In spite of the many challenges faced during this academic year, innovation at the American University of Beirut (AUB) has continued and its students have kept working on creating original ways to solve many problems faced in the community. May 14, 2020 marked the completion of the third annual FYP Accelerator Program, taking a virtual spin this time, where ten startup teams pitched and discussed different aspects of their businesses in front of an esteemed panel of jury experts from the entrepreneurship field. “We are continuously operating in an entrepreneurial mode in the Entrepreneurship Initiative, adapting and changing our methods according to the context we live in. We will continue to serve our AUB students and alumni to ensure they put their knowledge and skills to the best use in solving problems in a sustainable and innovative way," said Mona Itani, coordinator of the Entrepreneurship Initiative.
The FYP Accelerator Program by the Entrepreneurship Initiative aims to transform innovative capstone projects of senior engineering student teams at the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (MSFEA) into viable startup businesses by providing them with business and entrepreneurship knowledge, skills, and exposure. It serves as a pre-acceleration program for ideas that graduate being ready to get incubation or acceleration from the many partners of the programs in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
The 10 teams CashBuddy, VAD, SmartShop, DOBO, Careeri, SpillProof, HiveMate, Plasfill, ServU, and PicPad presented five-minute virtual pitches which where all posted online, and had a live Q&A session on Thursday, May 14 with an esteemed jury consisting of Dr. Fouad Mrad, director at ESCWA, Dr. Bijan Azad, director of the Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at AUB, Yasmina El Khoury, innovation advisor at PCM and angel investor, and Jeffrey Akiki, early stage investor at Bolt in the Silicon Valley.
“I am impressed with the resilience of the students, despite everything we are going through, they are innovating and thinking out of the box and trying to address various social and economic challenges. Thank you for your persistence and spirit. Keep trying and know that today and in the near future science and technology and innovation are the path forward and will be more important than ever to help humanity step out of the pandemic and recover with minimum damage so that next time we are more ready than ever. Your generation has a big role to play there. Keep up the good work and we are counting on you." said Dr. Fouad Mrad addressing the student teams at the end of the virtual meeting.
The four winning teams will be awarded a total of $50,000 generously provided by the Maroun Semaan Endowment for the Entrepreneurship Initiative and conditional upon pursuing their startups. Another $10,000, announced as a surprise during the closing session, will be dedicated to any or a combination of the other six startups teams who will pursue their idea further subject to progress and written proposals which will be reviewed and approved by the Entrepreneurship Initiative at MSFEA. “The idea behind the FYP Accelerator Program is to support all the MSFEA students who wish to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors and providing continuous support for all our graduating entrepreneurs and startups to the most extent possible is part of our mandate. With the $10,000 fund, this year and for the first time, all the startup teams have got a chance to pursue their ideas further regardless if they win or not" added Mona Itani. In addition to the financial equity-free seed funds that the startups will get, they will also benefit from MSFEA and its vast connections in terms of mentorship, networking, and other intangible support that they will need during their entrepreneurial journey.
“I am sure it was very challenging to finalize your pitches and prototypes given the current circumstances we are facing. We are proud of our youth in Lebanon and always say that our human capital is the way out of the problems we are facing. Great pitches and great job!" said Yasmina El Khoury.
The first-place winner, HiveMate, is a smart device that assists beekeepers in remotely monitoring their beehives. The main advantage of the device is that it is capable of preventing swarming, a natural process where a large group of honeybees leaves their colony due to the emergence of a new queen prior to 12 days as well as detecting other phenomena. HiveMate is non-intrusive and easy to install on any existing beehive. It keeps track of the beehive's health conditions and notifies the user of any abnormality. The beekeeper can also monitor the flow of honeybees at the entrance and their activity inside live from the comfort of his home through the use of the software app coupled with the hardware device. Computer vision, mechatronics, and machine learning were combined to deliver this tiny intelligent and innovative device. For the average commercial beekeeper, Hivemate saves them an average of 70 days of manual labor, in addition to financial savings estimated at $20,000 if swarming is left to occur naturally. Hivemate had already participated in the AUB Hult Prize competition in 2020 and won third place.
Spill Proof, in second place, is a line of tremor-friendly cups and accessories that allow people suffering from hand tremors to have a worry-less day-to-day drinking experience. It is simple to use, discrete and can handle even the most intense types of tremors. The team stood out with their design and innovation skills making use of fluid dynamic principles to create ergonomic accessories that effectively avoid spilling from within. The team has successfully presented various functional prototypes and they intend to start mass production using injection mold techniques in the near future. Spill Proof also won the first place in the Future of Health Hackathon which took place at the end of February as a joint event between the Talal and Madiha Zein AUB Innovation Park and MSFEA.
PLASFILL, the third-place winner, presents a solution for filling potholes that cause severe damage to cars, drivers, and pedestrians as well as under-leveled manholes, used for drainage and underground maintenance, which also cause road discrepancy. After a whole year of extensive research, testing, and experimentation, the civil engineering team behind PLASFILL came up with a new eco-conscious material made up of plastic and other types of waste. The extensive lab tests showed that it is nine times stronger than regular asphalt and lasts twice as long. By using PLASFILL to cover up road discrepancies, municipalities and contractors won't be just preventing injuries, flat tires, and road accidents that sometimes lead to death but would also be helping the environment by reducing plastic waste. This is not the first win for the team as they have already been placed second in the Hult Prize competition at AUB, one of the top six teams in the regional Hult Prize competition in Amman, and more recently winning first place in the semi-final round in the HULT Prize Lebanon national competition 2020 and thus securing a place in the prestigious Global Accelerator Program.
DOBO, the fourth-place winner, is a fintech platform that gives unbanked students the chance to apply for micro-loans for a set of options including tuition fees, studying abroad, educational tools, rent, standardized tests and others thus re-inventing microfinance in Lebanon for a good cause. The team, coming from ECE and CCE backgrounds, have gone through multiple iteration cycles throughout the accelerator program and have benefited from experts in the fintech field to validate and pivot their business plan over and over again. They impressed the judges with their team dynamics as they showed great synergy and high confidence in presenting their idea which was supported with their technical and management skills and real desire to take DOBO to the next level and transforming it into a real viable startup.
The teams were all confronted with some difficult and tricky questions from the jury panel. “If we were a little harsh on you, it is for a good cause because we believe that you can always improve what you are doing. Moving forward, refining and tweaking are the main factors to take your projects the extra mile and make them happen" said Dr. Azad. “There are a lot of great ideas there, for sure they need a lot of work, and that's sort of the process and the sort of reasoning behind asking these tricky questions and putting the founders on the spot. I am really impressed by the students' resilience and perseverance, operating in such a tough environment. You see that across the spectrum, the most successful entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley, the biggest portion of them, are immigrants that lived in tough situations and were able to persevere and be successful. Keep working hard and good luck to you all," concluded Jeffrey Akiki.
You can watch the FYP Accelerator Program Final Pitching Q&A here (password: gWfc337h).