In the heart of Lebanon’s leading university overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is a center harnessing a future vision for the 150-year old institution.
Walking into the fourth floor of the American University of Beirut’s West Hall building is the Center of Research and Innovation (CRInn). The center’s walls are lined with small posters of words of encouragement and group pictures of smiling students and professors, with names of potential businesses in the pictures’ background.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you,” reads one wall poster. “Don’t stop until you’re proud,” says another.
The nearly three year old center is the fruit of a years-long effort and a decades -old idea: for lasting change, begin with the youth.
“[The center] is for students to secure their entrepreneurship potential, to meet with people who can shape their ideas, to sit in a place where they can discuss ideas and find teams, and team members,” said Dr. Fadia Homeidan, the driving force behind the Center for Research and Innovation (CRInn).
Building on an idea
Homeidan said the idea for the center had been brewing at AUB for nearly five years when TechWadi visited the university around five years ago seeking to start innovation hubs in universities across MENA. Homeidan along with former AUB professor Dr. Tony Feghali, were sold on the idea. They conducted two feasibility studies and a business plan before convincing the administration, who later approved their idea.
In 2013, the professor secured funding from the EU for a student center for entrepreneurship. Through university support and some grants, they were able to establish, furnish and continue to run the center.
Homeidan now serves as the center’s director. With her are PR and communications director Diala Daoud and activities and operations coordinator Hussein Sleiman.
This year Tara Nehme, founder of Ticklemybrain, joined the team as a startup support consultant. Nehme, an entrepreneur herself, works with students to shape and enhance their ideas into a more successful business model.
“The main goal is to support any student or alumni or anyone with any affiliation to AUB to be able to help them with any way. One way is that we organize a lot of events, workshops and talks,” Nehme said.
While the center is focused on the student body, professors are actively invested as well and are encouraged to establish and explore their own ideas. The center’s flagship startup is Saugo 360, a telecoms solution company established by three engineering professors, Dr. Ali Chehab, Dr. Imad ElHajj, Dr. Ayman Kayssi.
Funded Telus Corp, one of Canada's largest telecom providers, Saugo’s biggest project can sound like gibberish to non-telecommunication engineers so here’s a highly watered down explanation:
Traditionally, to create a network at home, you need a smart box, like a router, that you connect to a phone line to give you wireless internet. On the commercial level, that means bigger, more expensive, more specialized and faster boxes.
Saugo works on an alternative technology: a ‘software defined networking’, or SDN solution. The technology was introduced to the market several years ago with the potential to upend the rigid telecommunications industry. Instead of a specialized, expensive and intelligent box, commercial companies get the dumbed down, cheaper box with smarter, more specialized and centralized software.
Still confused about SDN? Read this.
“Networking and telecom has always been: make it smaller, faster, and handle more data but that’s about it. There was no fundamental change like SDN [which is] a paradigm shift,” said Elhajj.
Promising student-led startups have also emerged out of the center.
Gravity, led by five students, is working on a remote controlled robot that cleans any building’s exterior windows without human intervention, moving from one window pane to another using its own arm and through suction cups. The group is working on its second prototype at the moment. Another startup, Tutup, connects students with tutors.
The university hopes its efforts to support young entrepreneurs will soon expand into an Innovation Park, an accelerator for ideas out of the university that will be launched by the end of 2016.
In the meantime, the university will continue to support and challenge any AUB affiliate with an idea. But be prepared to be grilled.
“Do you have a problem to solve? Do you have a team?... Can this thing scale? I love making them see that, you’re making this tool, but can you make 20,000 of this tool?” said Nehme.
Beyond university walls
AUB's center for innovation may be one of the first in the country, but similar centers have popped up in universities internationally over the past decade. The hope is that the impact of such support for startups at the student level will resonate beyond the university's walls.
"By imparting your students with the requisite business, management, marketing, and financial skills and imbuing them with the attitudinal dispositions to get their fledgling ideas off the ground and growing them, it can contribute to job creation, especially for the youth," said Dariush Zahedi, director at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Development in the Middle East at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Should your students succeed in coming up with globally relevant ideas, they will in all likelihood become a part of the brain-drain. But this is not to be lamented. It should be celebrated because its capacity to inspire and animate and eventually give back on a massive scale to the development of the local entrepreneurial ecosystem," he said.