Reality TV show spotlights Arab science stars

DOHA // The pan-Arab reality show Stars of Science named its 16 second-season finalists on Sunday night, setting the stage for a six-week battle for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and a spot among the top young innovators in the region.

The finalists hail from Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and beyond. They tinker with diesel engines and robot joints, motorised trolleys and air-conditioned clothes, devising new approaches to common yet complex problems and hoping to make their names and inspire others.

Fouad Mrad, a long-time engineering professor at the American University of Beirut and one of the show's two permanent jurors, said: "This is a lifetime opportunity and these innovators are very anxious, hoping to prove to the world that their idea is valid, is scientifically sound and can be packaged into something useful to society. As long as they work hard, stay on track and are committed to their goal, we should see an exciting competition."

The Qatar Foundation-produced Stars of Science is shown in 15 countries and aims to promote education and interest in science and technology in the Arab region. An initiative of Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser Al Misnad, the wife of the Qatari emir, the show is filmed in Qatar Science and Technology Park and receives support from the universities of Education City.

The winner receives US$300,000 (Dh1.1million), second place $150,000, third place $100,000 and fourth $50,000. The first season, which ran in the spring 2009, was won by Bassam Jalgha, a Lebanese mechanical engineer who created "Dozan", an automated tuning device for stringed instruments.

The current season began on October 3 and will end with on November 28. During its first few weeks, the show went from Tunis to Cairo to Jeddah to Doha, whittling 7,000 applicants, including Eric Suleiman, whose project involved simplifying cable installation, down to 125 semi-finalists and then to 16.

In the coming episodes they will be judged on proof-of-concept, engineering, design and marketing as their numbers drop to four for the live 90-minute finale. Starting October 25, the show will also broadcast daily 30-minute episodes from Monday to Saturday, following the progress of each project.

Some of the innovators from the first season are already reaping rewards. One of last year's finalists, the Algerian computer engineer Wahiba Chair developed a calorie-counting software for the iPhone that scans barcodes and retrieves health information. Her application CarrotLines launched in June. Ms Chair says the show helped her improve the design and gave her the confidence and credibility to pursue her idea.

Mazen Salah from Jordan, also a finalist last season, developed Staticap, a non-rotating hubcap for cars that can display a team logo, flag, or whatever the owner would like. "In today's world the need for uniqueness and related self-expression has never been stronger," he said. "StatiCap fulfills this need."

Mr Salah received his patent earlier this year, launched his company in August and aims to exhibit at the Riyadh Motor Show in December.

This year's finalists include Abdullah Abou Zeid, of Egypt, who co-invented a new robot rotational joint; Ahmad al Khater, a Qatari who devised a means to harness magnetic energy to use as power; and Maha al Amro of Saudi Arabia, who developed an air-conditioning vest for outdoor workers.

This season Stars of Science added guest jury members from each of the countries visited during the tour for contestants. Suaad al Shamsi served as a juror at the Al Ain stop. She said: "I was looking for projects that don't exist on the market, creative ideas and the ability to implement the idea during the programme period."

Though no Emiratis are among this season's finalists, Ms al Shamsi sees an increase in scientific inquiry in the UAE, thanks to the country's of new universities, Masdar City, and the Sheikh Rashed and Al Owais scientific awards.

For Mr Mrad, the show is a beacon of light. He said he has long been "disappointed in what we do with our research, who we do research for, who uses our outcomes".

"When I saw the opportunity, this vision of QF [Qatar Foundation], I felt, 'My God, this is a vehicle I'd like to be a part of.' And I'd like to drive, not just be a passenger, and have a say in how it goes," he said.

Arab countries mostly lack the technology networks and hubs that foster progressive thinking and innovation, according to Mr Mrad. This is crucial, he said, because technology is key to developing a civilisation.

"I don't believe any such programme by itself is going to be able to change the economics or the cycle," he said.

"But all of these viewers will see and believe, 'Yes, we can take our ideas and transform them into useful products, and we can apply what we learn in school.'"

originally ran in the National, www.thenational.ae

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