American Univesity of Beirut

Students compete to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true

Ten finalists pitched their startup ideas to a packed crowd in Maamari Auditorium, competing for cash prizes totaling $25,000, as part of the 4th annual Darwazah Student Innovation Contest.

The event is sponsored by the Samih Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship of AUB’s Olayan School of Business (OSB) and is open to all AUB students, attracting budding entrepreneurs from across the university.  Over 100 applied to the contest in November and these were narrowed down to around 20, with 10 finalists emerging at the end. One of these was Jinane Chamseddine, an economics graduate and newly minted MBA, who discovered—to her surprise—a new path. 

“I never thought to be an entrepreneur,” said Chamseddine, whose startup concept is about experiential tourism. “I took the core course with Dr. Bijan Azad because it was a requirement, but it’s been amazing. It has changed my whole perspective of how things can go and what I can do with my life. I’m really passionate about this now.”

All the finalists have worked hard over the past few months to refine their business models and prepare for the final pitch to a jury of experts, hoping for that all-important seed money to bring their concepts to reality. But as a previous winner of the award told the current crop of students at the event: it’s not all about the money.  

Words of Wisdom

Ghassan Abi Fadel is part of the team that won first place in this contest in 2015 with an online interior design company called Moodfit, which has recently succeeded in getting major investment to scale up their business. Ghassan came back to share what he has learned along the way.

“Money is not the answer,” explained Abi Fadel. “The fundraising was not the end of the startup journey, nor was it the beginning. It is only—as Dr. Bijan likes to define it—the lubricant for the engine. It makes you go faster and smoother, but it’s not the engine. The startup is the engine.”

Additional inspiration was provided by Said Darwazah, the chairman of Hikma Pharmaceuticals, a former Jordanian minister of health, and an AUB trustee since 2011. His father, the late Samih Darwazah (BS ’54), founded Hikma and grew it from a small, regional business to a multinational firm listed on the London Stock Exchange with 9,000 employees and sales of over $2 billion. 

Said Darwazah sat down for a fireside chat with Dr. Bijan Azad, director of the Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, and shared many candid thoughts about his journey as a business leader and the mindset needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

“Never give up on your dream. Give up on your idea, change your idea, but never give up on your dream,” cautioned Darwazah. “When somebody talks about their company, they talk about all the successes, but the reality is there are more failures than successes along the way and you learn much more from the failures than from the successes.”

Pitching their dreams

After this opening program, which included welcoming words from Dean of OSB Steve Harvey and Dr. Azad, the students took to the stage for their five-minute pitches. A week earlier, they had given these same pitches to a jury of experts who had to assess, not only their business plans, but also their team chemistry in order to determine which groups had what it takes to bring their plans to the next level.

When the winners were announced, honorable mention was given to MIXREAPP from Marwan Maalouf and MAPPIN from Jinane Chamseddine and Raymond Karout. As for the cash prizes, this year, extra funds were added to the total award package so that there was one second-place prize of $5,000 and two first-place prizes of $10,000.

Second-prize went to DeLOC, which was pitched by biomedical engineering student Wadad Mlaeb, who came up with a novel method for testing potential cancer drugs.

One of the first-prize winners was WonderEd, whose founder and CEO is A’laa Chbaro who began her pitch explaining her concern with how young people are too often becoming passive consumers of digital information. She wants to counter this by teaching preschoolers how to be active creators of digital content and improve their cognitive skills.

“I have huge passion for this and I want to make a change in the world,” Chbaro told us. “The workshops were very beneficial and the sessions we had with Dr. Bijan were very beneficial.  They helped us put the business in perspective and helped us in developing it further.”Close dialog

The other first prize went to a team of mechanical engineering students who created WOODY, a building material that looks like wood but is more durable, cheaper, and environmentally sustainable. The team consists of Elias Oska, Bahaa Abdel Khalek, Zak Itani, and Yahya Itani. 

“The mentoring and networking opportunities are the best that you can get from a really world-class university in the Middle East,” explained Elias Oska. “A lot of people think being an entrepreneur is about money, but it’s mostly about making your own decisions. You’re your own boss.”

Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications,

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