In Wharton Innovation Competition, Seeking Solutions for Middle Eastern Challenges

Matching up blood donors, energy conservation software and a low-cost method to provide potable water in Yemen; the finalist proposals of the Wharton-HCT Innovation Tournament in Abu Dhabi this month spanned a range of social issues in the Middle East, from civil planning concerns to expanding support for charitable causes.

This year's competition received over 200 applications from around the region. After hearing a day of presentations, Wharton experts Karl Ulrich and Bulent Gultekin, among a panel of local business and academic leaders, decided to award first place to "DiaLife," a proposed diabetes management solution designed to meet the needs of regional diabetic patients and their caregivers, using the Internet and interactive tools.

For his work, Amine Bounoughaz, an engineering student from Algeria, was awarded 30,000 Dh (US$8,100). It was a poignant victory for Bounoughaz, who began his presentation with his own story: his grandfather had passed away from diabetes, his parents were Stage 1 diabetics, and he himself was at high risk to develop the disease.

His personal experiences led him to develop DiaLife, Bounoughaz explained. "I dedicate this win to my family, to my friend and the co-founder of DiaLife, who has diabetes, and to anyone who has diabetes in the Middle East," he said. "We want to make their lives easier and better."

Bounoughaz said the prize money would be reinvested in the startup. "The best thing is that it comes with no strings, we don't have to give any equity away for it," he said.

Discussing Innovation

Before the finals, Wharton's Ulrich spent a day discussing the concept of innovation to a crowd of students and professionals from the region. Wharton's Vice Dean of innovation and CIBC professor of entrepreneurship and e-commerce found himself fielding a number of questions about the nature of innovation and its process.

When asked, Ulrich explained that innovation and invention are two different things, though he noted they are used interchangeably by many. "Innovation need not the creation of a new solution, whereas invention does," he said. "Innovation usually has a commercial context, as a way to generate value, but not always."

There were external needs that required innovative solutions, Ulrich said, as well as internal needs within companies that the audience could immediately affect. "You are all innovators," he said. "Ideas are cheap. It's all about possibility."

Audience members raised the concern about the cost of innovation tournaments, and how that would be difficult to bear for many companies in the region. Ulrich acknowledged that the process was not cheap. "The central challenge in innovation is managing uncertainty," he said. "What will this innovation become?"

At the end of the discussion, Ulrich challenged every participant in the room to come up with 10 ideas, pitch them to their seated colleagues, and then present those ideas to the group. The end ideas were then voted upon. Ulrich noted that the most popular ideas were focused in health and wellness concerns.

Different Generation

Taking second place in the innovation tournament was Madad, a proposal to help Egypt's thousands of underfunded NGOs find funding. Presented by Sherif Nagui of Egypt, he was awarded 20,000 Dh (US$5,500). Nagui, currently a graduate student at the Wharton school, said the funds would allow the startup to launch in the coming month of Ramadan.


Having seen the competition, Nagui said it showed a change in the thinking among the region's youth. "This generation is different from the past ones," he said. "With so much information available now, young people are setting a path to act upon, rather than just trying to find a job and get by."

Coming in third place was an environment-driven entry from Aisha Al Shehhi and her classmates at the Fujairah Women's College. Their proposal was for a recycling bin that would operate like a carnival game, awarding recyclers with valuable retail coupons for recycling plastic bottles.

As the Emirati winners in the competition, Al Shehhi, 21, said she was extremely proud, and said it was encouraging for other female students who wanted to start businesses and become self-reliant.

"This gives us more confidence," Al Shehhi said. "We are so excited, and we will tell others that they don't have to feel shy, they have a chance."

Her instructor, Omar Ayyash, said the team's placing in the competition demonstrated the potential for the Gulf country. "A key pillar for economic development here and in the entire Arab World as well is entrepreneurship," he said.

Providing Oxygen

Rounding out the winning entries was Students' Initiative for Integrated Rural Development, entered by Uday Umakant Bhardwaj of India. It is a long-term effort to develop a "sustainable development model" using a village in rural India as a proving ground. It is a strategy and program that brings together college volunteers, the public and private sector and villagers.

Awarded 10,000 Dh (US$2,700), Bhardwaj said it was good timing that enabled him to come to the competition. He had exams the day before the competition, then got on a bus for a seven-hour ride to New Delhi, where he caught a flight to Abu Dhabi.

Though happy to be awarded a cash prize which would "provide oxygen," to the venture, winning was beside the point, Bhardwaj said. It was more important for him to meet fellow-minded entrepreneurs, network and make contacts. "It puts a fire in your belly," he said.

Though they did not come away with a prize, competing with college students and even professionals proved to be an exciting challenge for Madina Salavdiyeva and her classmates from GEMS Wellington International High School, in Dubai. Their proposal was to provide a cheap and efficient way to clean water for Yemenis.

Salavdiyeva, 16, said it was important for such innovation competitions to exist in the region. "It gives people a chance to share their ideas," she said. "Only a few people from here get access to the bigger competitions."

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