Fostering Tech-Based Innovation and Growth
Despite the challenges it faces, Jordan has long been known as a hub for ICT talent, earning the country an edge for regional competitiveness. In August 2009, for example, Yahoo! acquired Maktoob — a popular Jordanian-developed Web portal offering search, payments, and social networking functionality for Arabic-speaking users—for an estimated $85 million. On the heels of this and other groundbreaking acquisitions, Oasis500, a tech-focused seed investment fund and business accelerator was established in 2010. With technical assistance through JCP, Oasis500 has implemented a series of boot camps, investment events, and entrepreneurship competitions that have led to more than half-a-million dollars being invested in 13 startups and another quarter-million leveraged through follow-on investment. And since studies have shown that the right seed investments can help establish companies that, together, account for up to half of all new jobs created, JCP has extended its technical assistance to the technology hub iPARK, which, with USAID support, has helped propel more than three-dozen new firms into sustainable operations, creating more than 200 high-value, knowledge-economy jobs.
VIDEO: USAID Contributions to Jordan's ICT Sector
This video highlights JCP's many contributions to Jordan's ICT sector over the past five years, including through groundbreaking partnerships with leading multinational firms like Microsoft and Intel. Microsoft's Country Manager for Jordan, Hussein Malhas, says his team's work with USAID was "one of the most important partnerships" leading to Microsoft's growth in the Kingdom. During JCP's tenure so far, Microsoft expanded from a small office adjacent to that of JCP to occupying two floors in the same building, adding dozens of young Jordanian graduates to their payroll. The growth is part of what JCP Chief of Party Wissam Rabadi calls "Industry 4.0." In the video, he shares examples of JCP's investments in the Jordanian ICT sector, including sponsoring the Kingdom's first Maker Competition, assisting in the establishment of the first FabLab in the country, and working with Microsoft and Intel to train hundreds of students and recent graduates in app development and cloud computing.
SUCCESS STORY: A Young Jordanian Woman Finds Her Passion in User Experience Design
It’s no secret that information technology and the products that propel it are evolving so rapidly that even the most in-touch pro-fessionals struggle to keep up with the latest innovations, trends, and products. That’s why some of the world’s most cutting-edge companies, from Microsoft to Google, have been known to hire young students, many of them still in school, to write code, de-velop apps, and test the latest phones, tablets, or laptops to hit the market.
The implication is clear: traditional four-year college degrees, while still valuable, are quickly ceding ground to the kinds of real-time professional development opportunities offered by continuing education courses, technology boot camps, or so-called “accelerator” programs. One such offering, a first-of-its-kind partnership between Microsoft and the USAID Jordan Competitiveness Program (JCP), brought just this kind of cutting-edge learning to the Kingdom’s King Hussein Business Park (KHBP).
Begun in 2015, the Microsoft Academic Accelerator Program offered two “waves” of training to more than a hundred aspiring tech professionals and has now evolved into a permanent part of the corporation’s expanded offices at KHBP. We caught up with one of its graduates, Safeyah Uthman, recently to see how the training has helped her in her career and how it has changed in the past three years.
“I found my passion in the field of User Experience (UX) design through my internship with the Microsoft Academic Accelerator Program,” Safeyah told JCP after graduating in September of 2015. “I came to realize that this program was of more use to me than the five years I spent in college.”
The 27-year-old’s story began when she started to feel numb about her major in college, computer engineering, and after her internship applications got turned down by a number of companies, which, she suspects, preferred male candidates. “I heard about the Microsoft training by accident [and] didn’t know what expect,” said Safeyah, who is currently the designer of an online social media platform called Surprise Me.
She calls the six-month, USAID-supported training a “life-changing experience,” in part because it led more job interviews and helped her land her first job as a UX designer shortly after graduation. “Also through this program, I had the chance to present my business idea to Microsoft, which they were interested in and later directed me to a well-known business incubator,” she adds.
It was that encouragement that prompted Safeyah to develop her forthcoming social media platform while also working as a UX and UI (user interface) designer for Aura Techs Solutions, where she works in the “creativity department.” She said she would like to eventually become head of that department and gain more experience in UI-UX field, but she’s also staying focused on growing her own start-up.
“It was a risk to start the training as a UX designer, but I found the job I’ve always dreamed about!” Safeyah exclaims.
While in the Microsoft program, she developed an application that aimed to support mini-market owners, calculating their profit and loss and sending alerts for items about to expire or run out of stock. Her goal was to help small businesses without the resources to purchase expensive Point of Sale (PoS) or inventory systems, giving them access to vital data using only their smartphones and an inexpensive app.
With many more talented young students like Safeyah on track to develop innovative products to benefit their country and its people, USAID has been at the forefront of creating professional development opportunities — like the Microsoft Academic Accelerator Program — to support them.
SUCCESS STORY: A Young Jordanian Engineer Solves a Familiar Development
By the time he won first place in Jordan’s first-ever Maker Competition, hosted in December 2015 by the USAID Jordan Competitiveness Program (JCP), Layth Hamad had already set his sights on a new kind of engineering, one that was just gaining attention in the Kingdom’s universities. A fourth-year student at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, he was officially a Computer Engineering major. But his passion was the Internet of Things (IoT), a catch-all phrase for “smart” devices that could be monitored and controlled remotely through easy-to-use apps.
“During my last year at university,” explains Layth, “I began work on my own IoT device, an app-connected mechanism for detecting when gas cylinders are getting close to empty.” The idea, which seemed simple enough, aimed to solve a familiar problem for families reliant on the single-valve containers for everything from cooking to heating. With no way to predict when the gas would run out, these households ran the risk of being left in the cold—literally.
Anyone who’s used this low-tech fuel source knows the predicament. Connected to a mobile space heater, the cylinders can warm a room in mere minutes. They can sputter out just as suddenly, though, and depending on the time of day, a replacement can be hard to find. In some developing countries, where the nearest gas vendor may be a day’s trek away, anticipating when a gas cylinder needs to be replaced can mean the difference between eating or going hungry for the day.
That’s why Layth’s invention, which he called Clev-G, was a hit, not just at Jordan’s Maker Competition, but worldwide. Since earning the JCP accolade in 2015, this young engineer has pocketed top prizes from Intel, the Arab Innovation Network, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Judges have cited Clev-G’s clear development value and, since the app allows users to order gas refills directly from local vendors, it also is poised to have a positive impact on the local economy.
Layth credits his USAID-supported training, conducted in conjunction with Intel, with giving him the skills to succeed as an inventor and entrepreneur.
“The training was a very rich experience given by an expert team,” he said. “It gave me the knowledge and the opportunity to learn more about entrepreneurship, how to convert my innovative idea to a company, and how I can lead and grow my business.”
Layth now leads his own company, Libra Smart Home. Specialists in “designing smart home solutions,” Layth and his team are putting the final touches on their two signature products— a smart detector modeled on his Clev-G prototype and a similar device to monitor water tank levels.
“We are in a stage where we are seeking investment to move the company to the next level,” he adds. Brimming with optimism, this young Jordanian entrepreneur thinks cutting-edge technologies like IoT, blockchain, virtual reality, and 3D printing “will change the world in the very near future.” And he is intent on being a part of the change.
SUCCESS STORY: A Jordanian Entrepreneur Traces Her Success to a USAID-Supported Youth Training
Like the rest of the Arab world, Jordan faces a “youth bulge” — a population of young people whose numbers are outpacing the employment opportunities being created for them. The challenge is also an opportunity, however, and that is why international donors, working hand-in-hand with the Jordanian government, have invested millions of dollars in mobilizing new graduates in the service of the country and its economy.
As part of its commitment to supporting young entrepreneurs in Jordan’s knowledge economy sectors, the USAID Jordan Competitiveness Program (JCP) has offered training and job placement opportunities to hundreds of young Jordanians. Many of these have been students or freshly minted graduates — like Shahd Douglas.
“We had an intensive practical training in the most important aspects of organizing, financing, marketing and managing a small business,” Shahd says about her participation in the JCP Youth Entrepreneurship Program, which concluded in 2017. THe program, implemented in partnership with the King Abdallah II Fund for Development (KAFD), provided participants “with the ability to find and act upon opportunities to translate inventions or technology into new products,” Shahd adds.
Since her participation in the USAID-supported program, Shahd, who holds a graduate degree in public health and health education from the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), has gone on to launch her own start-up. In 2018, her ICT firm, "TechTeb," was awarded the Spirit of Tech-I award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST).
Shahd attributes her success to her formative training through JCP: “We left the training with business ideas and with complete business plans,” she recalls. “And, of course, meeting other colleagues from different backgrounds who share the same [belief in the] power of change enhanced my experience.”
SUCCESS STORY: Gaming the System
Jordan is a small market for the international gaming industry. Yet it is one that, despite its size, has produced some of the most successful enterprises in the region like Maysalward; the first of Jordan’s mobile game developers and largest in the Middle East and North Africa market. Critical to the gaming sector’s success in Jordan is the ability of participating companies to do two things: Respond quickly to market trends and establish partnerships that expand their customer base outside of Jordan into international markets. Expanding horizons - of both knowledge and contacts - is critical to Jordan’s success.
Enter the Export Development Program – a joint effort between USAID and the ICT sector association Int@j to give Jordanian companies the general business skills and specific export knowledge required for expanding their business and growing sales in overseas markets. As part of this effort, three Jordanian gaming firms were given the opportunity to attend two conferences held in San Francisco: the Game Connection (GC) and the Game Developers Conference (GDC).
Nour Khrais, CEO and founder of Maysalward, noted that his company was “lucky” to be able to be amongst the more than 800 exhibitors and 30,000 attendees from more than 50 countries. His three-member team was able to gain the world-class exposure to new technology, market knowledge, and access to partnerships they need to boost their revenues and promote their technologies. Mr. Khrais considers this visit a success, “the GDC is not easy to participate in, and this is the first time my team and I experience such variety of knowledge. Thanks in no small part to the program; my team now has just the right mindset, the knowledge, and connections to excel in their work of programming.”
Such connections also mean business deals, critical for small and medium businesses to grow. “Maysalward managed to sign a partnership with a US based company and launch our games in the USA. Now 3 or our games are downloaded and played” said Nour. As a result of their trade mission to the U.S., Maysalward has closed a number of deals with a value of $460,000 and achieved tangible growth in revenues.
The Export Development Program, supported by USAID, has helped around 70 other ICT companies increase their export readiness, identify new markets, facilitate their access to new business opportunities and partnerships, and contribute to sector promotion and exposure on both regional and international levels. Maysalward are keen to be part of that global expansion and have a vision to do it.
“Maysalward will be building more partnership with global studios and co-producing and publishing new titles. Jordan’s stability and role as a regional gateway in ICT gives robust offerings to our services and products serving the region and beyond”, says Nour.