In early 2012, Omar Turk and I were juniors in high school when our chemistry teacher told us about the Lebanese Science Fair, which was seeking “world-improving inventions”.
We immediately knew we would be collaborating, partly because of our friendship, which had spanned several years, and partly because of the mutual admiration we had for each other. We spent several days brainstorming separately and, at a certain point, felt that neither of us was going to come up with anything remarkable.
We do not know when our eureka moment happened, but it did. It was caused, perhaps, by a scene I had seen on a television show as a young kid, in which a character who was hearing impaired could not hear the knock at the door. It would be convenient, we thought, if she could otherwise perceive it, through vibration perhaps. It was that tiny spark that spawned ideas upon ideas.
Our vibrations would not only solve unheard knocks at doors, but also dangerous situations, such as unperceived cars blowing their horns. Our vibrations could alert a hearing impaired user to any loud noise, perhaps even sounds like microwaves and doorbells. A device that emits these vibrations, we agreed, ought to be worn around the arm like a wristwatch, have different patterns for different sounds, and have text-to-speech and speech-to-text capabilities to facilitate communication. I still remember coming up with the name AID (short for Auditory Impairment Device) just minutes before submitting our application for the competition.
But a lack of resources prevented us from making an impact at the science fair. My primitive programming knowledge was insufficient in producing a finished product, especially since such a product required hardware we did not possess. What followed was a period of stagnation, and our adventure became a memory.
“If we managed to get through the competition without being ridiculed, we would count the experience as a success.”
But fate would have us hear about yet another competition – StartUp Weekend – a few months later. This one, in contrast to the Intel competition, targeted university students and professionals. It focused more on software and less on hardware. It was a platform where ideas and technical know-how could meet. The day before the competition, as Omar and I discussed our expectations, we agreed that if we managed to get through the competition without being ridiculed, we would count the experience as a success.
StartUp Weekend was packed with young talent. There were software developers and graphic designers and young entrepreneurs. And there we were, perhaps the youngest contestants, and obviously out of our element. The first piece of advice we received, and perhaps the most important, was to forget about building a physical device and focus on a mobile ‘application’ – a simple, inexpensive piece of software that utilizes a device many people already have, the smartphone. This idea was ingenious in its simplicity.
But we still lacked the technical expertise to build such an application, which is why it was fortunate that we met some collaborators: Dani Arnaout, a software developer and, at the time, a computer engineering student; later, we met Nelly Ghossein, a graphic and web designer. Combining their expertise and knowledge and our ideas, we devoted 52 hours of hard work to the project.
I have four distinct and strong memories from that competition. The first memory was having to learn how to construct a business model overnight with the help of the several mentors present, a feat I still regard as crucial to our subsequent success. The second memory was a late night conversation with Omar and Dani, in which we resigned ourselves to our seemingly imminent failure and agreed to do the best we could. The third was having to sleep on the floor because all the couches were taken and waking up with my face covered with blue stains from the paper I had used as a makeshift pillow. The last memory was being declared the winner of the competition, after a stressful yet rewarding final presentation in which we showcased a prototype of our application.
Winning StartUp Weekend is, unfortunately, the peak in the story of AID. Omar and I went on to participate in the IdeazPrize, a television show that allows entrepreneurs with ideas to find investors and achieve success, and we were offered an investment. However, reality settled in. As summer ended, we became busier and busier with senior year of high school and college applications, and had very little time to work on our brainchild. Like anything untended to, it faded into memory.
Today, Omar is studying to become a mechanical engineer at the American University of Beirut and I am studying at Williams College in western Massachusetts. AID is, alas, behind us. We know not what the future holds in terms of projects and collaboration, but with AID as a benchmark for our success, we know what follows must be great.