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Lebanese Roboticist Wins GIST Tech-I Competition

2018 GIST Tech-I Competition
Wassim El Hariri’s invention to help hospitals across the world address food delivery problems earned him the top GIST Tech-1 award. | GIST Network

Wassim El Hariri took a doctor’s wish for a less stressful way to deliver meals to hospital patients and went to work, developing a robot that selects, stores and dispenses meals to patients – a project that earned El Hariri the top prize at the 7th annual Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition held in Istanbul, Turkey, April 16-19.

El Hariri was among the 10 finalists from emerging economies who pitched their science and technology startup projects to expert judges during the Global Entrepreneurship Congress and competed for more than $170,000 in seed money and resources for their projects.

The competition is a project of GIST, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State that seeks to provide young innovators and entrepreneurs with networking opportunities, skill-building and access to funding to empower them to tackle economic and development challenges. This year’s competition is the fourth administered by AAAS’ Research Competitiveness Program, which coordinated the application process for 549 competitors. The program was also instrumental in getting GIST Tech-I alumni involved – a first for the competition.

“The Tech-I competition allows AAAS to build capacity for early-career technology entrepreneurship and in so doing supports STEM innovation that addresses societal problems and supports grassroots action across the globe. This complements AAAS’ recognized science advocacy and science policy work,” said Charles E. Dunlap, director of AAAS’ Research Competitiveness Program.

Past participants in the GIST Tech-I competition selected 106 semi-finalists from the pool of applicants; the semi-finalists’ video pitches went on to a public voting round. More than 205,000 votes were cast. The top 10 vote-getters, whose projects sought to improve fields ranging from health care to tourism to IT to environmental protection, advanced to the pitch finals. Ten alumni joined the finalists in Istanbul as mentors.

El Hariri’s journey to the GIST Tech-I competition also drew inspiration from an alumnus, he said. His friend, Ziad Sankari, who won the first GIST Tech-I competition in 2011, encouraged El Hariri to submit his food-delivery robot, SASHA, for consideration. His project took shape after he conducted extensive market research that found hospitals waste significant amounts of time and money on food delivery.

“Human error is inevitable with a lot of meals to be delivered in a high-stress, fast-paced environment such as a hospital,” he said.

Leveraging his background in robotics – he earned a bachelor’s degree in robotics and automation engineering from Rafik Hariri University in Lebanon, a master’s degree from the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy and spent several years working for a German robotics company – El Hariri has aimed to improve the process of food delivery for hospital patients with SASHA, an automated guided vehicle that can pick up meals, navigate busy hallways and deposit the correct meal on the patient’s tray, freeing up hospital staff to focus on delivering health care.

SASHA, currently in the startup stage, earned El Hariri first place at the pitch finals, securing him $3,500 in seed capital, $50,000 in Amazon Web Services credits, three hours of mentorship with the leaders of Alice, an artificial intelligence platform for small business owners, and a scholarship ticket to Alice’s 2019 Circular Summit.

He practiced his winning pitch with his alumni mentor, Anwar Almojarkesh, who gave him feedback “as if he were a judge,” El Hariri said. Alumni were also able to pitch their own projects for their own set of prizes. Almojarkesh earned the prize for Best Alumni Pitch for his project on sound-recognition technology.

El Hariri, who is from Lebanon, appreciated the opportunity to work with someone from a different country – Almojarkesh lives in the United Kingdom but is a Syrian and was educated in Jordan. “Meeting the most bright-minded entrepreneurs from different cultures and backgrounds was great,” said El Hariri.

The finalists and mentors together represented 11 African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, including Morocco, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Rwanda.

Competitor Sadaf Naz also focused on making connections with her fellow entrepreneurs. Naz’s startup, Her Ground, spares women in two Pakistani cities the “frustrating” experience of purchasing menstrual hygiene supplies at predominantly male-owned shops, she said.

In Pakistan, 79% of women have no access to menstrual hygiene products and those who do are often harassed and shamed by shopkeepers. Her Ground allows women to purchase the products through the company’s website or via WhatsApp, a texting app. Women select the desired date and time of delivery, which is sent in discrete packaging. In harder to reach rural communities, Naz has placed her product in schools.

Naz won third place and outstanding female entrepreneur at the pitch finals, earning $3,000, $35,000 in Amazon Web Services credits and a scholarship ticket to the 2019 Circular Summit.

She came away enthused by the connections she made in Istanbul, people who helped her improve her pitching skills, sharpen her business model and strategize about making an impact not just in Pakistan, but globally, she said.

El Hariri, who hopes to have the first SASHA fully installed in a hospital soon, said it was meaningful to be surrounded by people who are “hungry and passionate” to make positive changes in the world. Added Naz, “GIST Tech-I is a wonderful platform.”

[Associated image: GIST Network]