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According to the World Economic Forum, almost half of the MENA region’s population today is made up of youth under the age of 25. While this can be seen as a hugely positive demographic for a region with ambitious plans, it also means that what you do to shape this population will determine the landscape of the future as well. For countries in the process of transitioning to becoming knowledge-based economies (as many Middle East nations are), it would be safe to say that investing in digital automation and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and breaking down the “geeky” stereotypes associated with these areas will be crucial first steps.
And this is what UAE-based startup Fun Robotics is trying to do: this enterprise, which has been certified by the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, is on a mission to provide the younger generation in the Middle East with a fun and interactive learning experience in the field of robotics and STEM. With two major verticals- research and development (R&D) and robotics education- Fun Robotics aims to invent futuristic solutions to life’s everyday problems, as well as support educators and schools to inculcate robotics in their curriculums. “Fun Robotics was launched in 2013,” remembers founder and CEO Lubna Taji. “And the main motivation behind it was an aspiration to create the tools and the conductive environment for future innovators and makers to flourish, to make sure all students have the opportunity to be the problem solvers of tomorrow, by giving them the chance to design and innovate today.”
“Every thing in the beginning was extremely difficult, and any tiny support was very important,” she admits. What started off as something as casual as teaching robotics to her own kids and her friends’ children, is now a stable business in the form of Fun Robotics, she says. “Then, gradually I rented a place in after-school clubs only once a week… I used to put the kits and laptops in a big suitcase, [then when] I had more demand, and I [conducted it as] after school activities at schools. My husband’s support was really important, and my kids’ encouragement and excitement was essential,” she adds.
Be it a result of the oil slump or a sign of times, there is an increased emphasis on creating a robust technology ecosystem in the region with the UAE leading the charge. The government agencies and several private organizations are working for development of the ICT and STEM sector in the Middle East, and they are also being backed by an emerging entrepreneurship culture. “Six years ago when I started [in this field], there was no awareness about robotics and STEM. Right now, most schools have started to have STEM departments, and some schools have robotics as a subject, where they [conduct] exams,” notes Taji. “I believe that a hands-on and project-based education, and keeping students engaged in a situation where they work as scientists and engineers, is the best way to have a generation of confident students equipped with 21st century skills.”
And Fun Robotics is well on its way to accomplish that goal if you consider the accolades it has managed to win in the region and globally over the years. While robotics challenges are few in the region, the World Robot Olympiad (WRO), the First Lego League (FLL) and the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good are among the key ones, and Fun Robotics has managed to make a mark at all three forums. In 2015, the startup bagged the first place in the National level at WRO Championship in the Open Category, and second place in Regular Category (Junior High). The startup also won FLL’s second place Champions Award in 2016, and most recently in 2017, they won the first place Champions Award in the FLL competition, qualified among the top teams in Robotics category for the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good (despite being one of the youngest participants), and was also awarded a special recognition for the team’s achievement in the field of Sustainable Segregation of Waste at the Emirates Energy Award.
Ask Taji the team’s key takeaways from these forums, and she replies, “Hard work pays off. While watching students work on their projects and prepare for the competition and see the sparkle in their eyes, we can see that we [are] achieving our goal; this is the generation that will invent tomorrow.” Having been a self-funded enterprise so far, Taji and her team are currently putting in efforts to raise funding from external sources. “We are also working on opening more branches in UAE and in the region. [Our] R&D department is still young that needs funds and support, and we are currently working on amazing projects that will end up with strong product,” she says.
Fun Robotics’ R&D department works on developing robotics solutions in fields like healthcare, sustainable energy, automation and assistive technology, among others. Having served customer groups including educators, students, government entities, companies, and others, Fun Robotics boasts of enviable metrics- registering 2,400 student learners, 380 completed workshops, 320 courses and four major research projects of its own.
With more women entering the STEM and ICT arena in the UAE, an organization like Fun Robotics spearheaded by a woman techie can certainly help lay the groundwork to bridge the gender gap in the region’s tech entrepreneurship space. While that admittedly is a key priority for Taji in the near future, she notes that finding and hiring talent for her venture is a challenging aspect she hopes to change soon. “I can say that I’m really lucky that I have with me an amazing team of engineers from electrical and mechanical to computer and mechatronics,” she says. “We know for a fact that we complete each other.” With the UAE government intently focused on keeping up with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, investment and support for robotics, AI, and related areas can only improve from here, perhaps translating into lucrative times ahead for Fun Robotics. This one’s for the future!