What I know about developing hardware and software in Palestine: Ayman Arandi

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Ayman Arandi and his partners launched Iris Solutions with $15,000 of their own capital in the West Bank in 2012, with a plan to provide immersive technology centered around touch screens.

They now provide an array of interactive hardware and software solutions, like their sensory rooms, which have proven therapeutic for autistic children and people suffering from stress disorders, and have brought in nearly $1 million in revenue.

Iris Solutions is in the process of developing a portable, less expensive alternative to their sensory rooms, which can cost up to $25,000 each.

Wamda recently spoke with Arandi about his experience developing software and hardware, his company’s success and what’s ahead for the Ramallah-based startup.

The Iris Solutions team, left to right, Gabriele Tervidyte, assistive tech curator; Mohammed Nanish, head of operations; Ayman Arandi, director & product designer; George Hannuneh, head of development; Samah Ktaifa, platform developer .(Images via Iris Solutions)

There’s a gap in this sector. When we started in 2009 there was a lack of specialized providers of interactive technology. There was a need to address the gap and an opportunity to capture this sector. The first was the software sector and the second was the hardware sector, because touch screens weren’t being used that much. We have managed to build a technology that can make any transparent surface into a touchscreen, using simple materials that can be found in the Palestinian market.

The cost of the product needs to fit the market. Building a sensory room in Palestine is quite expensive, priced between $20,000 and $25,000 with the ability to go up to $100,000. It also takes quite some effort to build and it cannot easily be exported. At the beginning of this year we focused all of our attention and budget into coming up with a portable, affordable version. We cut our prices by almost 90 percent by building the Sensory Box. What we built is now plug-and-play - it does not require an installation team or any expertise in technology to install. 

You must consult experts. For our projects we talked to specialists in post-war trauma, autism and behavioral disabilities to help create the content. They came to Palestine and visited all the sensory rooms and tweaked the system and validated it with the latest research.

Iris Solutions' touch screen interface is simple and easy to use. 

It's best to grow organically. I believe the process of growing organically refines ideas. When people start businesses from a raw idea they face challenges on all levels of execution. You are forced to forecast and foresee every single step very carefully because there is no one to fall back on. And when you don’t take investment at the early stage, you learn it the hard way. 

Refine, refine, refine. The challenges we face are multiple-layered. The first is related to hardware, the second is [product] testing, and the third is product development for constant feedback from the market. At Iris we always try to push for new ideas, set milestones for ourselves. For the mass production stage one of the obstacles is that you have to plan four months in advance. When you order equipment from outside Palestine, it’s hard to speculate where you'll be at the next stage, and to have as many backup plans as possible.

Hardware is hard to come by in Palestine. It is not a secret for anyone who is familiar with the situation how challenging and sometimes impossible it is to prove to the Israeli customs that the only reason you are importing something is to make a living. We need to not only show, but decompose, deconstruct and present paperwork for every single piece that arrives. We need to prove we are not going to do anything that might be perceived as threatening. It is grim to even talk about it, imagine how it is to actually live it – when a simple projector gets stuck in the customs for half a year.

It’s a nightmare for us. Goods can get stuck for several months at a time at Israeli customs. What we do is we try to go through different clearance service providers. We order different quantities and we keep trying to see which way is the easiest. We discovered that when we order only two items in the package, it requires less testing and paperwork as it can be marked as a sample. So, we sometimes have to split orders of 10 items into five separate orders. If we want to do this the right way and do mass production, it’s definitely not going to happen in Palestine.

Palestine is like everywhere else. Yes we have more obstacles, but we have more opportunities in certain aspects. I don’t like the narrative that we are constantly suffering. Every country has its own problems but it requires patience and constant learning - two key elements. Then everything else will fall into place. I have not lost my youthful idealism and still believe that we are the ones who create opportunities. 

What we have here - in the Palestinian society - allows me to feel that we can bring in something new and needed. The people, from all generations and experiences, deserve the novelty [of a product] made by their own. And that is mine and my fellow young idealists’ opportunity. 

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