Not so long ago, societies would generally look towards their respective governments to solve pressing economic, social and scientific problems.
Today, young and aspiring entrepreneurs are ambitiously pursuing their visions to make this world a better place to live. I saw this in action not in the Silicon Valley, but at the National Incubation Centre (NIC) in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the four NICs established across Pakistan.
I have been emphasising through this newspaper the need for interdisciplinary interaction and connecting scientific research to start-ups. Finally, I witnessed the beam of hope while visiting NIC Lahore.
I have been to a few incubation centres in Pakistan and mostly found young graduates working on mobile apps and other low-value commercial activities with rare focus on developing a product or hardware that can be commercialised and scaled while adding immense value – a niche that we have been ignoring for quite a while.
Moreover, I observed a lack of diversity in terms of disciplinary associations, regional connections, gender and age. However, I found all this desired diversity at NIC Lahore. There were entrepreneurs of different age, disciplines and regions, some of them working jointly on many social and scientific issues such as drinking water, smart wheelchairs, educational technologies and so on.
At this NIC, 20-plus start-ups are incubated for four months. In the current cohort, out of 35 start-ups, eight have female founders and six founders have PhD degrees. Part of such a diverse cohort of entrepreneurs can be attributed to the team leading the NIC.
Faisal Sherjan, Director Operations at NIC, said they not only wait for talent to approach NIC, but also scout for talent by going to universities, scientists and social activists who have potential to become thriving entrepreneurs.
Moreover, the academic and research environment of LUMS has also contributed to the success of NIC in Lahore. Many faculty members and students of LUMS now have an excellent incubation, accelerator and mentoring facility at their doorsteps. This is how connection between research and commerce is unfolding in Lahore.
“NIC Lahore believes that the connection between researchers, commercialisation and industry is critically important. We must define specific challenges we face as a nation and encourage entrepreneurs to develop solutions. The big five are education, health, energy, water and food,” said Sherjan.
First, I met one of the co-founders of Aab-e-Hayat start-up that had already raised funds from domestic and international sources.
The start-up team is led by a professor of the University of Engineering and Technology. They are not only going to disrupt the drinking water industry to give people affordable access to clean and safe drinking water, but they are also working on innovative technologies to reduce water consumption in agricultural farms.
Recently, some of their team members also won an international diamond challenge competition at the University of Delaware, USA. I believe that their work will certainly revolutionise the way we use and conserve water resources of the planet.
Combating climate change
Sara Qureshi, co-founder of Aero Engine Craft, has done PhD in Aerospace from the UK and now she is working on a start-up to address the global climate change issue arising out of contrail of airplanes.
As the aviation industry is expanding, the contrails of airplanes are expected to contribute to global climate change significantly.
Aero Engine Craft is working on the development of a contrail-free aeroengine that can reduce aviation-induced global warming through the prevention of contrail formation during cruise flights. This engine can cause artificial rain during aircraft flight through onboard water recovery from fuel emissions.
“We aim to mark the beginning of the first contrail-free aircraft flight; creating a new vision for the aviation industry whereby it can not only reduce aviation-induced global warming by eliminating contrails, but can also adopt an approach to treat the water containing emissions as a resource.”
I asked how would you make an impact on the international aviation industry with a company based out of Pakistan?
“I am proud of being a Pakistani and I am the believer that science and technology do not have borders,” she replied. A start-up founder working on a smart wheelchair spoke about the affordability and features of his product. It will be operated by both smartphone and voice. This is going to be the first smart wheelchair, totally designed and manufactured in Pakistan. The founder said he had been working on the idea for many years, but the support at NIC helped him a lot to launch the product.
I met a few entrepreneurs who were working in the education sector as well. One of the EdTech start-ups is led by a LUMS professor, Dr Farrah Arif, which aims to disrupt the education and training industry.
As a pleasant surprise, I also found famous Urdu writer, essayists and folklorist Musharraf Farooqi who was working on his idea of inspiring young kids to their culture, past and language through innovation in storytelling. It was inspiring to meet Pakistan’s freelancing icon Muzammil Arif, an intermediate dropout, who made fortune through freelancing and is now working on his new start-up.
I asked Faisal Sherjan what had contributed to the rise of Lahore? He replied, “Lahore is the Silicon Valley of Pakistan. There is presence of good universities and most of the good 25-30 software companies in Pakistan have emerged from Lahore.”
But I personally believe that Lahore is the talent magnet of Pakistan. In the same NIC, I met entrepreneurs from different regions of Punjab and other provinces who had flocked to the city to reap benefits of a relatively favourable entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Many entrepreneurs discussed the positive role of Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) at the government-led incubator Plan9 and PlanX Accelerator, which acted as a catalyst for fostering and augmenting the entrepreneurial and start-up ecosystem.
But the entrepreneurs also raised concern over the government countering its own initiatives as they have to compete with the PITB in various public procurement opportunities under the government of Punjab.
Apart from this, many other provincial and federal government tenders have financial, legal and organisational requirements which prevent start-ups from applying, let alone compete for such opportunities.
They referred to the Start-up India initiative under which the government had to do 20% of buying from the start-ups.
Pakistan’s government needs to do away with the impediments that restrict the growth of start-ups in the country. If we want to steer this country out of poverty, innovation is the key. It is not only essential to give a boost to start-ups, but it is also necessary to introduce creativity and innovation in governance and service delivery.
The writer is a public policy adviser and researcher having interest in public-sector governance, cities and entrepreneurship