CAIRO: The Egyptian nanotechnology market is high risk, but is only matched by its business opportunities, Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb, chairman of SabryCorp, told Daily News Egypt in an interview.
Seeing Egypt lag behind in the nanotechnology race, Abdel-Mottaleb saw an opportunity to bring it up to speed, he explained.
Nanotechnology struck the entrepreneur as fascinating back in 1997, when he was busy completing a PhD degree. At the time, his advisor introduced him to nanoscience, a field still very much in its infancy, but one with unprecedented ramifications for altering science for generations to come.
Fast forward to 2006, Abdel-Mottaleb was working as a senior assistant at the University of Chemnitz in Germany, when he decided that there was an opportunity to be seized by developing the field in the region, he explained.
That same year, he moved to Cairo to establish SabryCorp, the first nanotechnology consulting firm in both the Middle East and Africa, with an initial start-up fund of LE 50,000. Today, he said, the company’s revenues range between LE 1 million and LE 10 million per year — typical for an SME in Egypt.
When the firm launched, Abdel-Mottaleb was originally the founder and CEO, but switched to the position of chairman to undertake the newly created position as director for the Nanotechnology Research Center at Nile University in Cairo, the first in the region.
During a discussion with the university administration, he was asked what he would like most to have; he replied, a program focusing on nanotechnology.
The university requested that the ‘nano-enterpreneur’ construct a nanotechnology Master’s degree program entirely from scratch, which will be the first in the Middle East or Africa once it opens its doors.
As it happens, the program received its first intake this past summer, and this week Abdel-Mottaleb is reviewing the first set of 150 applicants, of which only 30 will be accepted to participate in the program, which will offer opportunities for scholarships and paid research assistant positions.
The far-sighted objective of the program, he says, is to “have a serious impact on the Egyptian economy.”
A road map
Although focusing a fair portion of his time to being director of the Nile University nanotechnology program, Abdel-Mottaleb moonlights for his start-up firm.
Indeed, he supports the firm’s focus on the core of its clients: major organizations, such as Saudi Aramco and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as well as smaller businesses.
For larger organizations, the firm offers “road maps” that are long-term in focus, as Abdel-Mottaleb describes it, indicating which areas in industry would be the most suitable to pursue, advice with regards to procuring equipment, and how to measure the success of their long-term goals.
On the other hand, the firm also provides advice and support to smaller businesses that are seeking to capitalize on a short-term opportunity, assess the market and products as well as providers and content. His firm provides a return on investment analysis as well.
Even though the firm is relatively young, Abdel-Mottaleb said that SabryCorp is already going to expand with two new offices by 2015, which will most likely be located in the Gulf.
SabryCorp is currently raising LE 500,000 in capital, but the figure will reach $1 million once expansion is in full swing.
Bridging the ‘nanodivide’
Abdel-Mottaleb acknowledges that there is a disparity between the nanotechnological prowess of developing countries — such as Egypt on the one hand — and developed countries, most notably the United States and China and others like Germany and Japan, a situation scientists have coined the “nanodivide.”
To help close the gap, in 2005, his firm organized an international conference, attracting nanotechnology scientists from an array of backgrounds.
Foreign scientists’ initial reaction to the invitation, Abdel-Mottaleb noted, was one of bewilderment, as they retorted, “Why come to Egypt?”
Nonetheless, as the chairman explained, the scientists were pleasantly surprised to meet some “brilliant” local scientists, which in turn changed their opinion of the potential for developing nanotechnology in the region.
For his part, Abdel-Mottaleb believes that having brought such prominent scientists from both the west and developing countries together under one umbrella is imperative for demonstrating to the west that the region is serious about contributing to the field. It also created a platform through which scientists can intermingle and hopefully share innovative ideas that will permeate throughout the region.
Abdel-Mottaleb feels that destitution of coordination in the field of nanotechnology in the region is holding back its potential, and as a result, the objective of the conferences is to tackle this challenge.
To this end, the firm has already organized a conference in Cairo in 2011, Abdel-Mottaleb said.
Each conference so far has focused on the role of nanotechnology in specific sectors, including construction materials, water and energies such as oil and gas.
Much credit should be paid to the firm for stamping the Middle East and Africa on the nanotechnology map, but serious work is still needed.
Indeed, as the chairman highlighted, besides his firm, there are only three to four other nanotechnology firms operating in Egypt, one of which is attempting to produce applications for medicine and engineering, while the rest are only in the distribution game.
Thus, Abdel-Mottaleb concludes: “The market is wide open and has huge potential.”
Abdel-Mottaleb commented that he and his colleagues want to communicate knowledge of both the benefits and the potential risks of nanotechnology through information campaigns at high schools to the younger generation.
As he notes, they are “the future decision-makers,” and they will one day likely have an impact on the sector.
To this end, the firm developed a non-profit initiative called In2nano.
He explained that the program, which derived 37 percent of the €52,000 in funding from the government, with the remainder supplied by SabryCorp, targets students between 14-18 years old.
Abdel-Mottaleb explained in detail two moments that he defined as the “best” of his career.
He recounted a time when lecturing at a local high school in which two students, as the principle of the institution later told Abdel-Mottaleb, objected to attending, as they were utterly uninterested in the topic.
Despite the students’ protests, the principle forced them to hear what Abdel-Mottaleb had to say.
After his lecture the two students, to the both men’s surprise, were asking questions regarding how they could enter the field immediately, for instance, by doing an internship.
The second highlight of his career occurred while conducting a video podcast, which was beamed out to 54 centers in Egypt, when a young girl of about 13 posed a question to which the chairman could only respond using concepts found in quantum chemistry — a masterful feat for such a youngster, he said.
In his opinion, the two anecdotes are testimony of the promise that young Egyptians embody for being able to contribute to nanotechnology, a field that, in the chairman’s words, will one day “revolutionize” society.