Initially created to help students, New York University Abu Dhabi’s Idea Lab will be known as Start AD starting this month.
The name change is in sync with the launch of an entrepreneurial literacy program aimed at “building the capacity in the community and connecting outside of our bubble here,” said Robyn Brazzil, program manager of Start AD.
Start AD began as a concept six years ago when Ramesh Jagannathan, vice provost of innovation and entrepreneurship, wanted to create a space for students to discover their “thought DNA”.
“The only thing you cannot lose however hard you try is the way you think,” Jagannathan said. “You can lose your wealth…[the way you think] is attached to you. I call it the thought DNA.”
When applied, the “thought DNA” is what helps build the knowledge economy.
“In the oil economy, we’re using natural resources,” Jagannathan explained. “It’s easy with money-- you can buy things, but that doesn't really grow capacity…How do you grow the organic soil of people who are energized to create knowledge and create wealth through the application of [the mind]? That’s the challenge we have [in the region].”
To tackle the challenge and nurture the “thought DNA”, Jagannathan launched the NYUAD Idea Lab.
With 24 patents to his name, Jagannathan joined the NYUAD faculty in 2010 as associate dean of engineering after spending most of his career at Eastman Kodak. To kickstart Start AD he introduced Super Lab - a design and innovation course offered to first year students who were given an abstract problem to solve. At the end of it, Jagannathan saw students transform their ideas into something tangible. The course helped “the students realize their potential just by giving them space to get a grip on the way they think”. The Super Lab is now a part of NYUAD’s curriculum.
“The model [of the program] is the whole funnel approach and what we’re calling the full stack experience,” Brazzil said. “So at any stage [of your entrepreneurship] experience, you’ll have the education and a platform for you to plug into.” The program is free to attend, but participants will have to go through a selection process to enroll.
Alongside Start AD exists the Engineering Design Studio - the space where students gather to build their prototypes, work on projects and also discuss entrepreneurship. Established two years ago, the studio is where the Wadi Drone, Reefrover, Roadwatch were built. Matt Karau, lecturer of engineering design at NYUAD, said the studio was actively designed to foster collaboration and enable the students passion and class projects.
“We thought of what the space needs to make it usable, flexible and also have a mentality that suggests other kinds of things can happen around here,” Karau said. With an open door policy, the lab hosts an assortment of material, tools, machines and hot desks available to students at all times. “The reason that everything is out in the open isn’t an accident... this space is constructed...so you can quickly move from having an idea to making something.”
If students build in the Design Studio, they head to Start AD when they are “ready to explore further,” said Brazzil. Wadi Drone and Reefrover placed first and second respectively at the UAE Drones for Good Award while Roadwatch won the M-government award. Starad also prepared the winners of 2012’s Global Hult Prize and helped NYUAD students win patents for technology built in the Studio. Start AD hosts events like Angelrising to educate the region’s investors on high technology and has introduced social impact programs to NYUAD students.
Blacksmith Coffee, a specialty coffee group headquartered in Abu Dhabi, was among the first direct outputs of Start AD. The company founded by Stephen Underwood and Rafael Scharan began in Underwood’s dorm room in 2014.
Scharan said Start AD was instrumental in supporting Blacksmith Coffee through their journey. From coaching the team in startup management to helping them network with potential angel investors, the Lab also “flew in a veteran venture capitalist from New York who spent a whole week with us for an intensive course on the principles of entrepreneurship.” After working with the duo to develop their business plan, the Lab remains involved with Blacksmith Coffee as they prepare to open their first coffeeshop in Saadiyat Island.
With Start AD, Jagannathan hopes to turn the UAE into a “global force in driving innovation and change in the world”. Alluding to the giant of innovation on the other side of the globe, Jagannathan rounds off his intention for Start AD by noting that “strength of Silicon Valley is its weakness. They do what they do very well, but they cannot change very easily. Our lack of legacy is our strength. We can adapt”.