Guest post by Louise Sarant
The Middle East’s first ever ‘Falling Walls Lab,’ a fast-paced competition, attracted a reasonable crowd this week in the German Science Center Cairo (DWZ Cairo). One after the other, 13 candidates climbed on stage to present, in three minutes, their innovative idea, groundbreaking research or fresh business model in front of a jury from academia and research.
Established in 2009, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Falling Walls is an annual conference that highlights breakthroughs in science and society.
At the beginning, the conference used to mostly host idea-makers and inventors from Germany, but starting 2013, it has been showcasing a growing number of young creative minds from across the globe.
Of the 22 international labs currently underway for the 2014 edition of the conference, the first Middle East one was held in Cairo, while the other regional lab will take place at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) some time in the coming months.
“The DWZ in Cairo received 70 applications, which is the most any lab has received to this point,” says Nåveed Syed from Falling Walls, who came especially for the Cairo Lab from Germany. “It shows a lot of interest for this type of format as well as an eagerness to show what they are working on.” Experts at the Cairo-based science center screened these applications and selected 13 bright minds under 35 from a various disciplines to present their innovations.
A young energetic engineer at the National Research Center, Ahmed Zakaria Hafez, sprung on stage, holding in his hand a cup filled with cold water topped by a miniature fan in motion. Filling the screen with a picture of his disabled friends sitting in wheelchairs, he told a story. “The energy contained in an electrical wheelchair only enables it to function 30 to 40 minutes. My project aspires to draw energy from three power sources: heat created by the human energy, pressure and solar energy.”
Hafez ranked third in the competition, which results were announced after a 15 minute deliberation from the jury.
The top winner however was Hani el Khodary, a 28-year-old founder of the energy start-up ‘Biogas People’ and a composting expert. In his short exposé, entitled “Breaking the Walls of the Gas Crisis in Egypt,” he showcased his idea to partly solve two typically Egyptian problems: the insufficient energy supply and the rising amount of organic waste.
By attaching large biogas units to a chicken farm, he wants to create a closed, sustainable system in which chicken manure and organic waste would be fed to the biogas units, which would in turn provide heat for the chicks and compost for the land.
“One chicken farm consumes diesel and 40 subsidized gas cylinders a day for the sole purpose of providing sufficient heat for the growing chicks,” says el Khodary, who is currently experimenting this system on a smaller scale on a chicken farm by the Ismailia road. “We are realizing that chicken manure has high ammonia levels that need to be neutralized by specific bacteria before this system can function.”
If he wins the Berlin competition, he says he will try and pursue a course on biogas in a German university.
Mohamed Salheen, Program Director of Ain Shams University’s Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design and a member of the jury seemed overall content with the performance of this first batch of applicants. He believes that the contenders were good at managing their time and presenting their projects, but that some of the ideas should have been more elaborated. He adds, however, “there is stamina, a momentum in Egypt right now: people want a change and a chance.”