Syrian inventor on his journey of making a solar-powered washing machine [Q&A]

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Twenty-two-year old Syrian inventor Yaman Abou Jeib has the entrepreneurship community buzzing over him, and for good reason too.

Aside from being the first Syrian inventor to win Qatar’s Stars of Science show last year with Glean, a solar-powered washing machine, he was also named among MIT Technology Review’s ‘35 Arab Innovators Under 35’. Abou Jeib is also likely to be the first Syrian to have his entire house powered by solar.

Wamda sat down with Abou Jeib for a discussion on his next steps, and the challenges and milestones of his journey.

Wamda: You’re only 22. How have you managed to achieve so much so soon?

Abou Jeib: I started my journey quite early, always knowing I wanted to be an engineer just like my father.

When I was nine years old, my classmates and I enrolled in a science workshop at the Robou’ al Sham center in Damascus. I would tinker with all sorts of toolkits and building blocks there. There were no Arduinos back then but I do remember there was a toolkit called Meccano that was popular. And of course, I would tinker with the best inventions ever: books. I read everything I could find.  

Abou Jeib presenting Glean at Stars of Science. (Image via Stars of Science)

Wamda: What about work experience?

Abou Jeib: When I was 15, I walked into a privately-owned hardware workshop and asked the owner for a summer internship. He mentored me in electronics and building voltage regulators, inverters, circuits and other things.

The latter was a highly educational experience for me because a few years later, I became a partner at my father’s solar firm Aboujeib for Renewable Energy and Electronics (AFREE). The company was founded in 2008 and manufactures photovoltaic panels, wind power devices and solar-powered engines. We would import the devices and assemble them ourselves. The frequent power cuts in Syria due to the war left a huge market for us, as solar generators work with no electricity. AFREE is still operating.

Wamda: Your entire house has also been running on solar power since 2008.

Abou Jeib: Yes, my father and I believe that as scientists, we have to walk the walk. If we were selling solar projects, then we had to have experience living and operating on solar energy. The pumps, lights, filters, fridge and TV all run on solar. In fact, I wouldn’t have come up with the Glean concept if we didn’t take this step.

Wamda: Tell us about your journey with Stars of Science and developing the idea of Glean.

Abou Jeib: I always watched the show as a teenager. At 18, I decided that I wanted to be part of this program. I really inspired by Egyptian innovator Haytham Dessouky, who won Season 3 with Vivify, a device that transforms any surface into a touch screen.

But first, I had to come up with a solution to a problem. I knew from experience that washing machines were among the most difficult devices for solar engineers to convert. They consume too much water and too much energy. So what I did was disassemble our washing machine and replace its electric heater, which consumed the most energy, with a thermal system. This thermal system heats the water and saves energy. As for the high water consumption, I recycled the discarded water of the machine so it could be used again.

Wamda: How much time did it take to develop Glean?

Abou Jeib: I worked on Glean on and off between 2011 and 2015. I was a university student back then and I let the ideas brew in my head for a while. I also used my dad’s mentorship.

Wamda: What was the most challenging part of your journey?

Abou Jeib: This post-show phase is the most difficult part of my journey. When you train as a scientist, they don’t teach you business courses or scalability and these things can be challenging. I’m hoping to find the right partner who has experience in selling machines for giants like General Electric (GE) and others.

I’m now one of the 10 teams participating in the 2016 Jusoor Bootcamp, and the purpose of this participation was to come up with a sustainable business model and to hopefully find a partner investor.

Wamda: What advice would you want to give to young entrepreneurs like yourself?

Abou Jeib: Patience, patience, patience. You have to work a long time, find the right mentors and friends until the right moment arrives. I think everything I did in the past decade has been leading me into this phase.

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