Ideas Take Flight: How Expo 2020 Helped Turn A Student Project Into A Fully-Fledged Startup

How Project You, a project by university students in the UAE, with support from Expo 2020 Dubai, turned into a fully-fledged startup.

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By Aby Sam Thomas

Project You

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"Innovation can come from anywhere, to everyone." That's the slogan emblazoned on the official website for Expo Live, the innovation and partnership program run by Expo 2020 Dubai, with an allocation of US$100 million to back social innovators from around the world, and that sentence alone is enough to understand the rationale for the creation of the Expo Live University Innovation Program (UIP). According to Fatma Ibrahim, Assistant Manager – Expo Live, Expo 2020 Dubai, UIP was launched in 2017 in response to the market demand for the same, which she got to witness first-hand with her team.

"In 2016, Expo Live had just one initiative under its umbrella, the Innovation Impact Grant Program (IIGP), which targets small and mediumsized enterprises, innovators, government entities, and so on– people whose projects are at a relatively advanced level of maturity," Ibrahim recalls. "They may already be part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, or have a prototype, for example. [However,] the percentage of IIGP applications that we received from university students was significant; certainly high enough for us to take notice. Rather than rejecting these applications because the innovations were not sufficiently advanced, we decided to go out into the market to determine whether or not a gap existed."

"We talked to a number of universities in the UAE. We did not limit our discussions to public rather than private universities, or local rather than international institutions. We spoke with educators from across the spectrum to better understand the programs that were already in the market, as well as what was missing. We built the UIP based on this exercise, so we don't see it as our product. Instead, we view this program as the result of a team effort that was conducted in response to market demand."

Emirates Aviation University student Hend Mahmoud Al Rais
Source: Expo Live
Since its launch in September 2017, Expo Live UIP has supported 47 teams of students with their innovative undertakings, with them receiving AED50,000 each in funds to grow their enterprises, one of which was Project You, led by Emirates Aviation University students Hend Mahmoud Al Rais and Abdulmatheen Yousuf. Project You has been described as "a platform that uses mentorship and guidance to help develop emotional intelligence and soft skills among high school students in the UAE," and what's particularly noteworthy about this endeavor is that while it may have started out as an idea of Al Rais and Yousuf, its passage through the Expo Live UIP has enabled it to become a fully-fledged business now- Project You recently received its trade license, and it is an officially registered company in Dubai today.

As for what makes Project You so appealing as an enterprise, it can be drawn down to the founders' thought process when building it up in the first place. "Abdulmatheen and I are young people who were educated here in the UAE," Al Rais says. "We both realized that there were certain gaps that could be filled in terms of improving young people's self-awareness and developing their soft skills. So, we asked ourselves how we could build a holistic and agile solution for this. Instead of just coming up with questions, why not try to solve the challenge? Why not share our collective experience with school students? That's what Project You is all about."

Yousuf explains that Project You is conducted for students over the course of four weeks, with a different theme for each of them. "The focus of the first week is "You vs. You,' encouraging self-awareness. The second week focuses on "You vs. Others,' exploring communication, team building, empathy and tolerance. In the third week, we discuss "You vs. the Future,' inviting participants to think about building agile, broad-minded career paths. Week four's theme is "You vs. the Universe,' which encourages students to consider gratitude, perception and acceptance."

Emirates Aviation University student Abdulmatheen Yousuf
Source: Expo Live
These sessions have a few different components for them: besides the lecture part of it (Yousuf points out that this takes less than 10 minutes), there are also group activities that have been designed with the assistance of psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators, as well as individual learning activities. "We conclude by asking the students to reflect on and link back to everything they have learnt," he explains. "We call this a "superpower,' because it's based on a paradigm shift. By the end of each session, the students are able to do something that they weren't able to do at the beginning."

To understand what makes Project You's offering stand out, one needs to understand how its entire curriculum came into be in the first place. "During our market research phase, we came across approximately 65 different companies that are offering weekend courses, team-building services, and after-school programs," Yousuf notes. "However, these mainly comprise extracurricular activities outside of school time." Al Rais adds, "Also, these programs mainly target students working in the upper or lower 10% of their classes. They are not typically designed to serve students in the middle 80%. Project You is positioned in such a way that our sessions happen within schools, which means we can cater to the full spectrum of students."

Thanks to the funding and support afforded by their participation in Expo Live UIP, the Project You team were also able to validate their idea with a four-week pilot project at a UAE school, at the end of which almost 98% of the 350 students surveyed as part of this exercise noting an increase in their levels of self-confidence, and 90% feeling more comfortable to talk openly with their mentors. This feedback enabled Project You to develop its current program, which has been designed such that it can be run alongside a normal school curriculum.

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Fatma Ibrahim, Assistant Manager – Expo Live, Expo 2020 Dubai
Source: Expo Live

"Project You's holistic nature is one critical aspect [of what makes its offering unique], but it's also about the content we deliver," Yusuf explains. "More than 70% of the students we've worked with said that the content they experienced while working with Project You was unique– this is the first time they have encountered these types of sessions. I think that makes Project You even more engaging. Also, we're all young– under the age of 25. The fact that the average age gap between our facilitators and the school students we work with is approximately five years- allowing for better interaction and engagement. I think this has helped to increase retention, and improve our success rate."

The founders' personal experiences have also informed how Project You works as a program. "When I was at school, you could say I was one of the "average' students– the middle 80%," Al Rais says. "It was therefore difficult to find help and guidance that related to self-awareness and soft skills. Because of this, I went through some tough times. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it made me think: why not find out whether today's school students are facing similar challenges, and try to help? That's what gave me the drive and motivation to get involved in Project You."

As striking as Project You's growth has been to date, one cannot overstate the influence the Expo Live UIP has had on its development to what it is today- and no, it wasn't just about the funds, notes Expo 2020 Dubai's Ibrahim. "If there's one thing we've realized since launching the UIP, it's that while the financial support offered by Expo Live is undoubtedly important, the guidance and mentorship we provide is equally if not more valuable to student innovators," she explains. "In many cases, these young people have not yet had an opportunity to gain real-life business experience, so having access to support and expertise along their journey is vital."

Source: Expo Live
"For this reason, we have joined forces with the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) to provide a bespoke program that empowers young innovators with the tools necessary for the next stages of their entrepreneurial journeys. Specifically designed to support UIP grantees, this program will see innovators mentored by Sheraa's in-house team of experts, helping them to develop skills and strategies that can be applied across all stages of their future growth. Our collaboration with Sheraa is a beautiful example of the fundamental values that underline Expo Live and Expo 2020 Dubai. We aim to offer support that will help to create a meaningful long-term impact."

As for Project You's future, both Al Rais and Yousuf are keen on seeing it evolve and become a sustainable business venture. "We are currently considering a number of business models as part of our long-term strategy," Yousuf says. "In addition to human capital and youth development services, we have come to realize that Project You is uniquely positioned to offer insights that can be used by educational institutions. Wherever we have worked, the insights we've received from students have been eye-opening– not only for us, but also for school management teams, program development professionals, and curriculum creators."

"Our monetization phase will therefore probably be aligned with the insights we receive from students, and how they can be used to help schools optimize their resources, learning plans, structures and strategies. Right now, we believe Project You is the only organization in the market that can offer these types of insights to schools." Al Rais adds, "You could also say that we've built a model that is both agile and flexible in terms of the content it delivers. This means that future skills –those that will be needed in 2025 or 2030, for example– can easily be added to our model. At the same time, Project You's adaptable structure means that it is possible to eliminate skills that are no longer relevant. We are building an enterprise that can incorporate any future changes."

A presentation during Expo Live UIP
Source: Expo Live
As for Expo Live, Ibrahim hopes that Project You will inspire other young innovators to follow the young innovators' lead in turning their projects into functioning businesses. "We will be extremely happy if other UIP grantees follow this path, but the rate of progress depends on a variety of factors," Ibrahim says. "How old are the students? What is the level of maturity of their innovation? Are they still at prototype stage? Do they require further expertise from a technological perspective? All of these factors need to be considered. However, in the long term, if the students are passionate about advancing their innovations and pursuing their goals, nothing can stop them– especially if they have the right tools and support. So, hopefully, we'll see more grantees follow in Project You's footsteps in the future."

Project You
Source: Expo Live
When asked if she had any advice for young innovators in the UAE, who may have ideas that perhaps could turn into viable businesses, but are unsure of what to do next, Ibrahim pointed again to Al Rais and Yousuf. "To answer this question, I'd like to use Project You as an example," she says. "When the team applied to Expo Live, all they had was an idea on a piece of paper. They've since told us that they weren't confident their project would move to the next stage of the evaluation program, because Expo 2020 Dubai is such a big name. As we know, Project You secured Expo Live's support and they are now a registered startup in the UAE. The moral of Project You's story is that if you're dedicated and passionate, you maximize your chances of finding the right people to back you. It just goes to show that there's no such thing as a small idea."

Related: INJAZ Al-Arab's Akef Aqrabawi Is On A Mission To Enable Arab Youth To Drive The Region's Economy Forward

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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