Headshot of Yasser Biaz

Yasser Biaz is the chief executive of UM6P Ventures, the venture fund of University Mohammed VI Polytechnic in Morocco, and he joins us today to talk about why it focuses on deeptech and builds and invests not just in spinouts from its home institution or even just across the country, but throughout Africa and beyond.

UM6P Ventures is a relatively young fund — it was set up in 2019 — but that hasn’t stopped it from coming up with some interesting programmes that even Silicon Valley, where Yasser spent the majority of his early career, could learn from.

Yasser also ponders why UM6P Ventures focuses on agrobioscience, health tech, energy, AI and industry 4.0, and why that means a report identifying Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya as the big players in Africa might not be telling the full story.

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Transcript

Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

Yasser, welcome.

Thank you very much for having me today with you.

It is a pleasure to have you. I look forward to the conversation.

I do as well.

To start with, can you give me an overview of UM6P Ventures, perhaps with some key figures?

Sure. So, UM6P Ventures is the VC arm of University Mohammed VI Polytechnic. So, we are essentially the ventures arm for the university to help the university extend its mission beyond just education and prototyping. Our mission is to do investments and venture building for the transition from lab to market. Generally, especially in deep tech, investments are very, very tricky in an early stage and so we act as a buffer to de-risk, if you will, the project and transform it into an asset for it to become investible by essentially other investors as well.

What prompted the creation of UM6P Ventures then, because you are a fairly new organisation still?

Yes. The university is pretty young, huge ambitions, and innovation and entrepreneurship have become the integral part within education. Our university does support, they have actually incubation and acceleration type of programmes for general entrepreneurship. Obviously deep tech being a different type of animal requires a different support system. We are pushing for that as well.

So, if you will, even conventional or traditional universities have been establishing technology licensing centres and the like, so that they can interface and push out outbound some of this IP. So, obviously our university as well intends to continue to essentially to push for innovation towards the market and not just to consider that the university is done when IP is published. So, it is a general trend. It is just that we each do it differently.

Yes, of course. You do not just work with companies out of the university though. Why are you targeting a broader range of startups?

Obviously as you mentioned, our deal flow is not explicit or specific to our university, so unlike other VCs that act almost like a corporate VC, meaning whose mission is to just take IP or any kind of innovation outbound to the market, our university has a broader mission even throughout Africa, and so our university has been working with a network of other universities to push for excellence, and just to mention one thing out of many, for example, our university has a partnership with international universities and trying to push for centres of excellence across Africa.

So, our mission is not just our university, but essentially the whole ecosystem at large. So, we have responsibility to work and contribute to the ecosystem in Morocco and even more grandly across Africa. So, having these partnerships, it becomes our mission to help them get there.

How do you go about sourcing your deals?

We have a couple of ways of sourcing. Obviously, there are all the opportunities that emerge out of the universities. We have platforms and labs and so forth. So, sometimes there are these organic types of ventures that emerge.

But we also work with other campuses so that we can work with them as well. So sometimes, for example, for a big bet type of science, or at least industry, for example, agri-biosciences, what we will do is essentially call for applications locally but also internationally. So, if we feel that other startups abroad, internationally, anywhere in the world can be a good reference model for us, we will go after it because it becomes for us a beacon to something that other startups will want to attain.

So, that is why we have a multi-prong sourcing strategy. I know I have been on getting a lot this type of question, which is, do you work on organic deal flow? No, national. Continental, yes. And even broader internationally, yes. If there are learning and synergies because the whole idea is not just for us, it is use of the startups of their patience to learn, but I think that we are bringing also something that other investors cannot put on the table, and we can discuss that, but namely, it is the support system and venture building capability. So, I can elaborate on that later.

We will get back to that. But you mentioned agri-biosciences as well. You focus on three verticals, The others being health tech and energy, and then horizontals being Industry 4.0 and AI cybersecurity. Why the focus on these sectors?

Yes, and why they are arranged that way? First, let me just explain to you the difference between what I call vertical, what I call horizontal. So, if you will, agri-biosciences, and I will describe that nomenclature, is for me vertical because it has depth. It has its own applications, but artificial intelligence or internet of things, these are more horizontal.

There is no such thing as just pure AI. It is AI in healthcare, in farming, in biotech or something like that and the same for IoT if it is deployed somewhere. So, at least that explains at least the structure of the verticality and the horizontality. So, now you will ask, why these topics? So, the thing is that this was a precursor to the current situation and food crisis and the energy crisis and so forth. It is just to take note of the fact that the future is carried by securities and everything that is food, the food system, production and consumption system or conditioning, health and energy are vital.

These things have been just amplified now that we have gone out essentially of covid, just to find out that we have all these things to deal with. Obviously, our ecosystem partners of universities and others, they have a lot of value to bring into the game. So, just to describe these three verticals, as you mentioned, agri-biosciences, health and energy. So, let me even start backwards.

Energy in our university, we have the Green Energy Park, and we have a lot of partners in energy. So many of these solutions just emerge out of that park or with other partners and obviously, we have a few startups in that portfolio from production to optimizations, battery side and so forth. On the health side, we have also an internal institution within our university that, for example during Covid, they had developed this Covid diagnostic solution just with light, with photonics. So, we do cover health on a number of different areas, but it is not as mature.

So, we have a few startups doing AI in healthcare. So, it is essentially malformation diagnostics. We have non-intrusive diagnostics with photonics. We have a couple of startups working on some treatments, monoclonal antibodies and the likes. But the area that is of utmost focus, and I will explain also the reason why we are doing agri-biosciences as a big bet. For one thing, agri-biosciences, and how we see it is presented in many other places, it is not just ag tech as an IoT or marketplaces. We actually go into the physics, chemistry, and biology of the complete system; soil, plant, atmosphere. So for example, we have a few startups that work on spectrometry to characterize soil and understand what is happening there.

We will work on biologicals as well to understand what kind of living you have in this soil and how that interacts with the plant. On the plant side, for example, we work with startups that do CRISPR and others that do alternatives to CRISPR, which is chemically induced mutagenesis. So that, even with the regulation, you have at least two alternatives. We will work on biologicals for plant biocontrol, bio-pest, pesticides, and so forth. We do post-harvest loss. So, it is essentially treatment for produce so that it features extended shelf life, and the likes. So anyways, I am sorry, I just rattled on about this verticality and explained, at least the extent of how we push in any one of those verticals.

Was that focus there from the outset or did that come organically?

To be totally transparent and honest with you, we launched at the same time the agri-biosciences and the health verticals and obviously, agriculture is going to be easier because for one thing, everybody needs to eat.

And also, agriculture is more dominant in Africa, so you have more pathways to get into these types of things, a lot of biologists, chemists, and so forth that are in that field. So, it is just a little bit, I will say, a little bit more organic as a business. In health, it is a little bit more convoluted. Why? It is just because even getting funded for those things is a little bit trickier. The cycles regulation and so forth are a little bit trickier as well. But we have a health portfolio. I mentioned a few and I just recalled we also have a couple of startups that are in Africa.

For example, one is working with farmers in the US that are working on FDA approved drugs. So, we want to make sure that there is medical efficacy in Africa and so that means is that we want to have representation also of samples being in the test phases of developing the drug. Other startups obviously in online pharma, and so forth.

So, that is why it is a choice. Honestly, it is just an organic opportunity. You have much fewer partners, if you will, in health. It is just a lot of generics and so forth. But the utmost R&Ds are not there here yet. But in agri-biosciences, we are essentially, I think we are ahead, at least we are in the front row.

Yes, I think the very first time I came across you was a deal in an agro-bioscience business. So, that is the view I have had of UM6P Ventures in my head anyway. As you mentioned, you are quite keen on venture building as well, rather than just investing in existing startups. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that process works?

Yes, and also its genesis. So, essentially, we are investing in startups in deep tech, and we have that experience as well investing in the US. Generally, you just invest a ticket. Generally, it is $200,000. We are talking, by the way, this is seed phase. So, it is the earlier stages of the investment. Typically, an investor would pour in something like $200,000, $300,000, but generally in deep tech those startups have access to a range of subsidies. Some can be on the side of National Science Foundation, NSF, by way of SBIR, which is the small business initiative. So, there are many of these mechanisms, and sometimes you can count them in the millions.

So, essentially investors in those areas, they de-risk, if you will, financially, so when we talk to these startups, we realise that it is essentially just giving them more money, but it does not necessarily resolve their bottlenecks.

One of the bottlenecks, for example, is that you have startupers, you have founders, they are working on their stuff on their deal, but next round investors are going to require publications and more work on IP and so that is a distraction for the entrepreneur. So, being that we are integrated with the university system, not one university, so the whole system, that allows us to fit in for those things, for the startup to the benefit of the startup, but helps us also help the local nation in Morocco or Africa because we recruit globally so that people get trained in the same fold.

So, that is one thing, essentially there is that, But also, let me just repeat it this way. Essentially, the business model remains for the startup, it is CapEx intensive. So, they raise more money and that money is competing for the same resources.

The resources being the people, the experts, and the equipment. So, it is a brute force type of approach and in emergent type of markets, we do not have those volumes in subsidies. So, I had to find an alternative for the CapEx model with an OPEX model.

Given that research institutions are endowed, then built to continue to build capacity, we are trying to find ways where they can mutualise that capacity, train their people, build their infrastructure in total synergy and cross pollination with the startup world. And so, we have been able to demonstrate at least.

That is why when you were asking where we source, well sometimes also we want to make sure that our architecture is sound, so when you are investing in a startup in Israel or in the US and you can demonstrate that value that I have just demonstrated, which is that you are not just investing capital, you can give them essentially what capital sometimes cannot afford them.

Because if they have, let us say even a million dollars, they need to buy equipment and they need to hire scientists. Especially for example, in biotech, since you mentioned that was the first opportunity, so there was probably precision fermentation. So, the thing is that sometimes you need talent beyond your core team. That is what I mean by at some point money becomes less efficient. Maybe they are more efficient ways of giving you more of what you want without diluting you in that way.

Yes, I think that is quite interesting because it is not, if you think, oh, they are not just giving capital, you might think, oh, it is just lab equipment that they get access to, but it is also the researchers. Which really adds an interesting dimension to the offering.

This is the thing. If you wanted to give people access to equipment and whatnot, these things have to be thoroughly understood. I remember a couple years back we were working on an offer where we had a fab lab at the university. But the thing is that you cannot just tell founders, here is a fab lab, just go. You need to make sure for example, even in biotech, that you have reagents, that you have technicians, there is a whole bunch of things that need to be done and that need to be catered to.

One of the programmes that you do offer is the Explorer programme. Can you tell me a little bit about this one?

Let me maybe just take a step back and maybe tell you a little bit more about how our businesses structure works even more upstream. So, what I mentioned is our mission is in continuity to an education environment where you continue to push, if you will, for innovation and entrepreneurship, and so we had to find contiguous functional blocks to take on from the university outward towards the investor real, startup real.

So, we address two different populations and the mechanics underneath them are totally different, one of them is essentially entrepreneurs that we call in the general or the generalist realm. So, these are digital startups, platform type of startups. So, the profile of these founders is, do not delude me, but just give me access to an ecosystem and push me from a seed phase type of investment to a series A type of investment. So, this type of entrepreneur, we support them in the following way.

A programme layer and the money layer. The programme layer is incubation for the early stage and acceleration in the later stage. The money side is business angels and VCs. At this point, even in Morocco, I think that we can call that offer rather complete.

We have several incubators, accelerators, and the matching business angels and investors. Please just bear with me. It is just because I wanted to separate what you suggested on Explorer from Deep Tech. So like we said, deep tech is a different type of animal, which is intensive in capital and equipment and in talent with huge barriers to entry. So, to support and incubate those startups, that is a different pathway. But for the pathway that is specific to generalists and entrepreneurs, it has been two years ago when we had just first founded UM6P Ventures, and the question was, how do I integrate with the university into the pool of entrepreneurship?

So, what we decided to do that time is collaborate with MIT Sandbox. So, MIT Sandbox, it is an internal incubator to MIT, and so we collaborated to create a different model for Africa. It has already completed four cohorts and now it is starting the fifth cohort. The first cohort that was launched was essentially just to demonstrate what type of model that I put at a university so that we can get the ideation and creative juices going on.

The first thing, it was a fund going up to $25,000 resident, if you will, within the programme. So, we called for students from our university and MIT to submit their ideas. Obviously, you have an investment committee, and we had a number of solid mentors from the MIT network, not from MIT the university itself, but the university itself works with a ton of mentors for their programme, and so we could benefit from that.

That was, to me, an excellent learning experience because it is allowed you to put and stake some money on the table and just try to understand what is working, what is not working from a governance standpoint, from a scalability standpoint, and so forth.

The first cohort was within our own university, and then from the second cohort onward signed up four or five other universities, two research institutions, and five countries in Africa and so at this point now, it is managed as an internal incubator within our university. Just for the sake of completeness, we have a number of different incubators and accelerators within the university. By the way, when I say within the university, it does not mean we work in isolation.

The universities in Africa, in the domain of entrepreneurship and innovation, they do work with the local ecosystems. It just never works in isolation. So, any kind of local incubator, you are already working with them. We have a number of incubators of which Explorer, which is with MIT, and then we also have accelerators. I can just mention at least one of them, which is with Plug and Play, which I am sure you know, US-based.

A very famous one. Yes, I do not think anyone who works in this field has not heard of Plug and Play accelerator programmes.

And we do work with a number. So obviously, across Africa we just try to cross pollinate.

Speaking of Africa more broadly, there was a report done by the African Development Bank in 2021 called Disrupt Funding, which said that Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Kenya are the nations that pull in the majority of venture capital funding on the continent. Moroccan startups, according to that study, only raised $29m last year. What is going on here? What can Morocco do to catch up? Are those numbers correct?

Oh, they are most likely correct. I am not going to refute. So, I am glad we are having this discussion because I am trying to do an exercise that actually has a little bit more context and more meaning to it. Like I said, these numbers cannot be refuted. They are fact.

So, this is the way I look at things. I prefer not to look at numbers as a static type of animal but try to understand a little bit more what is under their skin. So, there is this kind of matter, like maturity and things may have started elsewhere differently than so forth. So, this is an exercise that needs to be measured over time. The way I look at these numbers and try to measure the competitiveness of at least the Moroccan platform for entrepreneurship and innovation, I try to look at it this way. So, granted, yes of course, these countries are, today at least, at the top of the list.

What is happening with us? So, what I do is essentially try to look into the different kind of industries that are supported in that realm and see if they are catered to in Morocco, and they are. So obviously, in FinTech we have some champion startups that are emerging in fast moving consumer goods, by now pay later, in the rewards systems and so forth. We have a lot of startups also emerging in marketplaces and advanced recommendations.

So, even if say you are a marketplace with pharma solutions and you can at the end of the day upsell some services to finance and insurance. We have also startups that are active in ERPs, logistics, and essentially all of the themes. So, anyways, when I look, like I said, I do not look at a static number, I look into, Do we have coverage in these industries? Yes, it is done.

And how is the health of our cohorts? So, given that we started only a couple years back, currently there are some champions standing in solid stance in Series A. They have recruited investment even at seed stage internationally. So, in a nutshell my answer to you is that I am convinced that the Moroccan platform is very, very competitive. We are attacking in the proper industries. It is just these things take time.

Also, we have the proper, if you will, cohort scale up coming up, solid good champions, solid second front, and then more coming up. But what I wanted also to say is those numbers that you just share with me, they are specific to digital. As far as I know, those numbers and those projections do not contain everything that is deep tech. Why do they not? It is just because with the current projections that all those analysts bank on Africa, they do not have in mind 20 startups emerging in biotechnologies because they are a different cycle.

So, that is why what I said is that those numbers are sound to me. Here is how I feel that our competitiveness addresses them, but that is not the whole word. There is a whole other economy that is not even reflected by analysts and it is the economy of deep tech and so in there I think that we are going to be forefront and defining even the mechanics of it, how it benefits the research environment, the research institution, how it builds talent.

And I am certain that at least, I think anyway, that the top deep tech startups in Africa are in our portfolio. It is like I said, because a typical incubator or an accelerator does not have it in their court to think about how I am going to work with somebody who is working on an RNA-based vaccine or something like that. It cannot even comprehend the cost structure of it and what type of talent you need to insert in it. That to me is less than half of the opportunity that is documented.

Wow, that makes perfect sense. And yes, I get it. Fintechs or fast-moving consumer goods are easy to understand, easy to analyse because they are there. You do not need 15 years of development before you have a product or a service.

Yes. And if I may, and again, I congratulate Nigeria on making good on FinTech, but it is not because you have a solution that you will succeed. FinTech, or at least mobile payments, succeeded in the Philippines and Kenya before they even took up in the US. So, there is just such a range of things, and obviously it started earlier and as you mentioned, fintech is very organic for investors. They understand those business models. So, if you have made it your champion industry as you are starting up, then good for you, it shows.

Yes, I think you are right. The whole M-Pesa was across Africa before anyone in Europe or the US had heard of mobile payments. So, does that mean that there is quite an entrepreneurial culture already existing in Morocco?

A little bit too much. I am saying this as a joke, but also, there is a great dose of truth in it. I think that the startup world has just stirred the imagination globally. I have spent my share of time and most of my professional life in the US, so I have a sense of that.

But then when you pull yourself out of the US, this startup ideal becomes such an ambition for everyone. So, that is why I think if nothing else, everybody in Morocco and Africa, it has encouraged a lot more than there are in the US, and I can promise you that, to go after entrepreneurship and innovation. So, that is why it has become embedded in the education system at the university, and now it is pushing even for the more junior type of classes. It is just so dominant.

I think that in terms of contrast, in ratios, I think that we have more incubators than accelerators in Africa, in Morocco and Africa than we may do in other places. Even corporates, they all encourage you just go entrepreneurship. It is just dedicated programme. It is a big thing. So, that is why I am sorry if I just essentially ask this question for you.

Even yesterday, somebody was asking me on a panel like, What are the numbers, the abandonment after three years or whatnot, And it is hard to compare these numbers because in some environments you only become an entrepreneur or pursue a startup when you are very convinced, in other places, for example here, it is part of your journey, so it may not end up being what you want to pursue after you are done with your ideation cycles and whatnot and so that is why you cannot compare numbers where there is a filter beforehand, and another one, which is essentially an open class.

Is there anything that sets Morocco apart from other African nations?

In my personal opinion, I try to work on a bigger kind of family, so not looking for advantages of one versus others, but rather try to cross pollinate everyone. But you mentioned for example, in FinTech and the regulatory environment, the demographic environment, because it is just a massive market elsewhere in Africa. So obviously, you cannot compete on the basis of the demographics that you do not have or other such things and so forth.

So, I think we are extremely competitive in general entrepreneurship. I think that technically we are extremely solid. Where we have a little bit of disadvantage is market access in terms of demographics. So, the thing is that especially in pure entrepreneurship, in e-commerce, generally the champions start locally. So, if you have somebody having access to demographics that are four times your size, you have that imbalance. But that is on one side.

You were asking me, what are the advantages? I would not even think a second, I would just say deep tech. I just do not see anything capable of out-competing us. Very, very honestly. Why? It is just because education is a big thing and we have a lot of PhDs, postdocs and people in science essentially. Science has been almost like a defacto type of choice, and so you end up having a lot of scientists, solid scientists. So, in the same pool, very, very modern and state of the art labs, very modern. Even when we work with the top universities in the US, they come visit our labs and they literally can fall flat. So, that is why that gives us an organic advantage.

You essentially answered another question that came to mind then, which is, is that message starting to land outside of Africa, that you do have these strengths and you are an ecosystem that you cannot afford to ignore basically?

Well, as you know with many of these things, you just have these dominant opinions or perspectives sometimes. So, for example, before we started doing this, you would see deep tech startups trying to go the normal route, as in mounting a business plan.

But the problem is that there are so many complexities that a normal investor, excellent even investor, this is like totally outside of their realm to understand the compliance, the maturity of this and that, and so truly understand what it takes to do some of these things. So, we had this very solid exercise last year on this startup that does energy. So, that is where we really took note of what it took to truly understand what you are funding in the next step.

Because remember, you are talking about a project that is still totally entangled with academia, and so you have to resolve the IP issue, the attitude of essentially the inventors if they want to go outbound with it and so forth, and so there is this whole thing with these sequences, especially like in biotech, and each cycle can take you so many years.

That touches on my next question, which was, what are the challenges that you currently face?

Well, the challenges that we face, especially in deep tech, and your question was also, by the way, just the previous one was, Is this ringing in people’s heads? The argument that I was making, and I am sorry, it evaded me, I had lost my thread of thought, is that there is this concept or misconception that, you have a good idea, we will just teach you in a programme for three months how to do it, and then you are going to create a startup.

So, that is the most major inertial incumbency, if you will, of state of mind that you have to go past and it takes many, many shapes and forms. Well, number one, you were working with researchers, so are you really willing to go start up and resign from the university system? So, for example, that can be a challenge. We have dealt also with IP in which way pathways, internal, going out, outbound, coming in and doing these things that has not been a challenge.

I think that most of the challenge, like I said, for me, yes, I can probably say this very confidently, it is the incumbency of state of mind, that people do not necessarily understand the half of this animal, that, like you said, you are not just pushing for a FinTech startup. I am not demeaning or taking credit from FinTech.

They are different animals.

Yes, like you said, it is many, many years. You have the regulatory environment. You are talking like PhDs and post docs. Massive type of equipment and where are you going to do your pilots and so forth. So, it is essentially, at this point, this is why I mentioned that part of next year is going to be working with analysts to express this value that is dormant within research institutions.

Research institutions have always tried to push for essentially the value of IP and so forth. But now universities have taken ownership of making sure that IP does not just stop there, that it continues. But I think that a lot of efforts to, even with investors, to explain to them the trickiness of that environment. It is very different, like I said, from the US where you do not have that organic combination of subsidy system plus a small portion which is invested.

You have a subsidy system that works with research beautifully, and you have investors that invest beautifully, but this cross pollination in the real realm of deep tech has not been made, and it takes effort to just explain how tricky it is, but now it is resonating.

Are there enough local investors then, or is it still money from outside of Africa that your startups have to pursue?

Honestly, to me it has never been a money problem. I think I can state very, very safely that there is enough money for the pre-seed and seed phases and in some cases for Series A. It just so happens that, like I said, you have enough money for those phases. The subsequent phases are different.

They are supposed to be international capital raise exercises. And so as far as I know, all of my fund is not extended and as far as I know, my peers have not extended all of their investment. They are still looking for a deal flow, but like I said, it is still emerging. So, that is why for those startups that are generalists, seed phase, done. Series A, it is done, but when it starts going into the later phases that you need more money and you may have less of it. It is not the case now.

There is also enough money even for deep tech, but it is just not deep techniques to be mature enough to be able to resonate with the expectations of a, you know, true investor. So, that is why to me, I personally have never tried to raise more than the capital that we have. It is just because otherwise you are pushing yourself to just have a lot of money and not knowing what to do with it, and you start getting into the dangerous zone of just spraying your money around. I have a buffer and as long as I have a buffer, that means I still have room, and so as it is for the others around us.

That makes sense. You do not want $150m if you only have opportunities for $20m.

Also, if you will, my opinion, so say for example, there is a startup in FinTech and it is in Africa, so of course it makes its first few rounds, have the type of valuation and like you said, you are in FinTech, your business model is well understood by banks, but at the same time, it makes you very attractive to the likes of Stripe and other neobanks that look for access to new markets and so forth.

And so that is why, at some point even if those startups raise a lot of money, a lot of it happens abroad because at those levels, let us just be honest, a US fund is not going to invest proper in Africa in a startup that is set up in Africa $400 million. It just does not happen like that. Generally, it is the same in the US. They are based in Delaware, same thing.

Most of the startups, they get series A, series B. It is a governance thing, they just seek to be closer to where the pool of money is coming from. Like I said, today, I see many colleagues even across Africa raising in the tunes of 300s and such. And there is room, there is room.

Is there enough talent for funds like yours? Could you fill your fund with staff easily?

Staff working within the fund, you mean? Or within startups?

Within funds. So, the investor side.

Well, yes. Morocco has the good fortune of having really good talent. A lot of people educated, trained in Morocco abroad and top universities in Morocco and in Europe, in the US and so forth. So yes, you will not have any kind of issue finding them.

The best legal people, the best transaction services type of people and so forth. I am really proud of my team and they do actually even impress some top VCs internationally. We do not feel we are diminished with talent and so forth.

So, that is why, like you said, our only challenge is essentially, we just have to hit the ground and with our startups just pay our dues, in cycles, time. So, that is why I say even technically some of our startups are like more advanced than other startups, even in Europe or the US.

Thinking about this one startup that does like earth observation, advanced algorithms and so forth, and it has been built with a couple of people, also some of our students that went to MIT and some people also that went to MIT as PhD. So, we have a bunch of PhDs just there.

So, technologically it is very superior to many other solutions, but other solutions have just, if you will, the good fortune of being in the right place where there just is not more money. How many startups you see, for example, even in Europe and the US, and the European one may be superior and it is being quoted or valued, I do not know, factor of 10 less. You know these things. You have merit, you just do not have the other stuff that comes with the environment.

As you said, quite a lot of you have the fortune to have studied elsewhere. You yourself, you spent an extended period in the US before you returned to Morocco in 2013. Did you learn any lessons during your time in Silicon Valley that you brought back with you to Morocco and are applying now?

Every second was just another lesson. Yes, indeed. So, I went to Silicon Valley, I was educated at Stanford. I did a masters in three disciplines. I even contemplated at some point after working in Silicon Valley to going back and doing a PhD and an MBA and I just realized that essentially the experience of Silicon Valley has this multiplier type of effect.

Essentially everything that I am doing here on a daily basis, I developed and picked up while being there. I am a pure Silicon Valley type of product with all that entails in terms of demeanour and character. So, I spent quite some time in the US and the longest part of my career and of my life in California, in Silicon Valley. It changes you fundamentally.

Is there something that Silicon Valley could learn from Morocco or maybe Africa more broadly?

Yes. So, it is not because Silicon Valley is where it is that it will not learn. So, we do work actually with a lot of partners, even in California, and they are actually picking up lessons from us because, to be honest with you, when you are in an efficient economy, many of these things just work in the background. But when you go to other places, you cannot just do this one thing.

You need to do this and that and that and that. So, we have been talking to VCs, CVCs, academic type of partners and a whole bunch of different people in the US and I think that there is as much learning here and there. And at least in terms of pragmatics, it becomes really interesting to our partners in the US, just because they see something very different, and they look at the way that we have circumvented this issue or challenge that they would not have thought of.

So, it just makes for so many anecdotes. So, when you are talking to somebody there you get, “mm hmm, aha”, at least that you are stirring some juices there.

That is great. You have very diplomatically described some of your portfolio companies, but not named any. Can you name me some examples of portfolio companies?

Oh no, no. It is not like being political, it is just that I am just afraid I forget somebody and I get beaten for it. No, I just love them all the same way. So, maybe one way of how do I even de-group it? So, obviously since we are talking about healthcare, so this is, and maybe it is an anecdote in its own self. So, DEEPECHO. This is an entrepreneur, he is Moroccan, studied in the UK, was working for Morgan Stanley and decided to launch this startup that does foetal growth malformation. I was really impressed by the demeanour of the entrepreneur.

So, in that particular case, the collaboration, in addition to the investment, was hiring two PhDs within the university. We have another project that emerged from internally, and it was a maintenance type of solution, and it is called OMS. It is very, very nifty. They develop their algorithms with MIT and so they use a tablet, a PDA with infrared. The device listens to the acoustics of the rotating machine and the heat signature, and it can tell you what type of maintenance intervals to plan for. These both are Moroccans.

Another one that emerged out of research, or at least this patent that won the first prize in South Korea. It was this photonics, non-intrusive light detection type of thing that has become like a glucometer. I am just trying to think through. We have this startup in Israel and so what they do is that they hack photosynthesis. So, they have found a gene that makes a plant lazy. So, what they do is just knock it off by way of CRISPR and so it goes about giving you more tubers of potato and better quality tomatoes and the like. So, part of the work we are doing with them is, essentially what we are helping them with is working with them on their CRISPR roadmap and we are essentially negotiating, we, UM6P Ventures, the licences with the company that owns the IP. We are going to be working with them on pilots in Morocco and in Africa.

It is just, like I said, this other one that does algorithmics that I mentioned with MIT. So, what it does is we have soil data, little bit everywhere. We work with partners to at least that type of information so that we can give better recommendations and we analyse very uniquely all the data from satellites and so forth to be able to infer something about the health, if you will, of your culture. So, we can even determine the phase of growth of your plant and tell you how we need to intervene on them.

Working also with another startup that works on algae, it is Israeli as well, and so they work on packaging in the food sector. There is another one also De Novo Dairy, which does precision fermentation and so they work on milk, dairy proteins and also immunity type of enhancing proteins as well that can actually be, believe it or not, removed from the natural milk because they are very costly. And obviously some ERPs.

Oh yes, another one, post-harvest loss. So, this one is in Silicon Valley. We are looking at two startups to essentially deal with what we call post-harvest loss. There are massive losses in the value chain after you harvest the produce and 30 or 48% losses and so this technology allows you to extend the life twice, three times. It is an organic biofilm. You just dump the produce in a liquid, in a solution. But anyways, see, the name is Acorn for this one. I invite people to just go visit our website and just see.

I was not necessarily expecting a full list. I always quite like hearing a selection because I think it gives people quite a good idea. It is one thing talking about deep tech, but it is another thing to kind of go, well, these are the kind of the concrete things that we actually have. And pretty much all of them have global potential.

And so again, I am sorry. I am just going back to this question, which was, how do you source? So, our sourcing is very, very intentional. Sometimes one understands, what is it that is a proof point that we need to validate to make sure that we want to scale the system, we can call it proven? So, we may choose somebody in a particular, so for example, agri-biosciences. So, the thing is that when you look, we are invested and then afterwards, oh, we need to invest, for example, in code base. Oh, we want to invest in RNA-based biopesticides or something like that. So, afterwards you go, okay, what is the right profile for me?

I want to look for a startup that has a bottleneck themselves. Maybe they need more researchers or they need to do a pilot. So, that is why I was talking about the multi-prong type of affair. And then when you ask me about these startups, a way I have of looking at them is that each of them has a story to tell and the bunch of them tell you the whole story, so that when you ask me, How are you going to scale this in Africa? Are you sure you are going to find talent? Are you sure you are going to be able to sign up that? You see what I mean?

So, we try at least to build a portfolio in such a way that each of these things validate something and it can be scaled. So, if we hire two PhDs for this project, can we work with the Ministry of Education, with the universities, across the board? What are your ambitions? How many PhDs do you want to get trained in bioinformatics?

Certainly, from where I am sitting, I am in the UK and I noticed this fund in Morocco, so I think you are doing quite fantastic work.

Thank you.

We are very nearly out of time. Is there anything else that you want people to know about UM6P Ventures?

I encourage them to click on our website. It is UM6P Ventures. Hopefully it is going to be posted somewhere. If you see at least the name of my company, you just add the dot com to it. We are very happy to continue to work with any partners in the ecosystem on the support side, so any type of research institutions. We do work even in the UK with a couple of institutions. Like Rothamsted Research, Cranfield University, and so even jointly, we have pan-African type of agriculture project.

So, if you are in deep tech, either a founder or with ideas or an institution and wanted to work together to change the world, at least our side of the world, we would be happy to talk to you.

Amazing. That is a very good call to action at the end. Yasser, thank you so much for talking to me today. It has been great talking and learning more about UM6P Ventures.

It is my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Talking Tech Transfer interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).