Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

New push for sustainable development to change the world

The Islamic Development Bank creates new model for funding global development projects to tackle some of the most pressing issues recognised by the UN

One of the 32 recipients got funding from the Transformers Fund to tackle diseases affecting the refugee Rohingya population. Reuters
One of the 32 recipients got funding from the Transformers Fund to tackle diseases affecting the refugee Rohingya population. Reuters

A large-scale, democratised hunt that broadly emulates the approach of the Pop Idol television franchise has been launched for sustainable development projects. The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) has been inviting bids designed to tackle the world’s biggest issues – with the winners awarded a slice of a $500 million fund.

IsDB’s Transform Fund opened applications earlier this year to anyone with a project that will assist in achieving the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 4,300 applications received for the seed funding were whittled down by initial reviewers to 106 based on the issues addressed by the SDGs. This number was then cut further to 32 projects by the fund’s science advisory board.

Those who’ve made it to the final round come from 18 different nations – from Kazakhstan to the UAE – and what connects them is a desire to make the world a better place through science and technology.

By using their skills, education and local knowledge, they promise to find solutions to issues such as extreme poverty, disease in refugee camps, food wastage and energy poverty.

bz1312 world poverty
The UN's SDG 1 to wipe out extreme poverty by 2030

As well as their unique product and research innovations, what is striking about the 32 as a collective is that women make up 41 per cent of their ranks.

Like the hit TV music show, seed funding is not where the relationship between the finalists and the IsDB ends.

In early December, participants spent a week attending a boot camp, learning from experts how to communicate their business ideas, partner with other organisations and manage the cash they will be awarded.

All the preparation culminated in a summit held in Cambridge in the English midlands on Monday, which allowed the grantees to show off their projects to other potential investors and practice the communications skills they learnt in workshops the week before.

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: His Excellency Dr. Bandar Hajjar, President IsDB Group and Rt. Hon. Claire Perry MP Minister for Energy and Clean Growth talk on stage during the Transformers Summit on December 10, 2018 in Cambridge, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Islamic Development Bank)
The Transformers Summit in Cambridge, England. Getty

“I was not expecting so many mentors to come to teach us things. Some of them I never knew,” says Shaila Sharmeen Khan, a grant winner from Bangladesh.

The master’s graduate in biochemistry and molecular biology says she found the social media element of the training interesting, adding she uses Facebook in her personal life but had not realised the power the platform holds in spreading the word about a research project.

Ms Khan secured funding from the Transform Fund for her laboratory to study diseases affecting the refugee Rohingya population in Bangladesh. Focusing on an infection called Helminth, her team will use the funding to launch a data gathering exercise in Cox’s Bazaar.

Ms Khan isn’t the only scientist granted funds under the scheme. Taleb Al Tel, a professor of drug design and technology at the University of Sharjah, tells The National he was “stunned” to have been chosen.

Mr Al Tel and his team have made significant progress in designing a drug to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, an innovation that could save millions of lives and which the seed funding will help to scale up from lab to animal research.

“It’s exciting because most of the time I go to scientific conferences … here it’s a little bit different,” he says.

“You get to know how to translate the research outcomes into products, you get to know how to develop a business plan.”

Dee Saigal from the children’s coding project Erase All Kittens agrees, saying the days her team spent at the boot camp were useful for learning business skills.

She and her co-founders will use their grant to scale up their project to teach young children how to build websites and apps through a fun game featuring kittens in danger.

“How do you get the most reluctant technophobe to want to learn to code? Cat gifs,” Ms Saigal says.

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At the helm of this project is a woman who is forging new paths at every turn of her career. One of the first females from the Arabian Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology,

Dr Hayat Sindi is senior adviser to the IsDB.

Her belief that science and technology can drive the world towards meeting the UN SDGs is the driving force behind the Transform Fund.

“The Transform Fund is at the heart of the IsDB’s strategy for a new vision of development”, says Ms Sindi.

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Dr. Hayat Sindi, Chief Advisor to the President on Science, Technology and Innovation, IsDB speaks on stage during the Transformers Summit on December 10, 2018 in Cambridge, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Islamic Development Bank)
Dr Hayat Sindi at the Transformers Summit in Cambridge, England. Getty

The Transform Fund is at the heart of the IsDB’s strategy for a new vision of development”, says Ms Sindi.

“Through Transform, innovative ideas are translated into real development solutions that will address development challenges and empower the communities to realise their full potential. Applications are welcome from all around the world to one of four stages: new ideas with proof of concept; scaling up of innovative projects; commercialisation of technology; and capacity building in science, technology and innovation.

“Unsustainable cities are burdening the future of our societies, and without definitive commitment to invest in innovative technologies our cities will remain unprepared for the challenges associated with rapid urbanisation,” she says.

“Smart solutions do not involve only access to affordable housing, clean energy, or investment in public transport, or creating green public spaces. It is more than that. It is the quality of life that goes beyond the physical dimension. It is about how to make people live a more relaxed, secure, meaningful, enjoyable, and productive life.”

Ms Sindi’s team travelled to a few of the 57 nations covered by the IsDB, including Morocco and Malaysia, meeting students and hearing their pitches to promote the bank’s Transform Fund.

“Dr Sindi, she did a tremendous amount of work to make this summit flourish and be successful,” says Mr Al Tel.

“It’s thrilling – I am very happy to be one of the winners, especially the first cohort of winners. We are the babies.”

Just as the fans of Pop Idol keep track of their favourite artists after the show is over and the real career forging begins, a central tenet of the Transform Fund is keeping their grant recipients accountable.

From the beginning of the process of developing the 32 innovations brought to the fund, a social media platform called Engage keeps them in contact with each other and provides matchmaking and technology transfer services.

The platform will be also be used for new Transform applicants to apply for the next round of funding, the deadline for which is April 2019.

Linking the project to the UN’s 17 SDGs has won Hollywood support from filmmaker Richard Curtis of Love Actually fame and other famous faces.

Mr Curtis is a believer of the UN goals and is very involved in the public awareness campaign around them.

He believes the definition of the goals including climate change, gender equality and economic growth enables activists to focus on their own projects while keeping a wider view of other world needs.

Key to this, he says, is working together.

“We have to unite around a plan, so people with purpose don’t see other people with a purpose as their enemies or competitors,” he told those gathered at the Cambridge summit on Monday.

Ms Sindi had words of advice for the first group of transformers.

“Believe in yourself and have a goal with a clear vision,” she said, “because when you do that, you will become a star.”

What heights these 32 innovators will reach is yet to be seen, but they have the opportunity to make a difference.

Updated: December 12, 2018 08:33 PM

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