ABU DHABI // Imagine sipping on a cappuccino at a cafe when suddenly you meet someone from another country. You are intrigued by the other person - his life, experiences, interests. But language is proving to be a barrier. What if you could just whip out your phone, type in your message and have it translated into one universal language - pictures?
That was the idea of the young innovators Sidak Yntiso and Mark Hoffman, students at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD): to design an application that translates words and phrases from a variety of languages into a series of images.
"Sometimes you walk into a coffee shop and you see people struggling to communicate with each other, each one using broken English, broken Chinese, et cetera," Mr Hoffman said. "This application would break down the message into basic components and translate them into pictures, a language everyone can understand."
Mr Hoffman, from the US, and Mr Yntiso, from Ethiopia, were pitching their idea, which they called "Babble," to a panel of academic and professional mentors during the NYUAD Catalyst Start-up event yesterday.
Iphone applications, hi-tech pens and virtual reality beauty salons were just a few of many unique ideas pitched during the entrepreneurship competition. However, only five were chosen, and Babble was one of them.
Each team had to present a business plan, and the members of the winning team each received a $100 (Dh367) gift card.
Catalyst was developed by and for students. Its aim was to support young entrepreneurs who want to develop their own business.
Ty Karaba, one of Catalyst's four founding members and a freshman at the university, said the idea for their not-for-profit business came up while on a plane to Shanghai.
"We want to help students gain real experience in business matters and focus on youth in the UAE," Mr Karaba said, adding that students who join also have access to the vast NYU resources.
Another one of the five selected ideas was "Penspire," a concept founded by students Mohammed Omar and Abdelrazak al Sherif.
Penspire works when two students' pens are connected wirelessly. When one student starts writing, a small light on the other student's pen turns green. The pens also monitors stress through pressure points on the writing utensils.
The inventors transformed their idea into a reality using a live prototype in an audience demonstration. When Mr Omar held his pen tightly, the light on Mr al Sherif's pen turned red.
"This uses the concept of 'subconscious inspiration' that when one student knows that the other is working, he will also be inspired to work," Mr Omar said. "The product can even be used by teachers and instructors in the future to monitor classroom activity."
The pair hope to expand their idea to phone applications, where users can be notified when their friends are putting pen to paper. They are also currently seeking approval from the US patent office, and hope to make their innovation the next hot gadget on campus.
Mr Omar and Mr al Sherif came up with the idea when they were asked to create a device that communicates emotion as part of their Design and Innovation course, a foundation course for all engineering students at the university.
Ramesh Jagannathan, the course instructor, said the class comprises two components: lecture and lab.
"The lecture component provides students with the tangible basic skills they need for innovation, and the lab component brings in ex-staff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach students how to implement their ideas in the lab."
While entrepreneurship is about taking risks, it is not about making decisions blindly, said Owen Davis, managing director of NYC Seed, an early stage venture capital firm based in New York City.
"There are many factors that must be considered, including the competitive landscape, the need for the product [or service], the market - these are all things people need to be careful about," he said. "It's about taking educated risks."
The classroom full of risk-takers at yesterday's event were up for the challenge.
Sunil Kumar, the dean of engineering at NYU, said there is a huge potential for business ventures in the UAE.
"If you look at what is available in the West, for example, there are many concepts that could be brought and adapted to suit the local market," he said.
One clear gap, he said, is the need for online services in different languages.
"The computer space is highly English-centric," he said. "There is a huge market out there for people who don't speak the language."
Mr Davis said the economic downturn presents a great opportunity.
"There are many niche markets that large companies are not fulfilling that smaller companies can undertake," he said. "It's always a good time to start up a business."