Jaideep Dhanoa and IQ Sayed started Fenix bang in the middle of a pandemic. But that didn’t stop them, or their micro-mobility start-up, from being a success. Auto Futures caught up with Jaideep Dhanoa, the company’s co-founder and CEO, to know more about Fenix’s ‘rising from the ashes’ story.
“IQ and I have been working in mobility since many years. We met at Careem when it was relatively early in its journey in 2016. I was leading growth and strategy, and IQ was leading engineering. Subsequently, I moved to Grab to lead micro-mobility in south-east Asia, while IQ moved to Lyft focussing on autonomous driving, but kept in touch,” says Dhanoa.
“We had seen this explosion of micro-mobility all over the world except in the Middle East. Having worked in the mobility landscape here, I felt that there was an urgent need for micro-mobility. Knowing the challenges in the region, I also appreciated that it requires local focus to unlock the opportunity. That’s how IQ and I joined forces again with another company called Circ, a European, Middle East focused micro-mobility operator and started in 2019,” he adds.
Circ launched in 40 cities and a dozen countries, all mostly in Europe. Dhanoa was leading the Middle East push and driving the market acceptance. It started in Abu Dhabi and later expanded to a few other markets in the region. In January 2020, Circ was sold to the U.S. micro-mobility company, Bird.
“When the pandemic hit, there was a lot of uncertainty on the outlook and the economy, so Bird decided to exit the region and focus on their core market. That’s when IQ and I decided to start Fenix, because we felt that there was a pressing need to solve the mobility gap in the current market.
“We knew that there was a lot of opportunity here and had seen success before with our last venture. That’s also kind of where the name comes from – Fenix – the re-birth of the company, but also coming out of the pandemic, the re-birth for our cities, our daily lives, our society, coming out of the lockdown and restrictions to moving again and being active again, with a better future in front of us,” explains Dhanoa.
Facing a ‘Humongous’ Hazard
Starting up in the midst of a pandemic couldn’t have been easy, especially in the case of a mobility start-up. Fenix did face its share of challenges in the early days.
“I think there were a lot of headwinds in the sector and in the region when we got started. Fundraising was a challenging process. It always is for entrepreneurs. We thought it would be a lot easier given our past track record, but we were very fortunate that we found some exceptional investors with strong domain experience, who have understood the opportunities and potential here in this region, where no one has really done at that scale before,” says Dhanoa.
Another challenge was educating the Middle Eastern market on the benefits of micro-mobility in the midst of the pandemic and conveying to them that it is actually the safe form of shared transportation.
He says: “The vehicles have natural social distancing. You are not crowded in a bus or a metro or in a confined space like a taxi, where people are sneezing and coughing. There is no human interaction. It makes the public transit safer, because it reduces the load on public transport when people have alternatives, and they are outdoors in the open air. This pandemic has been a health hazard, but it has also been a humongous economic hazard.”
“The bulk of our work requires us at work and if we are not there, there is no job, no output. We cannot afford an indefinite suspension of economic activity or an indefinite lockdown. If we want to have a restart of economic activity, that means that we need safe movement of people. Micro-mobility is an obvious answer that hundreds of cities around the world have embraced during this pandemic. But bringing this awareness here took a little bit of time,” explains Dhanoa.
It wasn’t just a token investment; it was quite meaningful.
Fenix was the first ever UAE-based start-up to receive the venture investment from Israel since the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE in 2020. This significant step saw Israeli venture capital fund, Maniv Mobility, lead a $3.8 million seed investment in the company.
“It was actually the largest pre-launch venture round in the UAE’s history,” says Dhanoa.
“It wasn’t just a token investment; it was quite meaningful. There is a lot of expertise in Israel, in my view, that the UAE and the Gulf market can benefit from when it comes to technological and entrepreneurial expertise and this has the potential to act as an accelerant in the progress of the Middle Eastern ecosystem,” he adds.
A Bullish Outlook for Mobility in the Middle East
At present, Fenix is present in five cities and three countries in the GCC – UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, and the company aims to be in all of UAE’s seven Emirates this year and operational in all six GCC countries by the end of next year. According to Dhanoa, the company is on track to achieve those goals.
“We believe in being a vertically integrated company, as it allows us to deliver the highest quality service, localised for the market and also opens up a lot of interesting opportunities for us to innovate. This means, we co-develop our vehicles, as well as its intelligence and software, in addition to carrying out all the operations in-house. We have two models of the vehicles Scooter 0 (S0) and Scooter 1 (S1). They both include the world’s first inbuilt hand sanitiser on a scooter, giving our customers a Covid-free ride experience.
“We’ve got a range of awesome features like front and rear braking system, regenerative brakes, hybrid force, automotive grade lining for high visibility, dual telescopic suspension, large wheels for great comfort, low centre of gravity, etc. We use swappable batteries from the get-go, which is great for this market and which means that we have a much lighter footprint in terms of vehicle management of the fleet. We have also been piloting EVs for operations – cargo bikes, electric mopeds, compact utility vehicles – so, that’s pretty neat,” says Dhanoa.
But what’s really interesting is the company’s varied business models. Apart from the shared e-scooters that you can rent on a per-minute basis from approved zones within the city, it has also introduced the region’s first private subscription in micro-mobility.
With a fixed fee starting at AED 200/month for unlimited rides, subscribers of MyFENIX get free home delivery of their smart scooter on the same day with just 3 hours’ notice, free insurance, free same day maintenance and replacement within 24 hours, unlocking a whole range of advantages over buying and sharing vehicles.
Since its inception, Fenix has come a long way. Dhanoa is certain that with the ‘new normal’ that the pandemic has brought with it, things are only going to get better for micro-mobility in the Middle East. Will this be the first micro-mobility company to conquer the market in the Middle East? Let’s wait and see.
As for Dhanoa, he concludes by saying: “I’m very bullish, especially in the next couple of years.”