x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dubai agency puts great ideas in motion

The Basement Project, which describes itself as an idea cultivation agency, helps entrepreneurs with big ideas get them off the ground.

Growing up in his homeland of Syria, Jawad Sahloul always felt self-conscious about being overweight. “In my childhood years, I was a bit flabby. I’d be sitting down at school for seven hours, then I’d go home and watch TV. Even into my early twenties, I was still that little kid who was made fun of.”

But his experiences also led him to formulate an idea for a device that enables children to be more active in the classroom. Given the current epidemic of childhood obesity, the programme has the potential to revolutionise how children are taught in schools.

“Young children are naturally inclined to move. That’s why the idea came to me to develop a programme where children could answer questions in class using movement”, Mr Sahloul, 31, explains.

The problem for Mr Sahloul was that although he’s tech-savvy, he didn’t feel he had the experience, know-how or time on his hands to create a high-tech programme alone. During the day he is a manager at Emaratech, a technical and management consulting company. “I can’t just quit my job — I’m the oldest in my family and with the situation in Syria, I have a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders”, he explains.

So Mr Sahloul turned to an “idea cultivation agency” called the Basement Project, based in his current home city of Dubai, that specialises in turning great ideas on paper into reality. The agency provides expertise for different stages of the business development process.

It was founded by three former students of the American University of Dubai: content strategy developer Phil Apaza, along with marketing guru Disha Pagarani and computer engineer Tanuj Damani, both from India. They first worked together as freelancers two years ago, registered the business in February 2013 and moved to their offices in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in April.

“When we started out we were doing digital strategy and web development,” says Mr Apaza. “We often found ourselves dealing with entrepreneurial starlets — people who had great ideas for a business, but didn’t know how to take it forward. We realised we could help them develop more than just the apps and websites — we could also help develop the businesses around them too. That transformed over time into ‘Why don’t we just do that, because that’s what we love the most?’

“Every time we take on a new project, a completely different mindset is required. You have to be a rocket scientist one day and an artist the next, because you’re working with completely different concepts.”

Mr Damani is the team member responsible for helping to bring Mr Sahloul’s movement device to life. The gadget will be clipped on to a child and will capture their motion, so when a teacher asks a simple multiple choice or maths question, they can answer with a corresponding movement.

“Perhaps a is jump, b is squat, c is turn, and d is tilt,” says Mr Damani. “The device detects that motion, then transmits it to the teacher’s computer so they can tell whether each student is right or wrong. It will make for a more fun, interactive classroom environment.

“The idea is in the prototyping phase, so the device is still big in comparison to what it should be; about 15cm x 10cm, whereas it needs to be about 4cm across.”

The team hopes the invention will one day be used not only by young children, but by teenagers, the elderly and the disabled too.

Although the agency charges for its services, if it comes across an idea it particularly likes, such as Mr Sahloul’s, it will invest its own resources into the project. In return, it takes an equity stake in the company. “But we’ll have to find investors soon to do the manufacturing,” says Mr Apaza. “To bring it up to a level where it’s something that can truly be sold, that’s going to require some serious cash investment.”

Another project the agency is currently brainstorming over is a card game called Neurons Away, brought to it by the American author and illustrator Sally Safadi. The game encourages creative thinking and self-analysis by asking participants leading questions, which they answer by drawing, writing or creating something.

“We’re used to working on highly digital and technical things, so this is really back to basics for us” says Mr Apaza, who believes the Basement Project’s approach is unique.

“There are incubators and accelerators, but we consider ourselves slightly outside of that category. With an accelerator, they’ll work with you for a period of time, then you’re out on your own. And with incubators if you don’t meet a certain goal you don’t necessarily get the funding. For some ideas, you need to have a completely different time frame and mentality about how to proceed.

“Right now the UAE is full of people bursting with ideas, and a lot of them just don’t know where and how to develop them. So we’re breaking into that.”

business@thenational.ae

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