x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A club to jumpstart innovations

The inventor of a card game was helped on his way by the Kuwait Science Club, which encourages creative minds to develop their ideas.

Mohammed al Shanfa explains The Election Box game at the Kuwait Science Club.
Mohammed al Shanfa explains The Election Box game at the Kuwait Science Club.

KUWAIT CITY // A Kuwaiti inventor, inspired by rows between Sunni and Shiite Islamists, liberals and tribes as they fight for a seat in the National Assembly, has released a card game based on the country's hard-fought election campaigns. Mohammed al Shanfa said that within two weeks of marketing the card game last month, he had sold more than 500 of the first 2,000 packs made. He is now in talks with a distribution company in Egypt and manufacturers in China to print another 20,000 decks.

"Because there are so many elections, I got the idea," Mr al Shanfa said. There have been three elections in Kuwait since 2006, prompted by rows within the National Assembly that have led the emir to dissolve parliament. After spending six months developing the rules, the inventor received a patent for the game, called Election Box, from the US in 2001. Kuwaiti inventions can be patented locally, but they will not be internationally recognised. A US patent is valid in many countries.

Poor health prevented him from making and selling the game at that time but his enthusiasm was rekindled last October when his game won an award at an exhibition of inventions in China. Mr al Shanfa's unique marketing strategy involves pitching his invention at diwaniyahs around the city - rooms in Kuwaitis' houses where men gather to socialise, smoke and play games. "In the diwaniyahs they used to play poker, but now some of them are playing this," he said. "It's spreading by word of mouth. My phone number is on the pack, and people are ringing me up all the time to buy a set."

The 2.5 Kuwaiti dinar (Dh32) game has 104 cards and is suitable for two to five players. The participants take turns to add and discard cards, which are worth between zero and 200 votes, from their nine-card hands. When someone draws the ballot-box card they can call an election, and the winner is the player with the highest tally of votes. The Election Box game came to fruition with the help of the inventors' office at the Kuwait Science Club, which is trying to encourage new ideas in a country that is not renowned for invention. The office's director, Khaled al Hasan, said the club, which is sponsored by the ministry for social affairs, pays about US$20,000 (Dh73,500) in fees for Kuwaitis to register a patent. Any citizen can present up to two ideas for consideration every year.

The office has registered 32 patents in the US since it opened in 1989. Mr al Hasan said many other ideas from more than 300 registered inventors in Kuwait had been rejected by the patent office, or were still being assessed. An invention can be turned down if it was deemed not useful, practical or new. "Compared with the USA or Japan, it's nothing," Mr al Hasan said. "But as people find out that there is support, day after day there are more. Some inventors have three or four projects."

Mr al Hasan said the biggest challenges were turning the patented idea into a prototype, and the inventors' lack of experience in dealing with industry and commerce. "In Kuwait, we cannot make a prototype; we have to send it to China or Germany," he said, adding that the country lacked the industry and expertise to bring its inventors' ideas to life. So do not expect to see Ahmad al Hashash's award-winning invention, an inflatable jacket for motorcyclists that acts like an airbag, on the shelves any time soon. Other patented Kuwaiti inventions that have not made it to the production stage include Sheikha al Majid's pen for blind people that writes in Braille, and Ismael al Jadi's milk bottle that washes babies' mouths after feeding.

Mr al Hasan, who has been inventing for 20 years, hopes to have more luck with his next invention: a filter to reduce pollution from gas stacks. Kuwait is the world's fourth largest oil exporter, and the industry has taken a toll on the small country's environment. Metal chimneys spewing heat and chemicals into the air are a common sight at the country's oil wells and chemical plants. The filter diverts hot vapour and dangerous chemicals such as urea from the chimney and recycles them, Mr al Hasan said. "I'm waiting for the patent from the US. I'll need a specialist manufacturer."

Mr al Shanfa's card game is much more basic than Mr al Hasan's hi-tech filter, and that is a formula that has been followed by many of the most successful inventors of recent years. In 1980, Art Fry developed the first Post-it note. It is now essential stationery in offices and sold in countless shapes and sizes. Trevor Baylis also grabbed the world's attention in the 1990s with his ingenious windup radio, which is now used in many developing countries.

Encouraged by the response his election card game has received, Mr al Shanfa is developing another similar one. But instead of fighting elections, the players have to win seats in parliament. "It's called The Parliament Game. It has fewer cards, and I hope it will catch on worldwide, rather than just Kuwait," he said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae