Wharton's First Innovation Tournament in the Middle East: A Competition of Ideas, and a Comparison of Challenges
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