Startup puts tech to work on the Syrian refugee crisis

From 3D printing to robotics, Refugee Open Ware is bringing industry 4.0 to Syrian entrepreneurs in Jordan

With 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality transforming sectors from cars to healthcare, one Jordanian startup saw an opportunity to apply such technology to help some of the 655,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

In 2015, cofounders Dave Levin and Loay Malahmeh turned a group of technology geeks, aid workers and entrepreneurs into Refugee Open Ware (ROW). The startup uses two channels to make a difference. ROW Ventures, an impact investment fund, finds investors to fund makerspaces in Jordan – labs and coworking spaces equipped with laser cutters, milling machines, 3D printers and scanners – where Syrian and Jordanian entrepreneurs can test new technologies. ROW hopes that encouraging such innovation will result in social enterprises that improve life for refugees, such as businesses that 3D-print prosthetic limbs for a fraction of the current price.

In parallel, ROW’s nonprofit arm – ROW Labs – provides support to get startups on their feet. From a social enterprise that uses robots to provide education to Syrian children, to advising a Greek NGO on up-cycling waste from life vests into useful items such as shelters, ROW Labs hopes to support the people doing aid differently.

Speaking to Philanthropy Age, cofounder Dave Levin explains how he thinks we can hack a solution to create jobs, reduce aid costs and produce dignity for refugees.

Why did you help co-found Refugee Open Ware (ROW)?

Everything ROW does tries to bring greater stability to some of the world’s most fragile places. In the short term, that could be reducing the costs of humanitarian goods, for example using 3D printing to make humanitarian supplies on the spot, rather than shipping it across the world. Or, in the long term by creating economic opportunities for the most excluded so they can live with dignity and purpose. We have the technology now where drones use computer vision to take selfies. It’s absurd we can do that and not use the same technology to save lives.

"The three biggest challenges anywhere are always funding, talent and politics"What impact has ROW Ventures, your for-profit arm, had so far?

My partner put in $1m of investment and we’ve been able to catalyse $10m from that. With the money we’ve proved concepts and tried to de-risk further investments. For example, in Jordan we built a fab lab – a fabrication lab, or makerspace – with a local social enterprise. The fab lab has trained more than 500 Syrians and Jordanians on 3D printing, basic computing and designing software. From that we were able to gather a consortium to raise €5.5m ($5.9m) from the EU to build an incubator and full fab lab near Irbid, Jordan. In the next three to five years, ROW Ventures wants to raise $20m in order to catalyse at least $100m in impact investments in this space.

Traditional social enterprises shouldn’t produce wild returns; I think that presents a moral challenge. But what is attractive is companies with twin models: a humanitarian mission, and also a commercial side built out of your core asset – such as a great team, or a new technology.

What are the difficulties in impact investing in the Middle East and North Africa?

The three biggest challenges anywhere are always funding, talent and politics. The politics in the region are extremely challenging and the environment is dynamic to say the least. That makes it difficult to do just about anything. On the funding side, our supporters find it difficult to invest in active conflict areas; you see impact funds investing in South Asia and Africa, but not here. We’re trying to build a new asset class for humanitarian technology and innovation in the impact investing world, but that asset class doesn’t exist yet. Finally, brain drain puts pressure on talent in MENA. It takes time to build that up.

"Our plan eventually is to have a fab lab in Zaatari camp itself; there is huge demand"What do robotics, AI and automation mean for jobs in the Middle East? 

Industrial revolutions have historically shaped the contours of wealth and power. If it’s hard for us to create enough jobs already in areas affected by conflict, how will we do it in future when robotics and technology transform economies and make it harder?

If so much of the technologies of the future are about hardware, then we want to give people access to tools that allow them to create hardware solutions. You can create a prototype of almost anything in the fab lab. Makerspaces have a combination of old-fashioned and digital tools. People can start with analogue tools, such as welding equipment, then gradually work their way up.

We launched the Irbid fab lab a couple of months ago, just 25 minutes from the Zaatari refugee camp. It’s built in a special economic zone, which allows Syrian refugees to work and earn a living and also benefits the host community. So far 24 companies are being incubated, there are 16 startups and 8 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in a 900 sq m facility, with a coworking space on top. We hope to replicate the model in other places.

Our plan eventually is to have a fab lab in Zaatari camp itself; there is huge demand. The lab there would be less about job creation than about self-sufficiency, reducing idleness and reducing the costs of humanitarian goods if people can make them themselves. We’re looking for $1.25m for the first 18 months to get it started.

What potential does advanced manufacturing have in the aid sector?

The aid world isn’t viable in the long term. It’s essential to co-create solutions with and for communities, not create something in a hackathon in San Francisco one weekend and expect it to work in the field. In 3D printing, for example, we were frustrated with a lot of the R&D being done abroad, with materials that are inappropriate for the environment, such as robotic hands made out of materials that melt in the heat.

We’ve been working with one company, which just closed a seed round, that produces 3D printed replicas for organs so surgeons can plan operations and use them for educational purposes. 3D printing reduces prosthetics costs by 40 to 70 per cent over time. They are easier to customise, too. A prosthetic arm in Jordan now costs upwards of $2,000; the materials we use cost only $20.

AI and machine learning is also promising. One instance is in helping to clear mines. Right now, clearance teams have to use pictures on playing cards to identify different types of ordnance to dispose of them safely. Hala Systems, a startup we’re supporting, is working on an app that takes a photo of unexploded bombs, geotags it, identifies it, and alerts the closest team to deal with it. Technology is no magic bullet. You shouldn’t throw advanced technology at a problem because you think it’s cool. But - if we use the asset well - it can improve the impact we have in the development sector.