Post Covid restrictions, Yehya Al-Khairi (BEng Computer Systems Engineering, 2018) spent three months travelling, and it gave him the idea for a new app. Velz, now in its Beta stage, was recently announced a winner at the 2023 CitySpark entrepreneurship competition, and as founder, Yehya has big plans to disrupt the current world of travel tech.
“It was a great experience, but I struggled with knowing what to do,” says Yehya Al-Khairi (BEng Computer Systems Engineering, 2018), describing his trip to the Middle East after the Covid restrictions lifted. He visited several cities over three months and used existing technology to structure his travels.
“I like planning my trips, so I usually spend a lot of time doing online research and adding labels to Google Maps.”
When examining the significant amount of time it took him to read up on his destinations and label the places and activities that interested him, Yehya realised there should be something out there that could do this for him. The idea for Velz was born.
“We encourage travel by making it easy to know what to do and how to have an authentic experience,” Yehya says when explaining his startup and the app. “We do this by building an interactive map that highlights all the key travel areas.
“Google Maps will tell you how to get from A to B most efficiently, but we will tell you how to get from A to B via the most scenic route. And we do a lot more travel features; like where to take iconic pictures.”
As the founder of Velz, Yehya leads a small team that currently focuses on development, research and strategy. The startup has made progress quickly, taking the app from idea to Beta version within 3 months.
“I want to completely shift the travel tech industry. It’s been pretty stagnant,” Yehya says.
The app is available to download, with new versions released each month, but users require a referral code to gain access. Currently, the app covers five cities in the UK, including London, and one international city, but Yehya has big plans.
“We want to be the go-to travel experience. When you are exploring a new city, Velz will satisfy all your travel needs. You just arrive and trust that we have done the research for you.”
Although Velz has ambitions to become a globally recognised brand, it aims to establish itself in London first, and within this next year, and go public. For this to happen, the startup needs additional funding and marketing, and it’s one of the reasons Yehya decided to take part in CityVentures’ CitySpark entrepreneurship competition this year. CityVentures is part of City, University of London and offers budding businesses and entrepreneurs a large selection of events, support, and opportunities.
“I am anticipating it will help us when we speak with investors” Yehya says when asked what it means to him that Velz was announced one of the five CitySpark winners.
Over 60 teams pitched their startups in front of an audience and judges, and in addition to recognition, the five winning startups will receive a £5,000 cash prize and become part of CityVentures’ incubator programme Launch Lab, meaning they can access business support and mentoring.
“It was definitely a good experience,” Yehya says. “It was the first time I had pitched the product in front of a group of people.”
Yehya graduated from City, University of London in 2018, having completed a BSc in Computer Systems Engineering.
“Growing up, I loved mathematics,” he says. “When it came to deciding what to do at university, I knew it was engineering, but the question was what kind of engineering?”
Having considered the different options and knowing he wanted to stay in London for his studies, he chose the career path that made most sense to him.
“I knew computers were the future,” he says.
At City, Yehya’s favourite experience was the individual project he worked on toward the end of the degree. Despite knowing how much time it would entail and having never done it before, he built a CNC machine.
“I wanted to build a machine that can analyse and draw images. It was a complex project as it required knowledge in many disciplines. I had to learn 3D printing, Java software development, Arduino Uno coding, and mechanical engineering.”
Successfully completing such a complicated piece of work made Yehya realise he prefers projects where he can avoid tunnel vision and instead manage several different elements at the same time. It also gave him the confidence that he can lead on complex projects in the “real world”.
So what would Yehya’s advice be to someone who wants to found their own startup and develop an app?
“If anyone wants to build an app, they need to have experienced the problem. If you have personally experienced that [what you are trying to fix] you have an advantage in a way.
“My advice would be to spend a few months just designing and working around ideas and to not develop anything. This is the one issue I think we had, we kind of started development prematurely. We should have spent a few more months out in the field speaking to people, testing the designs and getting feedback constantly and then start development.
“One other piece of advice to people trying to start a company is to ignore the hype.
“Technology goes through cycles. There’s a quick hype and then it fades away.
“So, if anyone is starting a company, just ignore the noise and go and speak to people who are experiencing the problem you are trying to solve.”
And where does Yehya see his own work going?
“At Velz, we are on a mission to make travel planning effortless, recognising that travel is no longer just a luxury but an essential pathway to personal growth, cultural understanding, and the creation of lifelong memories in our increasingly globalised world.”
To succeed, there is a long list of features Yehya wants to incorporate into his app in the future, including social aspects that will connect travellers from around the world. He doesn’t, however, want his app to become a distraction that takes time away from the user’s real-life experience. He is therefore creating a business model that will make it unnecessary for Velz to do so.
“We don’t make money by you spending more time on the app. The only way we make money is if you travel,” he says.
A big thank you to Yehya Al-Khairi for sharing his story, and congratulation on winning CitySpark 2023!