A Saudi-based startup seeks to expand availability of AI solutions

Nybl is a visual data mining and machine learning platform used in everything from oil and gas to healthcare

  
Image used for illustrative purpose

Image used for illustrative purpose

 
DUBAI: A Syrian-Lebanese entrepreneur wants to democratize artificial intelligence (AI) and the technology’s applications in everything from industry to public health. For Noor Alnahhas, who co-founded nybl from Khobar in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the sky is the limit.

Nybl is a visual data mining and machine learning platform used across several different sectors, including oil and gas, healthcare, and security, in a number of GCC countries.

Alnahhas, Saudi national Mohammed Shono, and three others created nybl in 2019 to help public and private institutions across the region become more seamless and streamlined.

A serial entrepreneur, with almost 15 years of experience in the oil and gas industry, Alnahhas has a proven track record of building businesses and relationships in the GCC, and has served as an adviser to other startups in the Middle East and the US.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from the University of Houston, he completed further leadership training at Wharton School of Business and at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The idea for nybl came about when Alnahhas decided he wanted to develop a tech company that would make AI more accessible and serve the common good.

“We wanted to centralize that vision around AI and machine learning,” the 37-year-old Alnahhas said. “We wanted to develop something not just profit-related, but that added value and left the world in a better place. So it is conscious capitalism.”

The team’s goal was to enable anybody to turn an idea into an AI solution without the barrier of needing to understand coding and data science.

By democratizing the technology, nybl has become a kind of “Shopify of AI,” says Alnahhas, referring to the Canadian e-commerce site, which offers merchants a unified platform to outsource all of their complicated online marketing, payments and shipping needs.

Nybl’s first year was dedicated to testing whether its business model actually worked.

“We wanted to prove that other companies would be willing to come to a third party on a platform not owned by them,” Alnahhas said.

Success soon came in the form of contracts with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the Dubai Health Authority, which is using nybl’s expertise to manage its inventory, and a Sharjah-based company, which is employing nybl’s AI technology to build one of the most advanced security systems in the world.

“By the end of the year, we will release ‘anything.ai’ and ‘cnshield at Gitex,’ which is AI for everybody to run data science without needing to know a single line of code,” Alnahhas said.

Nybl intends to optimize processes by moving systems beyond simply reporting failures after the fact to actually predicting them before they happen.

“Earlier, one of my companies was selling technology to the oil and gas sector, and I found it ridiculous that I was selling million-dollar software solutions, sometimes up to $20 million, to report a failure,” Alnahhas said.

“With the technology and data that we have today, you should at least be doing everything possible to avoid the failure, not just reporting it.”

He highlighted the example of the major gas leak at an underwater pipeline west of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula earlier this month, which caused flames to erupt from the sea.

“If they had the technology that could have predicted this was going to happen and taken countermeasures, what could have been prevented? What environmental impact could have been avoided?

“It is capitalistic, but there is a big underlying social responsibility we feel. We can value the world if we can prevent two million barrels of oil from leaking into the ocean. So, I saw a need.”

With a team of 32, headquartered in Khobar with offices in Kuwait, the UAE, North America and India, the company is now focused on building its team in Saudi Arabia, where Alnahhas has launched a pilot project with Saudi Aramco.

“We are working with a lot of industries here, including paper, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and in steel manufacturing to optimize their supply chain,” he said. “We have got a lot of contracts for technology support and now we are shifting.”

Alnahhas says many big organizations are reluctant to work with small startups, so his team members have had to work hard to prove their worth.

“We had support in the UAE, so now we are coming back because we have proven ourselves, and we want to do the same for Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Their timing is fortuitous. Last year, Saudi Arabia signed an array of partnership deals with international tech companies to explore the advantages of AI in line with the Kingdom’s National Strategy for Data and AI.

Saudi Arabia’s National Center for AI (NCAI) also announced a deal with China’s Huawei to enable strategic cooperation on the Kingdom’s National AI Capability Development Program, under which Saudi AI engineers are trained, while creating an AI capability platform to localize technology solutions.

As a result, tech startups like nybl are now seeing much more acceptance, with strong support from the public and private entities. “The major catalyst was the pandemic,” Alnahhas said.

“Companies must do a lot more with a lot fewer people while being profitable. How do you achieve that? Advancements in technology are also taking place, so we are seeing a huge uptake, even from old and big family conglomerates, which are changing to become more efficient and making money using AI.”

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of AI technologies comes as part of its Vision 2030 agenda to diversify the nation’s economy away from oil, grow its private sector, and create jobs for the future. Alnahhas says his company’s goals are well aligned with the Kingdom’s reform drive.

“It is very exciting to be in Saudi Arabia where there is an alignment and there is support,” he said. In particular, he is grateful for the opportunity to study abroad, giving him the skills to launch his business venture and give something back to the Kingdom.

“This is the effect of Saudi Arabia 10 years ago sending hundreds of thousands of students to get educated outside. King Abdullah started the whole government sponsorship of students in a huge way, up to half a million students in a short period, so we are reaping the benefits of this today,” he said.

As a result, Alnahhas says, it is easy to find talented researchers and developers in the Kingdom, both male and female. In fact, two of nybl’s top developers are Saudi women who hold master’s degrees in robotics and software development.

“This is something you would never have heard of three years ago. So, you are getting an increasing talent pool,” Alnahhas said.

“We have women fully covered working and others who are not, so we have created an environment that is very respectful and gets everybody to work together.”

However, employers in the Kingdom must offer these young workers far more by way of opportunities, else risk losing them to the brain drain, he warned.

“Someone has to break this cycle of talent from this part of the world going to work outside.”

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