maniv Mobility's VC investment into scooter-sharing company Fenix highlights the potential for Israeli investors to seed start-ups in the UAE, including ventures that focus on technology.

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The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates sparked a wave of excitement about the synergies between the two economies.

Investors, commentators and officials predicted that bilateral ties would unleash a flow of venture investment from the Middle East's main financial centre in the UAE into Israel's renowned technology start-up ecosystem.

 In a surprise, one of the first publicly announced venture investments between the countries actually went in the opposite direction: Maniv Mobility, an Israeli venture capital fund focused on transportation innovation, has announced it has led a $3.8 million investment round in Fenix, an Abu Dhabi-based start-up which operates a fleet of pay-as-you-go electric scooters, allowing customers to locate and rent them via a mobile app.

Deal shows potential for investment in UAE

The investment highlights what is perhaps to many a counter-intuitive dimension of the economic relationship: the potential for Israeli investors to seed start-ups in the UAE, including ventures that focus on technology for healthcare, analytics, security and cloud architecture.

"They (Fenix) found us, literally days after the normalization through our website," said Michael Granoff, the managing partner and founder of Maniv. "This is right in our sweet spot. We've been following the micro-mobility movement from the beginning. We have a thesis that smaller lightweight electric vehicles will proliferate in dense cities."

Jaideep Dhanoa, a co-founder of Fenix, said he was attracted to Israel for venture investors' experience in seeding mobility start-ups like Waze and Mobileye.

"As a mobility start-up in the UAE, we are naturally looking for the most value-adding investors that can support us in our mission. Hands down, when we look at the VC landscape in the region, in terms of mobility and experience, Maniv has this in spades," Dhanoa said.

Maniv aims to help Fenix expand its electric scooter sharing service to the entire Gulf, a market which Granoff says is on par with the U.S.

Even though the Fenix investment is a bid to grab a chunk of the regional market for short or "micro" transportation — and not in a strict sense a tech venture — experts say that it's a signal that the UAE holds the potential to become an address for Israeli investors to seed start-ups with innovative information technology (even if on a smaller scale than the investment Israel's innovation ecosystem.)    

UAE offers gateway to greater MENA region

  "We see Israeli investors and entrepreneurs looking to go the other way," said Nimrod Kozlovsky, a partner at Herzog, Fox & Neeman, an Israeli law firm planning to open an office in the UAE. "We see an appetite among Israeli entrepreneurs to open joint ventures in the UAE. They see it as a launchpad to a broader market."

A liberalised regulatory regime, an emphasis on private-sector participation and a first-class transportation infrastructure, continue to make the UAE a top destination for tech talent in the Gulf, and a gateway for businesses to enter the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region.

Kozlovsky said he expects investors from the UAE and Israel to team up on incubators and innovation programs in which ideas and innovations that already work well in other countries are localized for the Arab market.

VC targets include security, cloud and analytics

The lawyer said he foresees investment cooperation on localizing insurance tech, digital health, and customer relations software for markets in the Arab world. The collaboration is likely to extend beyond research and development to UAE companies availing themselves of Israeli consultants in fields of cybersecurity, risk management, cloud architecture, big data analytics, he said.

"We could not have imagined how many businesses in both Israel and the UAE  would have identified opportunities and synergies," Kozlovsky said.

Last month, Israeli venture investor Our Crowd held a roundtable with Israeli investors to highlight investment opportunities in the UAE. Our Crowd founder Jonathan Medved said he foresees investment in fintech, property tech, logistics, and digital health that could help seed what he called a "vibrant" start-up ecosystem in the UAE that includes investors from Israel and from around the world.

"This is just the first of many such investments," he said.  "The mistake that many people make is thinking that the flow of money between the Emirates and Israel will be one way only."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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