Ahmed Zahran couldn’t have been more excited when he received the email confirming that his startup was selected as a semi-finalist for the first innovation tournament in the Middle East, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the United Arab Emirates’ Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi.

Only months before, Zahran and his fellow Egyptian colleagues had begun developing KarmSolar, a concept to provide a solar-powered water pumping solution for Egyptian farms in arid areas, which currently rely on diesel generators to pump underground water for irrigation.

"Egypt and the MENA [Middle East & North Africa] region continue to suffer from an energy-water nexus, where on the one hand, increasing amounts of energy are needed to produce water for human, agricultural and industrial consumption, and on the other hand, increasing amounts of water is needed to produce energy," said Zahran and his colleague Yumna Madi.

They were among a group of 12 semi-finalists from around the region that had garnered the attention of the judges and Karl T. Ulrich, Vice Dean of Innovation and CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School. With the tournament’s focus on sustainable concepts that can be implemented globally, the competing ideas ranged from new building technologies to water-saving systems, vying over two days this May to win the first prize from a total of US$30,000 up for grabs.

But Zahran and his team unintentionally became examples of some of the real difficulties that challenge the free flow of ideas and innovation in the region. They learned only days before its start that they would not be able to come to the tournament because of UAE visa restrictions. With no other options, the team was allowed to make virtual presentations of their concept to the judges over Skype.

Facing Regional Hurdles

Bureaucratic entanglements can easily become a big hurdle for would-be entrepreneurs, said Faraj Al Meharibi, an Emirati student who was behind the entry of Earth Salutes You, a concept to develop a utilities usage monitoring system for homes. "The steps you have to follow to get your product out — the licensing required, the different departments involved — sometimes in the middle of it you decide it’s not worth it," Al Meharibi said.

In the region, there is an aversion to entrepreneurship or trying to develop your own ideas because of the risk entailed with trying to strike it out on your own, said Saimum Hossain, a 24-year-old competitor from Bangladesh.

"The overall environment is not innovation friendly," said Hossain, who represented an entry for a new type of building material called Jutin, which is made from a mixture of natural materials such as jute and PVC, and provides a cheaper, greener alternative to the corrugated aluminum sheets many of the region’s poorest use to build shelters. "You’re out from the mainstream."

That issue made it difficult to recruit a team to carry out other business functions for a startup, said Prince Arora, a 22-year-old competitor from Chennai, India, whose entry was SmartMeter+, a concept for an algorithm-based home energy usage monitoring system. "The difficulties are finding the right financing and the sales people," he said. "Even in my project, I focused on the technical side. I don’t know how to come up with a business plan."

Among all the groups, there was a consensus that getting funding for a concept is very difficult. "Funding is the biggest challenge," said Hasan Qandil, a Jordanian who had entered a concept called SolarLens Collector that would use concentrated lenses to produce more intense and efficient solar power. "There has to be a belief in young entrepreneurs, so that there can be more investments in them."

Varying Innovation Needs

Qandil also suggested that innovation could flourish more with better education in the region. "There is no practical aspect of education, most schools only teach theory," he said. "I’ve always wanted to get out of the box, out of categories."

The region is still feeling the effects of the Arab Spring, and the concerns raised by the protests — including the general call for quality of life improvements — weighed on the minds of the competitors.

"Everyone in the Middle East needs to be comfortable," said Khaled Mouats, a contestant from Algeria whose concept was Modern Wall, building material that would increase airflow and cooling within a home. "There are not a lot of Arab innovators. There are a lot of good ideas here, but there is no support for them."

Zahran and Madi said the revolutions have actually created opportunity for innovators. "We feel the Arab Spring, despite its many challenges and difficulties, has opened the door for many young entrepreneurs to venture into new businesses," they said. "We feel the confidence and have been noticing the increase in interest from local and international organizations and investors in supporting social enterprises and innovation in the Arab world."

Innovation in the Middle East should be a means to further develop one’s country and community, said Mouza Al Khyeli, the tournament’s only female semi-finalist. Hailing from a small town between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, her concept was creating solar-powered light sensors on streetlights. "The only thing I am interested in is serving the UAE," she said. "This is my country, and I want to give back."

Regional innovation should also reflect the traditions and faith of its people, said Ali Mohammed Al Shehhi, leader of a team from HCT’s Ras Al Khaimah Men’s College that entered a concept for an automated ablution machine that would limit water consumption at mosques, where worshippers wash before prayers. "We want to be following the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, with the support of technology," he said.

Al Meharibi hoped that, despite the difficulties in being an entrepreneur and an innovator, more Emiratis would aspire to compete in innovation challenges, and develop new products. "We want to be the best in everything," he said.

Advice, And Winners

Judges for the tournament also came from across the region, including Walid Mansour, executive director of the Lebanon-based venture capital firm Middle East Venture Partners. An MBA graduate of the Wharton school, Mansour appreciated the talent displayed at the competition.

"I was impressed by the quality of applications and the high level of innovative projects," Mansour said. "The diversity was obvious: Projects from all over the MENA region working to solve problems that are relevant to local and global communities."

Mansour noted that most of the contestants grappled with trying to convey the ideas behind their projects, and he focused on understanding their potential. The experience suggested to him that would-be environmental entrepreneurs in the region need to "work on their numbers, imagine several applications to their ideas, be conscious of the execution and assess if their ideas or projects are resource-consuming ones or not."

Also judging the competitors was Samer Abdin, co-founder of Dubai-based Istikana.com, one of the region’s first online TV services. He too was impressed by "the high quality of entries and presentations as well as their energy and drive to make a difference." Abdin said that the contestants demonstrated "the potential this region has in terms of entrepreneurship, and that potential needs nurturing both from educational and legal standpoint also."

Ulrich said the competition was no less rigorous than those held at Wharton. "I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the submissions we received," Ulrich said. "They were every bit as good as those we have received in response to the global solicitations for entries to our Philadelphia-based tournaments."

In the end, he and his fellow judges debated at length the merits of the entries, deciding on five finalists: Zahran and Madi’s KarmSolar; Al Shehhi’s ablution machine; an entry called GreenSpark from Bangladesh, represented by Sadman Safat, which used Bryophyllum plant leaves as a battery power source for rural homes; Ballerina Energy System of Lebanon, entered by Najieh Chamieh, a combined solar energy and wind power device for rooftops; and Pak-Energy Solution, represented by Ali Raza of Lahore, Pakistan, which uses cow dung to generate ‘clean’ gas for cooking, heating and lighting, as well as a bio fertilizer.

Much to his surprise, the judges awarded the top prize of 40,000 Dh. (US$10,800) to Zahran’s team in Egypt. Pak-Energy Solution was awarded second place, and a cash prize of 30,000 Dh. (US$8,100). The other entries settled for a three-way tie, and 10,000 Dh. (US$2,700) each.

Through a Skype connection, the audience laughed as they watched Zahran and his family celebrate the victory. "We didn’t think we stood a chance because we unfortunately had to do our presentation over the web," Zahran and Madi said. "This is remarkable because it reminded us that we are developing an important and much needed solution for the MENA region. We are thrilled about this win and are feeling even more responsible for making our project a success and to making sure that our solution is an efficient alternative to diesel generators."

In victory, they offered advice for future tournament competitors and innovators: "[Don’t] feel intimidated and or be afraid to take a risk. Also we advise everyone not to give up and to expect to encounter many downfalls and stumbling blocks; but eventually if they believe and are passionate about what they are working on they will soon be able to make their project work. We are definitely not ready to give up."