Wharton's First Innovation Tournament in the Middle East: A Competition of Ideas, and a Comparison of Challenges

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[Meet all the Karmsolar team in a Wamda recorded quick interview, and learn more about the finalists here]

Ahmed Zahran couldn't have been more excited when he received the email confirming that his startup was selected as a semi-finalist for the first innovation tournament in the Middle East, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the United Arab Emirates' Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi.

Only months before, Zahran and his fellow Egyptian colleagues had begun developing KarmSolar, a concept to provide a solar-powered water pumping solution for Egyptian farms in arid areas, which currently rely on diesel generators to pump underground water for irrigation.

"Egypt and the MENA [Middle East & North Africa] region continue to suffer from an energy-water nexus, where on the one hand, increasing amounts of energy are needed to produce water for human, agricultural and industrial consumption, and on the other hand, increasing amounts of water is needed to produce energy," said Zahran and his colleague Yumna Madi.

They were among a group of 12 semi-finalists from around the region that had garnered the attention of the judges and Karl T. Ulrich, Vice Dean of Innovation and CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School. With the tournament's focus on sustainable concepts that can be implemented globally, the competing ideas ranged from new building technologies to water-saving systems, vying over two days this May to win the first prize from a total of US$30,000 up for grabs.

But Zahran and his team unintentionally became examples of some of the real difficulties that challenge the free flow of ideas and innovation in the region. They learned only days before its start that they would not be able to come to the tournament because of UAE visa restrictions. With no other options, the team was allowed to make virtual presentations of their concept to the judges over Skype.

Facing Regional Hurdles

Bureaucratic entanglements can easily become a big hurdle for would-be entrepreneurs, said Faraj Al Meharibi, an Emirati student who was behind the entry of Earth Salutes You, a concept to develop a utilities usage monitoring system for homes. "The steps you have to follow to get your product out the licensing required, the different departments involved sometimes in the middle of it you decide it's not worth it," Al Meharibi said.

In the region, there is an aversion to entrepreneurship or trying to develop your own ideas because of the risk entailed with trying to strike it out on your own, said Saimum Hossain, a 24-year-old competitor from Bangladesh.

"The overall environment is not innovation friendly," said Hossain, who represented an entry for a new type of building material called Jutin, which is made from a mixture of natural materials such as jute and PVC, and provides a cheaper, greener alternative to the corrugated aluminum sheets many of the region's poorest use to build shelters. "You're out from the mainstream."

That issue made it difficult to recruit a team to carry out other business functions for a startup, said Prince Arora, a 22-year-old competitor from Chennai, India, whose entry was SmartMeter+, a concept for an algorithm-based home energy usage monitoring system. "The difficulties are finding the right financing and the sales people," he said. "Even in my project, I focused on the technical side. I don't know how to come up with a business plan."

Among all the groups, there was a consensus that getting funding for a concept is very difficult. "Funding is the biggest challenge," said Hasan Qandil, a Jordanian who had entered a concept called SolarLens Collector that would use concentrated lenses to produce more intense and efficient solar power. "There has to be a belief in young entrepreneurs, so that there can be more investments in them."

Varying Innovation Needs

Qandil also suggested that innovation could flourish more with better education in the region. "There is no practical aspect of education, most schools only teach theory," he said. "I've always wanted to get out of the box, out of categories."

The region is still feeling the effects of the Arab Spring, and the concerns raised by the protests including the general call for quality of life improvements

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