Arab Innovation Academy: Does it work?

Samah Saad, an Algerian university student, just won first place at the latest version of the Arab Innovation Academy (AIA). Her excitement can be heard through her screams as she, along with her group, runs up to the stage to collect their prize, which was access to accelerators and an article written about them. Their start-up, Salamtak, is an online management system to monitor vital data of patients facing chronic diseases.

“The sweat, the tears, the tiredness, the extra work hours, all the effort we put through has paid off. We won. Salamtak was born in AIA, and we plan to raise it out there in the market. Launch it and let it impact the most of it,” Saad said.

The question is: Will Salamtak reach the market now that AIA has come to an end?

The Arab Innovation Academy, a collaboration between Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) and the European Innovation Academy (EIA), is a 10-day program that helps students from the Arab region to turn their idea into a start-up. This accelerated learning program helps get them into the mindset of becoming entrepreneurs, according to Hayfa Abdulrahman, an Innovation Director at QSTP.

“It (AIA) equips them with the right mindset, tools, and connections to establish their own startups instead of waiting for opportunities to be employed,” Abdulrahman said.

However, how efficient is AIA at helping students launch their startup? According to previous winners of the program, it has become a struggle to launch their products into the market due to a lack of funding.

Sinan Al Obaidi won first place at the first version of the Arab Innovation Academy in 2018. Although he had an “eye opening experience” and had the opportunity to develop and pitch his idea, Al Obaidi did not get a fund which delayed him from successfully starting it.

“I wished that it qualified us to get a product development fund from QSTP to further develop the product rather than going to seek funding from private investors,” Al Obaidi said.

Since the program does not provide funding, many participants leave with only the experience and skills they gained from it. Although this is beneficial, and helps these students with future endeavors, it does not achieve what is aims to do. The importance of having such program, according to Abdulrahman, is to “enable youth in the region to actively contribute to economic development through technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.” Thus, how important is it if it does not successfully achieve the contribution of participants due to having no money?

Chaimae El Mahdaoui, a Moroccan student, is another example of that. Despite winning first place in AIA 2019, and being in contact with both participants and mentors, she still could not launch her app.

“I am currently developing the offline version of Salamat-e as I don’t have enough funds to develop the app but still the app is just a tool and the project is more than that,” El Mahdaoui said. 

Participants at AIA 2020

On the last day of the 10-day program, participants have a chance to pitch a final pitch to investors and present the fund they would need to launch the startup. This allows the participants to experience real-life fund seeking. However, participants do not seek funding and find it hard to get any funding after the program ends. Therefore, the program should consider a fund for the winning team, to allow them to launch and witness their project come to life after working hard on it for days. As the Arab Innovation Academy clearly puts in effort to bring in mentors and speakers from around the world, it should keep in mind its aim, which is to allow youth to actively contribute in economic development.

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