How to build a fintech ecosystem


22 November 2020, by Juma Alhamli, Senior Executive Director of Strategy and Business Development at Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM)

Abu Dhabi’s putting all the right things in place to create an environment in which innovators can thrive

From banking to financial services, to logistics and aviation, the business world has recently turned its focus on ‘ecosystems’, and how to build and maintain them. But, beyond a buzzword, what really is an ecosystem in the business context? What would such an environment look like for FinTech, and how can Abu Dhabi nurture such an environment to solidify its position as global hub for the nascent sector?

It might help to go back to first principles. After all, an ecosystem is a well-understood and researched concept in its original context of biological science. Essentially, to the scientists, an ecosystem is a highly interconnected, closed system in which life can thrive. Further, scientists have identified the five key enablers an ecosystem must contain to survive: energy, minerals, water, oxygen, and living things.

But what are the components a FinTech ecosystem needs to survive? It may help to look at what FinTech is, and look at the five key enablers Abu Dhabi has supported to build an environment conducive to FinTech innovations and innovators.

FinTech – Financial Technology -- is the adoption of new technology and innovation to transform the financial services sector and its products, while a subset of FinTech, RegTech, looks at how technology can streamline regulatory and compliance aspects.

In place of energy – the force that starts everything up and keeps it going - I’d say the equivalent in our FinTech ecosystem is ambition: the desire to grow the sector, and the will to make the decisions that allow it to flourish. In Abu Dhabi’s context, this is derived from the polices of the government, both federal and local, and the strategic vision of the leadership. This ambition is crystallised in the FinTech Abu Dhabi Festival. The annual event, attracting 5,000 delegates, provides FinTechs, venture capitalists and the wider investment community with a valuable opportunity to network, converse and innovate.

Then there are the ’minerals’. Here I’d say that’s the technical stuff – the solid regulatory and legislative framework, the rules and regulations that are the foundation of a strong, high-growth business environment. In this field, Abu Dhabi really shines, with Abu Dhabi Global Market, the emirate’s international financial center, being the jewel. Since its inception five years ago, ADGM has made supporting FinTech firms and adopting FinTech initiatives one of its core priorities.

A prime example of these efforts is ADGM’s regulatory sandbox, a first for the MENA region, and the world’s first digital version. The programme attracts international, regional and local participants to innovate and create progressive solutions under the supervision of ADGM.

When looking at water, we’re looking at the essential business services needed to thrive. Banks, accountants, lawyers, auditors, even office space fall into this category. Again, ADGM has worked hard on offering a ‘one stop shop’ for FinTech startups, where they can operate under special licenses and utilise the services of both ADGM entities and a host of global service providers able to operate under ADGM jurisdiction. This complements Abu Dhabi’s advanced business environment, which is home to some of the region’s best-known banks and regional HQs of multinational financial service companies.

Oxygen can only be money – or, to be more accurate – investment, and here’s another area where Abu Dhabi is at an advantage. The emirate and ADGM are home to a series of investment initiatives aimed at supporting the region’s start-up ecosystem. Foremost of these initiatives is the homegrown Hub71 accelerator programme, supported by Mubadala, Microsoft, Softbank, Abu Dhabi Investment Office, and situated in ADGM. In addition to this, Mubadala has recently launched Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners, a $1 billion fund that is based in ADGM and aimed at positively impacting the emirate’s financial ecosystem through sustainable returns.

Finally, we have the living things: both the FinTech firms themselves and, more literally, the real-live people working throughout the ecosystem, the talent behind the ideas and the employees across all sectors that bring FinTech to life. For firms, it’s the ambition, regulatory framework, services and investment together that allow them to thrive. For people, it’s a high-quality lifestyle, excellent working environment, low taxation and a host of intangible benefits.

A big difference between our environment and its natural counterpart, though, is that our FinTech ecosystem is open, while the natural one is ‘closed’. This means that, in our system, each component doesn’t just work to build a thriving FinTech sector, but adds knowledge, value and capacity to our wider business community, in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, the wider Middle East and, ultimately, across the globe.

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