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A Student Network to Support Arab Innovation

AMMANAfter a car accident with her friend, Alaa Abulail invented a voice-controlled wheelchair. While she suffered no major injuries, her friend was left a quadriplegic and returned home to Kuwait. “I wanted to do something for her,” says Abulail, who was a student at Jordan University of Science and Technology at the time.

Her wheelchair, which was her university gradation project, won the Arab Innovation Network’s health category competition in 2012. “It was no longer an idea on exam paper,” she says.

In 2011, a group of students and recent alumni of Cambridge University started the Arab Innovation Network to connect students with researchers and professionals and to bridge the gap between academia and industry in the Arab world.

The network is growing both virtually and physically. It now has branches in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. It’s open to Arab university students to showcase science projects and compete for prizes about solutions to major regional challenges in environment, health and engineering.

“We are a group of young researchers wanting to create an impact in our communities through innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Ghadir Siyam, Arab Innovation Network co-chair.

The region consistently ranks low in global innovation surveys. Arabs are responsible for a meager 1.4 percent of the scientific papers published worldwide. And they hold only 0.1 percent of the patents registered internationally, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Science Report 2010.

Most Arab states still lack a national science and technology strategy according to a UNESCO Report. Arab countries’ investments in research and development usually do not exceed 0.3 percent of their GDP and 97 percent of scientific research in Arab countries depends on government funding, according to the Arab Knowledge Report 2009.

“The network works to fill these voids,” Siyam says, “by incentivizing the Arab youth towards innovation through the collaboration of universities, companies and nonprofits.”

Siyam said innovation efforts in the Arab region are increasing significantly. But, she said, “most of them are operationally slow, localized within a limited number of countries, profit-driven and regionally competitive.”

To address these weaknesses, the network held an annual conference guided by a network of academics, researchers and entrepreneurs affiliated with the University of Cambridge. “Arab innovators with mature ideas will get the chance to showcase their prototypes to investors and attendees and to meet our sponsors,” said Farah Al-Taji, a volunteer budget and operation executive at the network. “We cannot provide financial support, but we do our best to provide the exposure necessary.”

But innovation supporters have their

own challenges. “We are facing difficulties in finding the resources to continue organizing events regularly and maintaining network’s daily activities,” Siyam said, suggesting the network could use more support from governments and businesses.

“We can’t alone support innovation in the region, it’s a governmental task,” added Siyam. “All of us are volunteers.”

Abulail, unfortunately, has not yet been able to manufacture her voice-controlled wheelchair as she has not found investors to support it. She has patented it to prevent anyone from copying

the idea. But even if the wheelchair never gets built she feels she has absorbed an important lesson. “I learned that nothing is impossible,” she said.

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