Abu Dhabi-based electric mobility startup FENIX is planning to launch a new personal shopper service in Abu Dhabi this month, starting with Reem Island, company co-founder Jaideep Dhanoa told the Abu Dhabi SME Hub in an exclusive interview. The service will assign customers a ‘FENIX Genie’ that “makes your wish come true in your neighbourhood”: allowing users to buy and collect anything nearby and send and receive packages at an affordable price.
Promotional banner for the new FENIX Genie service.
FENIX Genie’s debut is part of the startup’s efforts to build an “electric mobility multi-service ‘super app,’” which has guided the company’s growth trajectory in the last two years. The company already offers a free 10-minute grocery delivery service it calls FENIX Market, in addition to a payments service dubbed FENIX Pay.
Rebirth and a new purpose
Jaideep Dhanoa (left, IQ Sayed (right)
Finding life in 2020, FENIX rose from the ashes of a previous venture by Dhanoa and his co-founder IQ Sayed, and today is present in 5 countries and 13 cities, operating the largest electric fleet in the MENAT region with over 10,000 vehicles.
The two co-founders had initially founded micromobility startup Circ, which operated across Europe and the Middle East, and would go on to find great success in the UAE. Circ ultimately exited to US micromobility firm Bird. When the pandemic struck, however, the transportation sector was significantly impacted, and Bird shut down Circ’s operations, putting nearly 100 people out of jobs.
“I felt a responsibility,” Dhanoa said. “I [knew] the market for these services.” Both Dhanoa and Sayed were ex-Careem execs during the earlier stages of its rise, and Dhanoa himself had previously worked for ride-hailing and delivery startup Grab.
He was confident that he and his co-founder could succeed in the sector again, in turn saving “some of those jobs and [creating] a lot of good for our cities.”
This led to the creation of the aptly-named FENIX, but this time the company would solely be focused on the Middle East region, as a multi-service platform from day one. Micromobility was to be the launchpad to help drive adoption to their platform, with many more services added consequently.
“Our mission at FENIX is to unleash urban potential and propel communities forward,” Dhanoa said. “E-scooters [are] part of that, but not the mission. E-scooters [are] one of the methods that we achieve the mission.
“Mobility is an enabler for opportunity… a multiplier on economic activity. You move to get somewhere so you can do something. You move to get to work, to get to school, to get to the mall and consume, to get home and take care of your family.
“There are research papers that show that bringing micromobility to a city accelerates local commerce because there is new demand that gets unlocked. Trips that never would have happened because it was too expensive financially and from a time standpoint, and now it’s not.”
Why Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi was the city Dhanoa and Sayed had chosen to set up Circ in during 2019. When it was time to launch FENIX, Abu Dhabi was the choice once more.
“Abu Dhabi was the pioneer in bringing micromobility to the region,” Dhanoa said. “With Circ, we saw tremendous demand for these services in [the emirate]."
From regulatory support, to an ideal urban consumer base and infrastructure, Abu Dhabi was the team’s city of choice for set-up and eventual expansion.
Launching a company during a pandemic is no easy feat. Launching a company in one of the most severely impacted sectors was an entirely different beast.
“I would be lying if I said it was a cakewalk,” Dhanoa said.
“We’ve been blessed to have a strong team of supporters - investors that saw the opportunity even in the midst of the pandemic for alternative transportation options in the region.”
He also attributed their success during those trying times to government partners that trusted them as an experienced team with a proven track record, the talent that chose to join the company when its finances and future were still up in the air, and finally the team’s families that had been there since day one.
When asked about the seasonality challenge, particularly regarding the scorching heat and unforgiving humidity of the region, Dhanoa acknowledged it, but highlighted that the real focus here is giving consumers a choice, with micromobility being one part of the overall transportation puzzle, which includes private cars, public transit, ride-hailing, and more.
“When it comes to mobility, generally there are 3 dimensions: affordability, convenience and experience. For a lot of people’s trips, scooters can be the superior option: lower cost, quicker for short trips, [and] more fun.
“[Besides,] seasonality isn’t just a Gulf challenge with scooters - it’s a global challenge. In Europe, it’s raining and snowing and it’s hard to ride on a scooter or bike, but people do it. As long as the business works from an annualized perspective, that’s fine. There are a lot of [industries] that have seasonality, [like] hospitality.”
Speaking about the overall transportation industry in the region, Dhanoa mentioned that it has been very promising, noting that transportation agencies and municipalities have become far more open to change than one may have expected ten years ago.
“Almost every major city in the Gulf today is looking at multimodal transport planning, and moving beyond just car-centric planning. And there’s a lot of investment in public transport, in metro systems… in micromobility as well, as one of those components of a multimodal transport network.”
He also highlighted the growing interest in electric vehicle mobility.
“There is a strong appetite for it, but the question is how do we do it? How do we develop EV charging infrastructure when the share of cars that are electric is so low. Where will the demand come from [to stimulate] that infrastructure?”
A growing micromobilty presence like FENIX’s, powered by electric power, could help trigger more investments in this unique infrastructure, Dhanoa noted.
Advice for raising funds
To date, FENIX has raised over USD 10 million, from investors like Panthera Capital Ventures, Saudi Arabia’s Emkan Capital and Maniv Mobility.
When asked the advice he could share with other entrepreneurs, Dhanoa said: “Have a thick skin. Fundraising can feel very personal, especially at the earlier stages when it’s mostly an idea or a concept that has a long way to go. A lot of investors may be judging you.”
“You don’t need a hundred yes’s - you need one. Finding that investor-startup fit is a journey. Don’t take the no’s to heart.”
He also mentioned that as an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t be shy. Leverage people you have worked with before, advisors, trusted friends, and even family members to support you when you’re getting started.
“99% of the time, when you’re at the idea stage or trying to prove a concept, [professional investors are] not the first money in. It’s either personal savings or angel investors who are helping you get to those [company] milestones that [you need to] show that traction to a professional investor in the future.”
With its growing pool of funds, FENIX plans to bring more of its products and innovations to Abu Dhabi and the UAE, focusing on localising technology deployment and allocating engineering capacity to specific cities.
“That’s something that we are very excited to do, to triple down on our investment in technology so we can help enable these connected communities [with] a range of flexible options… in how they move and how things move to them,” Dhanoa concluded.