November 29, 2021
A laser treatment for macular degeneration, a remote sensing technology that determines crop irrigation requirements, a biodegradable menstrual pad made from banana fibers, and a mysterious clean energy generation system were among the start-up initiatives presented at this year’s President’s Innovation Challenge. AUBites past and present, as well as other aspiring entrepreneurs, took to the stage at the Talal and Madiha Zein AUB-Innovation Park in Beirut’s Digital District to pitch their solutions to various problems, with the hope that those solutions might be transmuted into profitable companies.
To watch their pitches is to be bombarded with statistics that make clear just how unsustainable and inefficient current medical, agricultural, and energy technology can be. For example, CEO Daniel Masri of winning start-up Hydro Poseidon presented his solution to inefficient energy production as being 16 times cheaper than solar; operating for 23 hours per day—no intermittent generation as from wind and solar; and 53 times more efficient when comparing dollars spent to energy produced than other sources. How it achieves these staggering metrics remains a mystery as the firm’s core technological innovation remains a closely guarded secret.
Poseidon Hydro’s $45,000 winnings will be used to build a 22kw power plant, comparable in size to a solar array on a large home. As to why they are being so secretive about how the technology functions, Masri explains, “There’s a history of clean tech startups cut down by monolithic competitors, like Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP. So it would be unwise for us to publicize ourselves this early. We need to gain traction and leverage first.”
Moving into second place, we meet Sarah Harouny (BArch ’21), CEO of runner-up Clouds, who reminds us that 113,000 tons of non-recyclable waste is generated annually by period pads. “They end up in landfills, burned, polluting nature,” Harouny says.
Her firm’s solution? A biodegradable, compostable pad. “But it’s not just about sustainability,” she says. “It’s about comfort and convenience as well.” The pad is composed of three layers: organic cotton, banana fibers (the key absorbent material), and a cornstarch-based plastic. The novel ingredient—banana fibers—is essentially a waste product, Harouny explains. Banana trees live a single season, after which they are cut down and the fibers, the material between the bark and the trunk core, are left to degrade into earth. Thus, Clouds can purchase this material from farmers for next to nothing.
“As of now, for our initial planned production run of 10,000 units, we will be 10 percent more expensive than the average pad, but still cheaper than organic pads available in Western markets, and more affordable as we scale.” According to a Clouds-sponsored market validation study, Clouds’ target consumers would be willing to pay up to 20 percent more for such a product.
With the prize money from AUB and elsewhere, Clouds is now in a position to produce 1,000 units to be distributed to focus groups for further market testing. But before that can happen, the pad must be approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which certifies consumer products. “We’re sending ten pads to the ISO’s Lebanon office and hope to have a clinically certified product by the end of the year or early next year.”
As the President’s Innovation Challenge enters its second year, we thought it timely to look back at last year’s winners and assess their progress. Second-place winner of 2020, Petcrete (picture on the right)—maker of a plastic-reinforced concrete, as opposed to the more standard steel-reinforced version—has since completed and deployed a prototype. “We’ve poured screeds [sheets of concrete] in four retail shops, clothing stores,” says PetCrete CEO Ahmad Barazi (BE '10), who says his concrete mix is far cheaper, longer-lasting, and of comparable strength to the steel reinforced-standard. “Plastic doesn’t rust like steel.”
Audrey Nakad (former student)’s peer-to-peer tutoring app Synkers, last year’s co-third place winner, is farther along than most, having overcome one of the great obstacles facing start-ups: financing. Synkers, which boasts over 60,000 learners and 1,000 tutors and mentors, recently secured $1.8 million in a pre-Series A round of funding from Saudi investors Drs. Lama and Dalia Al Sulaiman of Rolaco Holdings and is poised to expand in the UAE and Lebanese markets.
Last year’s other co-third place winner, RAM Polymer (picture on left), a supportive mesh intended for hernia patients that, unlike its counterparts, doesn’t irritate the body is seeking a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Why the United States? Because the country is an intended market that enforces patents, says Professor Marwan El-Sabban at the Department of Anatomy, Cell Biology and Physiological Sciences. “It’s an international patent, so it should be enforceable anywhere in the world on paper. Concerning Lebanon, there are very little expertise or resources to mimic or outdo what we’ve done.”
Regardless of their future, the startups and the students behind them are a testament to the kind of thinking that can help Lebanon escape its current morass. AUB Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Salma Oueida put it best when she said: “If you are feeling discouraged about the future, all you need to do is spend some time here. You will quickly experience the wonderful and inspiring energy and optimism that is being generated and nurtured by our students, alumni, faculty, and staff, as they respond to the call to be the change our world needs.”