Behind the Emirati startup helping businesses reach the clouds

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Female scientist’s platform SPL.Co automates software migration to the cloud through AI

Emirati scientist Salwa Alzahmi founded tech start-up SPL Co. in 2019 after observing the challenges companies faced when migrating their data into cloud-native architecture.

With coronavirus accelerating digital transformation and reliance on tech, SPL. Co was globally recognised at the Global Telecom Award GTB and the IET Achievement Awards for engineering and technology.

SPL. Co is a provider of software transformation for current IT systems through an Artificial Intelligence (AI) model which automatically identifies and composes the part of the system code that should be lifted to the cloud.

Emirati scientist Salwa Alzahmi founded tech start-up SPL Co. in 2019.

In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, Alzahmi spoke of her experience with the Ibtikari program, an intensive five-month incubator run by startAD in partnership with Khalifa Fund, advancing technology startups founded by UAE Nationals.

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, Alzahmi also talked to Arabian Business about being a female scientist in a traditionally male-dominated environment, explaining that she sees the UAE as “very progressive” when it comes to women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects (STEM).

When did you first think of SPL?

During the early years of my professional career in IT, I was exposed to the challenges faced by big corporates when upgrading legacy software.

Our organisation faced an urgent mandate to move to the cloud as quickly as possible to retain competitive market positioning but modernisation is slow, costly and ineffective and there wasn’t an alternative effective solution in the market.

Upgrading company-wide software was a challenge due to the lack of documentation and expert guidance. Adding to the complexity, the company often lacked the resources and skills to modernise enterprise applications.

Ibtikari program, an intensive five-month incubator run by startAD in partnership with Khalifa Fund.

These challenges become bigger when development is outsourced to a third party that does not support the technology being migrated to. Corporations are also at risk of losing the historical documentation if the external vendor goes out of business.

Given all this, I developed the idea for SPL Co. to give the corporates control over their investment in developing software. I joined the R&D sector at the Emirates ICT Innovation Center (EBTIC, established by Etisalat, British Telecom, and Khalifa University, and supported by the ICT Fund) after over seven years of working in the IT industry.

My aim was to invent an original method to assure knowledge transfer and to speed software upgrades using automation wherever possible.

What was the market need for it?

Digital transformation is a reality a corporation cannot escape.

Many corporates were already finding themselves obligated to move to the cloud to accommodate a large number of users and to stay competitive. The outbreak of Covid-19 across the world furthered this need by placing massive restrictions on businesses operating with on-premises IT systems. Hence, many of these organisations have chosen to migrate rapidly to the cloud.

For example, Microsoft has witnessed a 775 percent increase in demand for cloud services following the pandemic. I always expected that moving applications to the cloud would not follow the ‘shift-and-lift’ approach for much longer, and that decomposing application to micro-service architecture would become mandatory and so I thought of SPL.

How did you get the initial funding?

I applied for a master’s degree at Khalifa University in the EBTIC research centre, where I worked on the research and prototyping of the SPL solution.

After a successful trial with telecom corporation BT UK, I got more support from EBTIC to further fund the project by bringing more resources to continue building SPL.

I also applied to Ibtikari incubation programme which granted additional guidance and support to help me take SPL to market.

Do you believe it was harder for you to secure funding for your startup as a woman?

Not at all. Our country encourages innovation regardless of gender. Whoever shows strong entrepreneurial character gets support, as the goal is to grow and add value.

I have also been approached by investors from Asia and Europe who were very interested to invest in SPL technology. They are backing the international call to support women-led startups, based on studies showing that although the number of women-led startups is very little, they have a high rate of success compared to male-led startups.

There are also a lot of local and international programmes for female-led tech-startups. I was evaluated exactly as other male founders and selected over male startups for pre-seed funding in the Ibtikari incubation program.

What are the main messages/lessons you will be taking away from Ibtikari?

The incubation program clearly outlined the key steps to develop my business logically. Coming from an engineering technology background, learning to put my thoughts in a business-oriented context was a big benefit.

It has helped me to create a comprehensive visual pitch that can be easily understood by investors. This is essential as entrepreneurs often feel overwhelmed as if their project is out of their control.

Early intervention by industry professionals through a mentoring program, such as startAD, is also vital to supporting the initial development. By having a mentor oversee and follow the step-by-step development process of SPL Co., I am aware of an external point of view and thus able to avoid unforeseen challenges. Working with a mentor also opens the opportunity for networking opportunities. Some mentors sometimes become so inspired that they have been known to join their mentee as a business partner or adviser.

What is your business model?

My business model is a simple software-as-a-service subscription model, plus the professional service that I offer to support customers with migrating their application to the cloud.

The SPL solution is packaged in two modules, SPL insight and governance, with each composed of basic and premium features. I have yearly subscription fees for subscribed features, and the price includes online support.

What are your expansion plans for SPL?

I intend to collaborate with system integrators and software consultancy companies to channel SPL Co. internally and globally. I would like to partner with major cloud providers to register SPL as a tool in their marketplace.

Also, I will extend SPL technology to cover the challenges with the development of AI systems, where the SPL solution can be used for auditing and comprehending custom-developed AI software.

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