Silicon start-up

Dubai's Silicon Oasis, which hopes to be a hotbed of IT innovation in the Middle East, has its latest start-up in Sphere Networks. Sphere's CEO talks to ACN about his plans for the region and beyond.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  May 1, 2006

|~|hamedi200.jpg|~|Hamedi: There is no other tool that can offer these different functionalities.|~|Creating the Middle East equivalent of Silicon Valley is an ambitious idea, so it is no surprise to find that the project will be based in Dubai.

Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO), a government-backed project, aims to promote local IT talent and create challengers to the global software and hardware giants abroad.

Dr Eesa Bastaki, director of education and technology development, DSO, says: "The main ambition of DSO is to fulfil the ambition of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum, UAE Vice-President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, to make Dubai a knowledge-based economy by 2010.

"The vision is to create a semiconductor and microelectronics technology park in Dubai. We are trying to host anything to do with the value chain of the semiconductor industry."
Facilities will include design, manufacturing, testing, assembly, research and development, and an incubation centre.

"We are trying to look at technology transfer so we can create our own companies within DSO," says Bastaki. "That's why we have the research centre and incubation centre, to incubate ideas that could turn into start-up companies later."

DSO has also signed agreements with four UAE universities and plans to give students exposure to industry so that they can develop their technical skills and go on to work in the sector. "We have invested a lot in these universities," says Bastaki. "We have given them electronic design tools that cost millions of dollars."

The permanent location for DSO will be open by the beginning of 2007, and Bastaki hopes to have at least 100 companies in place in four to five years' time. The companies already in place, which include LSI Logic, Mindspeed and Synopsys, are a mix of well-established, medium and small companies.

One of the most recent start-up companies to join the project has high hopes of making a big impression. Sphere Networks released its first product, Arena Network Manager 1.0, in December. It has already been adopted by Emiricom for use in its international network operating centre.

"2.0 will add fault management functionality," says Mohamed Hamedi, CEO of Sphere Networks. "We want to show you how something that happens in your network impacts your business - not whether a port goes down or an access point fails, but the direct impact to your business - how is your application running and what's causing this delay.

"By the end of the year we are hoping to prototype at least a traffic analyser. What the traffic analyser does is gather data. It looks at traffic monitoring, it does anomaly detection, it does correlation, it helps you with planning, it might even be able to give suggestions and detect bottlenecks in your network."

Hamedi explains that all these different system components can talk to each other: "This means the traffic analyser can send instructions to the adaptive network access. It can say: 'I've detected a certain traffic surge in this area of the network because of this individual'. So it can go to the adaptive access and change his policy. ||**|||~||~||~|"These are completely different products but they can talk to each other. This is the power we're giving to the customer. We've developed policies that can gather information, analyse it and then take action.

"It could be anything; it could be going to the wireless manager and configuring the wireless access point to reduce the range should there be any interference. It could change security policies."

Hamedi is confident that Sphere can avoid the fate of many other start-ups. He says: "This company was built on a certain market need that was missing. Fizzling out is not on the agenda. We have a solid road map, solid backing, and we're on the right track."

Part of that security comes from a 30% investment by DSO, which has a member on Sphere's board but has no input in the day-to-day running of the company or its designs.

"It really does give us solid foundations to build on," says Hamedi. "The investment they have put into our company has doubled, almost tripled the size of our development team, which means that we can release products much faster onto the market. It increases our marketing fund, it takes our company to a much higher level."

Although he is of Libyan origin, Hamedi had never lived in the Middle East before 2004 and all of his working life had been spent in the US. He says he learned some valuable lessons in management there, which he hopes to bring over.

"I learned a lot of things there, like not micromanaging, trying to remove all the red tape and really allowing people to create," he says. "We have an open door policy, even in our lab we don't have high cubicles. People can see each other and interact with each other."

It is also up to the team to meet deadlines by managing their time the way they want, rather than obeying a rigid nine to five system. "I don't want to be time-driven, I want to be goal-driven," Hamedi adds.

Sphere's policy is to recruit promising new talent and to this end Hamedi is in talks with several universities in the UAE to offer an internship scheme.

Although the company is young, and it is Hamedi's first business venture, he has global ambitions. "In 2006, we'll concentrate on the GCC and Middle East," he says. "In the second half of next year we'll start spreading out, looking at the US market and the European market."

Sphere's Arena product, which can be downloaded as a trial version from its website, has already attracted interest from far afield. "We're getting activity from the US, Norway, Japan, Singapore, Germany, Spain - we're getting the whole of Europe and the US downloading our product," says Hamedi. "We're trying to figure out how they heard about us."

The company is currently trying to establish a sales and distribution network for its products, in countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Hamedi says Sphere is likely to float on the Dubai stock exchange within the next two years.

Hamedi is confident that Arena will continue to grow its audience, for a simple reason. He says: "We're going to be bringing innovation and new technology at a much better return on investment."||**||

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