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In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review during LEAP2023, Tarun Sharma, COO at Nokia Ventures, shared his insights on exploring the Middle East from a venturing perspective.

Please tell us briefly about the portfolio that you are managing and your participation at LEAP.

As a backgrounder, we do three things from a venturing perspective: Internal incubator & accelerator, external venture building, [as well as] Corporate Venture Capital (CVC), through NGP Capital. Within internal incubator, we have few ventures already ongoing and operational. On external venture building front, we work with venture ecosystem players to create NewCo. (those which we think are better suited to be driven outside of Nokia for various reasons). Then on CVC side, in Februrary 2022, Nokia commited $400m to NGP Capital Fund V for investments in game-changing growth companies. Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region is obviously important for our business. However, from a venturing perspective, we are still learning about this region, and that’s why I am glad to be here at LEAP — to experience personally some of the exciting things happening in this region.

What has been your experience at LEAP this year?

To be honest, I am pleasantly surprised, not just in terms of scale and diversity of companies present, but equally about technology ambition and innovation agenda I have witnessed over the last few days.

For example, during this visit, I had the opportunity to met various regional VCs and their partners, such as Raed Ventures, e& Capital, STV (Saudi Technology Ventures), just to name a few. When I look at the level of ambition, funds and their investment strategy, both in terms of current portfolio and pipeline, it is very impressive and bold. We have already seen it happen in many other venture ecosystems as well, whether in the US, European or Asian markets, and now it’s very exciting to see that here in this region.

As you mentioned, you are exploring the Middle East region as an exciting place for ventures. How do you see the market maturing?

From a venturing perspective, this region is new for us, as I indicated earlier, so there’s bit of learning going on here for us. From emerging economies perspective, NGP Capital has made investments in nearby countries, India and China, and even currently have companies in its portfolio from those countries. In terms of market and key takeaways, there are few areas which stand out and there’s lot of excitement and investment talk going on: Fintech and broadly speaking e-commerce, Smart Industries (incl. heavy industries) and their digitalizational journey (enterprise saas, sustainability), and smart cities of future. From a market maturity perspective, having local venture ecosystem is critical, and there’s lot going on here. I also met BIM Ventures, which are somewhat different to the above VC companies I met; they are effectively venture builder and studio. They can invest into an idea stage i.e. at a grassroot level and scale up all the way with partners. This kind of ecosystem support, where one can invest from early-stage to late stage and growth stage is critical. Based on the numbers that I saw yesterday at an event, there are some gaps in the growth stage but it’s just a matter of time. Clearly, there are ambitious goals from top leardership from the region and respective governments, with right level of support, investments and policies. So, the ecosystem here is picking up and it surely is going to accelerate.

In such an ecosystem, what role is Nokia Ventures playing to facilitate it?

Nokia is a technology company, and in our 150+ years of existence, we have re-invented ourselves multiple times in multiple industries. In terms of future opportunities, Nokia believes it can contribute in various emerging themes such as, metaverse(s), industrial digitalization, human augmentation, digital physical fusion etc. with critical network as a backbone - to create technology that helps the world act together. Not sure if you had the opportunity to hear our CEO Pekka Lundmark’s talk at LEAP, nevertheless, I invite you to read about our company’s tech vision here - Nokia Technology Vision 2030. From a venturing perspective, we are pushing the boundaries by looking into non-core areas outside of our core business. Let me give you some examples: we have an internal venture ongoing around - fleet of small, autonomus indoor drones monitoring warehouse inventory (with digital twin of your facility); another one is real time 360 video and 3D audio for industrial communications and applications. On the other hand, we have technology developed by Nokia Bell Labs around Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), now being applied in health sector with the help of external venture builder. Ventures such as these, or new ventures, foster enterpreneuship, innovation and create new possibilities. As we learn more about the region and potential opportunities, we look forward to exploring new exciting areas of collaboration with partners from this region.

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