A Few Words

Tech startup licenses in the DIFC

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DIFC Tech Startups

The Dubai International Financial Centre, or DIFC, is known as a premium onshore financial center, not just in the region, but worldwide (voted the 8th best, to be exact). So what’s a financial center doing dabbling in technology? Read on to know more.

Creating a tech ecosystem involves work, and the DIFC has taken big steps in a positive direction...
The background

The DIFC Fintech Hive is located in the heart of Dubai, within a thriving ecosystem.

The DIFC is set to undergo significant expansion and plans to use the additional space to construct more office and creative spaces, residences, retail spaces, and entertainment. That’s 13 million square feet of space dedicated to the pursuit of fintech and innovation and designed to accommodate the needs of professionals from around the world.
 
Such an environment helps attract good talent from the world over. Over 23,000 professionals already live and work in the DIFC. Technology companies in the DIFC are able to source better talent and access a pool of premium service providers within the center, thus making it a self-containing ecosystem.

Big Ticket Acquisitions

The GCC, and the UAE in particular, has seen a flurry of tech-related activity in the past few years. While the Amazon acquisition of Souq.com, and the Uberacquisition of Careem have hogged the headlines, a large number of big names in technology have been creating bases in Dubai. The hottest tech startups, from Silion Valley to Bengaluru, are looking at the UAE as a springboard to launch their growing services in the MENA region.

Fintech

Financial Technology, or Fintech, is a subset of this influx of technology-related interest – driven largely by the inactiveness of the incumbent players in the financial space. Fintech companies have specific requirements for an ecosystem where they can thrive – robust regulation, access to a sophisticated user base, great digital infrastructure and a hotbed of talent.

The UAE offers these, and more – access to a diverse user base comprising individuals and companies from over 180 countries.

It’s no wonder then, that startups in Asia look at the Middle East as the jurisdiction of choice when it comes to their immediate expansion plans.

The DIFC – a tech ecosystem

The DIFC started seriously looking at tech companies a little over 3 years ago. It’s first initiative was the DIFC Fintech Hive – an accelerator of sorts. What started with a cohort of 11 startups and a bit of press, has grown into a program that goes beyond offering short-term booster packs. It is now a full-fledged ecosystem of technology companies – fintech, edtech, regtech, even mindfulness-techover 130 companies and growing.

These tech initiatives are aimed to attract both regulated and non-regulated technologies. The former would need to interact with the Dubai Financial Services Authority, or the DFSA, to obtain regulated licenses based on the activities that they intend to engage in. For instance, payment processors would need to apply to the DFSA under the newly-created Category 3D license, satisfy all the in-principle conditions and then commence business. Similarly, a crowdfunding platform would need to obtain a Category 4 license, in order to conduct equity, loan-based or property crowdfunding activities.

Innovation Testing Licenses (ITL)

The ITL is the DFSA regulatory sandbox, that helps innovative fintech startups test their products in a controlled environment – it provides firms temporary flexibility to test and develop concepts within the sandboxed environment subject to various restrictions and modifications.

Recent successes include www.sarwa.com and www.smartcrowd.ae, both ITL graduates, now operating as fully regulated DFSA firms.

 

There are a lot of financial and non-financial initiatives on the table...

Financial incentives include subsidized license costs for four years, co-working spaces at reduced costs and generous allowances for visas on limited spaces. Also, visa costs are subsidized as well.

Soft incentives include being part of a growing ecosystem of financial and non-financial technology startups, marketing and PR exposure and access to a wide range of banking, VC and service provider partners, including DIFC’s own 100 million dollar Fintech Fund. Regular workshops are also conducted in the DIFC Fintech Hive – these are very helpful to companies looking at doing business in the UAE, or the greater MENA region.

Download our factsheet

for a detailed look at the costs involved in setting up a DIFC tech startup license (non-regulated).

Co-working spaces​

The DIFC Fintech Hive has a new home in the Gate Avenue, behind the Liberty House and Emirates Financial Towers. Two floors of lively space, with over 200 workstations, offices, cubicles and common areas to foster creativity and discussions. 

The process

The process of obtaining a DIFC tech startup license

Submit application

Submit the application, including a business plan and KYC

Initial Approvals

The DIFC pre-screens the application and issues approvals

LEGAL STRUCTURE

Register the legal structure at the DIFC Registrar of Companies

Pay the fees

Pay for the license, co-working space and establishment card (for visas)

GET License!