Islamic Finance 

Chinese VC hopes million-dollar investment in financial data platform will produce Islamic tech’s first unicorn

| 24 June, 2019
 Richard Whitehead
Chinese VC hopes million-dollar investment in financial data platform will produce Islamic tech’s first unicorn
Photo: IslamicMarkets wins the $1 million pitch contest organised by Gobi Partners in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on June 21, 2019. Standing in the centre are Taraec Hussein of Gobi Partners holding the champion board with Shakeeb Saqlain (blue blazer), founder of IslamicMarkets. Photo supplied by Gobi Partners

*This story was updated on Jun 25 to include the name of IslamicMarkets' first financial backer

KUALA LUMPUR - A British Islamic financial data start-up is a million dollars richer after winning a pitch contest for venture capital in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Gobi Partners hosted the contest, which saw 10 local, regional and international entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a panel of five investors led by Taraec Hussein, a vice-president of Gobi.

The winner, IslamicMarkets, launched last year when it claimed to be the world’s first platform for industry-led learning and financial intelligence in the Islamic economy. Its founder, Shakeeb Saqlain, had spent nearly five years working on the platform before it went live.

“A lot of the time we’ve been doing this has been spent on the drawing board,” Shakeeb told Salaam Gateway after being told his pitch had won $1 million in funding from Gobi.

“The Islamic economy is a little different: it’s not one of those areas whereby you can have an idea and raise the same sums you would raise in the conventional space. So we had to be a lot more focused on developing the product, getting the traction, doing it organically; that’s what’s been rewarded.”

IslamicMarkets was founded on the basis that information is not always available and economies are disconnected. This restricts the opportunities for investors and firms to grow, create jobs, and spur innovation.

By amassing reams of data and information through its own analysts and from submissions from numerous financial institutions, the platform aims to make it easier for investors to assess the Islamic financial markets.

“With the Islamic economy, you have a number of players in different markets. You have the financial players, the broader ecosystem like modest fashion, health tech for example. Each one of these players are looking to scale to tap into the trillion dollar Islamic market,” Shakeeb said.

“But the market itself is deeply, deeply fragmented. So expanding domestically and internationally is a huge challenge for these firms.”

The business intelligence platform currently focuses on financial markets, offering an enterprise service that charges financial institutions a subscription to access data and research market intelligence.

The start-up claims this paid platform’s audience has been growing at 300 percent. It also holds that it now has “some of the largest Islamic banks subscribing to it”.

With a model like this, it is no coincidence that Shakeeb spent a period of his career at Bloomberg, which is known for its terminal business intelligence wire, from which users can monitor and analyse real-time financial market data and place trades. It has also added some further tech features.

“I used to work for Bloomberg, in Terminal sales space, so I’m quite familiar with data technology. We don’t see ourselves as a data technology platform, we are much more a fintech player than a technology player. We are about laying that infrastructure,” said Shakeeb.

“The idea is to open up its infrastructure to third-parties, just like an app store. Be it Islamic banks or start-ups, imagine if they can leverage that infrastructure and host their own apps in the marketplace, they can in an instant expand and reach across the global Islamic economy.”

The next step for IslamicMarkets is to establish an office in Kuala Lumpur, and it has recently been conducting interviews for jobs there, to augment the 15 staff it already employs at its London base. Over time, it also expects to expand into Indonesia and then the Middle East.

Having been self-funded initially, the start-up secured investment capital for the first time last year from London-based specialist merchant banking and investment firm New World Capital Advisors. Now it also has Gobi as a backer and the start-up hopes to go further with a series A in the near future. Besides the financing, Shakeeb hopes to tap into the local nous of its KL-based backer.

Gobi Partners, a China-headquartered venture capital firm with offices in nine Asian locations, operates its so-called TaqwaTech funds out of Malaysia’s capital city. TaqwaTech is the name Gobi gives to technology start-ups that have built a product to serve a large Muslim community. Such companies could be born in a market that is dominated by Muslims, like Pakistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, or be built by Muslim entrepreneurs for the global market.

“What I love about what Gobi is doing is they are very entrepreneur-friendly,” said Shakeeb . “They know this market inside out, so we are getting their guidance in terms of knowing this market, and leveraging their experience and expertise, which I think is the most important thing. They have a fantastic team on the ground, and getting an insight into the market from them is a real help for us.”

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UNICORN

Gobi’s Taraec Hussein said the aim of this investment would be to “help build the first unicorn” in the Islamic digital economy. Moreover, he says the million-dollar investment is unprecedented, coming from a pitching competition for Islamic start-ups, and will go a long way to help realise this ambition.

The nine others pitching for the million dollars were Indonesian start-ups Alami Fintek Sharia, PergiUmroh.com and Umroh.com, Modest Forever from India, Jombnb, Serunai and Favoriot from Malaysia, and CollabDeen and Hoolah from Singapore.

“I hope the due diligence goes well, as we need to scrub through the numbers and the legal paperwork. I really hope everything is clear and easy for us, no complications,” Taraec told Salaam Gateway.

“We want to get this [business intelligence] sub-vertical into the mainstream, and hopefully these guys will be one of the candidates to be the next unicorn.”

Taraec’s fellow judge, Syahrul Nizar Yahya, chief operations officer at Pixel Play Ventures, another Malaysia venture capital firm that focuses on the Muslim market, said IslamicMarkets’s idea wasn’t new in the scheme of things, though it hadn’t yet been done in the Islamic segment.

“It’s something that’s new. As VCs, we don’t really do short-term or mid-term, it’s more long-term: how much they can grow and sustain. We need something like this which will boost investment in the Islamic economy by giving real data to the rest of the world,” Syahrul told Salaam Gateway.

Shakeeb believes IslamicMarkets’s latest funding comes as a “validation of all the hard work and effort that has gone into this over the last four years”. Having decided to quit his job at Dubai Islamic Bank to set up the start-up, the risk he took is starting to pay off.

“We’ve brought together a team that really cares about this market. The hard work that goes into it day in, day out, is just a by-product of that. Now we just need to keep on rolling up our sleeves, get stuck in and keep doing that.”

(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim emmy.alim@refinitiv.com)

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