Breaking the Wall to Berlin: KAUST's Falling Walls Lab 2014

Twenty-two finalists presented their product or venture idea to a high-profile panel of judges for the Falling Walls Lab.

The Falling Walls Lab, hosted recently by KAUST Graduate Affairs, featured 22 finalists who presented their product or venture idea to a high-profile panel of judges. These presentations are the result of a cumulative process that started in March of this year, when KAUST was chosen as one of the 100 Universities worldwide to compete in this year international Falling Walls Lab Finale in Berlin, Germany, on November 8.

The three hour presentation saw some of KAUST's brightest and best students presenting their exciting new ventures and ideas to the assembled crowd and judging panel, with the hope of winning a lone wildcard place to compete in this year's finale. The finalists had a mere three minute window to present their product or venture idea on stage, to the four person judging panel consisting of – Tristan Walker (Economic Development), Gordon McConnel (Acting Director New Ventures & Entrepreneurship Economic Development), Dr. Yves Gnanou (Dean of Physical Sciences & Eng.) and Professor Mootaz Elnozahy (Dean of Computing, Electrical and Mathematical Sciences & Engineering) at KAUST's conference center.

A total group of 22 students competed, who were whittled down from the original 46 applicants. Each presenter was drawn at random, the competitors themselves mirroring KAUST's broad worldwide student base. The presenters had the task of visualizing their concepts with the aid of a PowerPoint demonstration. There was a wide and varied range of products and ideas brokered. With each contestant explaining how they will 'Break the Wall' between the actual science and thinking behind their product, and the practicality in producing their chosen product for the average consumer or beneficiary.

They included "Breaking the Wall" of: Water Sanitation problems, Bi Facial Photovoltaics, Wearable Computing Devices, Rigid Electronics, Blindness, Sustainable Mobile Healthcare, Solar to Hydrogen Photosynthesis, and more. Amongst these was the winning presentation on "Breaking the Wall" of Chronic Pain by Aftab Hussain, a Ph.D. candidate at the Integrated Nanotechnology Laboratory at KAUST.

The central idea of his product was to produce a unique "all in one" product for our thermal therapy needs. It would be an alternative to the current fixed-size, non-reusable, expensive patches that are based on hazardous chemicals and not suitable for children. As Aftab describes, "the smart thermal patch we have developed is a flexible and stretchable device that can be reused multiple times in different configurations. It can be powered using a rechargeable battery for a few hours, and its temperature can be controlled using a smart phone application. We use a specially designed structure to make the device stretchable. The low cost of the technology and its potential to be integrated with state-of-the-art electronics are also very desirable features."

Each presenter was evaluated and critiqued under three headings. The first criteria was the "Breakthrough Factor" which looked at whether the idea was a real innovation, if it was original and if it had the potential to inspire other ideas. Secondly, it was critiqued by its relevance and the scope of impact of the idea. And lastly the judges evaluated the presenter and presentation itself, including the structure and performance of their presentation.

As part of his win, Aftab will also be awarded an A.T. Kearney Scholarship for the Falling Walls Conference, on the 9 November. Aftab was overjoyed with his win and is looking forward to representing KAUST on the world stage. "I have been working on this project for over a year. There has been a lot of hard work, with many disappointments along the way. It is an honor to be able to represent KAUST. I will talk about the research we do here, and the facilities we have, with great pride."

From its origin's in Berlin in 2001, the Falling Walls Lab has grown to be a truly international event. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will be a guest of honor at this year's event, which will play host to a 100 of the world's top Universities. We wish Aftab all the best for his upcoming appearance at the Falling Walls Finale 2014.

A special mention must also go to the other candidates who shared a common theme in their delivery, a passion in their product. A passion to promote discussion, to provoke thought, and a deeper understanding of what are the current limits of our abilities and potential as human beings, and in turn, our technology.

By David Murphy, KAUST News