Hayat Sindi, a Saudi biotechnologist, created the i2 Institute to foster social entrepreneurship in the Middle East. (Photo courtesy of the i2Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity) 

As a renowned scientist and biotechnologist, Hayat Sindi values facts and figures. To explain why her native Saudi Arabia needs an infusion of fresh ideas, she rattles off the 40 percent-plus youth unemployment rate and the 70 percent of her country’s young people who want to emigrate. But Sindi is also a world-class dreamer who imagines a brighter future for the Middle East. “People cannot live without hope,” says the founder of the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity.

The i2 Institute, launched in November 2012, is Sindi’s brainchild for catalyzing hope across the Middle East by creating a new ecosystem for entrepreneurship. In early 2013, it will select its first dozen fellows, who must have promising ideas for social innovations in engineering, technology, and science. They will go through an intensive eight months of polishing and mentoring, including stints at successful startups in the United States. Sindi, co-founder of a social enterprise called Diagnostics for All, expects the first class of fellows to emerge as capable social entrepreneurs who will attract investors. They also will serve as homegrown role models to inspire other dreamers.

Launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at a gala event in November, the fledgling nonprofit has attracted global support. Speakers at the kickoff included well-known names from the West, such as Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab, venture capitalist Esther Dyson, Greg Brandeau of Pixar and Next, and PopTech founder and futurist Andrew Zolli.

“Nobody believed that these A-list speakers would come to Saudi Arabia,” says Sindi, who understands the cultural distance between East and West. A practicing Muslim, she was the first woman from the Gulf region to earn a PhD in biotechnology. She has academic ties to the University of Cambridge, MIT, and Harvard University. Zolli says words like “icon” or “rock star” don’t capture how inspirational she is across the Middle East. “Although many young people from her region travel abroad to study, few ever achieve her level of success in her field; fewer still turn their insights into companies that have social impact; and virtually none return to expand opportunities for others,” Zolli says. “Hayat is the living embodiment of the change she wants to see in the world.”

Just as important as Western support has been the endorsement of i2 by His Royal Highness Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Al-Saud, son of a former king of Saudi Arabia. He commended Sindi for combining “the seriousness of scientific research with the art of imagination and creativity.” Indeed, she is the only person to be recognized as a PopTech fellow in social innovation and science.

After a decade of planning for the i2 Institute, Sindi left nothing to chance at the launch event. “I spent four days just with the chef,” she says, making sure that even the food would tickle the imagination. “Every millisecond, I wanted people to be thinking, this is like nothing I’ve seen before.” Participants took part in visioning exercises that asked them to imagine solutions to society’s most vexing challenges. Sindi encouraged attendees to consider, “How can all of us come together to make this ecosystem work?”

The first dozen i2 fellows will be selected early this year from a pool of 50 semi-finalists. Along with promising ideas to address issues involving energy, water, health, or the environment, fellows have to demonstrate a capacity to take risks, lead teams, be resilient, and tackle unexpected challenges with confidence. “We’re looking for the entrepreneurial DNA,” Sindi says. Judging by attendance at the launch event, she expects to find that DNA equally represented in men and women.

At the end of their fellowship, i2 candidates will present their ideas to potential funders. “By then, they will be polished,” Sindi predicts. “Investors will see that they have thought about everything. That should minimize the risk.”

PopTech’s Zolli foresees a bright future for the initiative. “There is certainly no shortage of talent in the Middle East. Hayat herself is evidence enough of that,” he says. “But where things lag is in the ecosystem that surrounds that talent: the mentors, bankers, programs at university ‘tech transfer’ offices that get innovations from the lab out into the field.” As a result, young people with great ideas may not know how to act on them. “If efforts like i2 are successful,” Zolli predicts, “that ecosystem will begin to take hold, and we could see the region become an important hub of social innovation.”

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