Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Dr. Sana Farid is a pioneer ARVR strategist in MENA, she started her career as a startup founder and became successful entrepreneur within a short span of time. She is an avid researcher determined to use future tech solutions for societal well-being. A qualified surgeon and a distinguished ambassador to women empowerment programs in the region, Sana is predominantly supporting government and non-governmental initiatives leading them to envision, strategize and streamline AI/AR/VR based programs in various sectors including healthcare, aviation, education and public services. Her ongoing research seeking to counter malnutrition and neonatal diseases with NGOs working in 3rd world countries assisting them to develop awareness through technology aided learning and development programs. She is an author traveling worldwide making her contributions to improve learning experience using AI based AR/VR programs, and has played a vital role to highlight needs of AR/VR adaptation in MENA. She is the board member for various forums and is serving as an Executive in a leading AR/VR Education Consultancy consortium - Munfarid Consulting - based in Middle East. She is based in Kingdom of Bahrain.
What is the idea behind Munfarid Consulting and how did you come up with it?
Entering the realm of the working life in medicine, I realized that this field requires extensive training, a lot of practice, and interaction with patients. I was a surgeon in training and soon apprehended that we, as the society on a whole need to go further than implementing what is already known. The medical profession is life changing where we welcome our patients and devote our energies to create a healthier society. I wished to uncover some amusing things that seemed promising in improving the training and development and Virtual Reality was a technology that interested me instantly.
I learnt how VR could improve the retention rates, give better engagement, more chances to practice several times while ensuring safety. As a medical intern or fresh graduate, VR also increases the confidence working in the virtual field with virtual bodies. I kept asking more questions, interrogating the scope of VR. Turned out, it could reduce the nervousness of confronting real patients, though that's an inevitable phase during the training. I wanted to enhance the training system, education, and practices in VR. That's how Munfarid Consulting came into conceptualisation and we started our operations in 2016. The idea is to explore and implement VR for the benefit and relief of humans.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
Initially a family start-up, Munfarid has now turned a year old into a flourishing family. In 2016 we began on the lookout for young and inquisitive individuals whose energy, knowledge and skills could make a furnished brand, Munfarid. We share our knowledge and help each other grow; the common love for EdTech and its possibilities has us going. We are delighted to have many women members on board and are looking for more enthusiasts to join our team. Both the genders are important and master some set of qualities, we believe.
All the teammates are always in close contact with me and each other, however, we refrain from micromanagement. Setting clear goals helps us all be on the same page.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
It's not been more than a year on this journey full of many high and a few low tides. Surprisingly, we have learnt new things every day. The initial days kept us working relentlessly all day long and the nights found no time for sleep. It was the excitement of launching our brand that kept us together.
We were able to build a brand way better than what we expected, many new features were added and currently, our Virtual Reality Experience Kit, VRXOne is rolling out in full flare in many countries of the world. Our strong base in Middle East has gained us recognition.
We've had quantifiable results in this one year, also there are some major partnerships underway and we can't hold our excitement to disclose them.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The Virtual Reality has been in the developing stage since the 90s and the progress had been very slow until 2014. Now, the market is growing at a decent pace, yet it is in its adolescence. People are adapting to the new change and Virtual Reality has been recognized by big enterprises like Google and Facebook. It is challenging to convince people about the benefits of EdTech, since change is a little difficult to accept. The good part is, change is the only constant, too.
One of the constant challenges is the lack of content in local language. We need to deliver engaging VR experiences to the people in the language they most easily understand. I believe we have been successful in meeting that requirement of our clients. So far, so good.
Since creativity is irreplaceable, we have tried convincible methods to demonstrate the uses of AR and VR through shows, events, workshops, demonstrations to various age groups and sectors, all over GCC. More than any external challenge, we have tried to challenge our limits and potentials. We always knew challenges would be a customary in this journey.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
We've been recognized by the Government and big players of the market like Google. Also, we have gained popularity in youngsters who have shown keen interest in joining our team. In the Middle East, we have become a responsible education firm because of our pragmatic solutions that can be easily adopted in the classrooms, without costing a lot.
I gauge our success not just by the performance of our brand, but by the growth of my team. Since we have learnt many useful things, I consider us successful. We are on a road that only leads to learning, at every cost.
There's no fail.
Our work is near to life, where everyone feels related to our VR sessions. One of the workshops which was attended by the guardians, social workers, and the parents of SEN children. That particular session touched many of the attendants and we got compliments from the guests that it could be a life changing experience. That's worth more than any accolades.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
Through proper knowledge, imagination, curiosity, and evaluation, we have been focussing on various verticals under education and training. As explained by the Bloom’s taxonomy, it is important to understand a concept before learning it. That is one of the prominent benefits of Virtual Reality in K12 learning. The VR technique enables a class size of 25-30 from different backgrounds to understand the same concept in a language they well understand. The live environment helps the learners.
Another focus area is VR training in the various sectors of healthcare, oil and gas, aviation, banking & finance, real estate.
We make customised solutions for every client after a thorough analysis of its customer base and its demography. We make short and long term objectives for training & development. Our constant effort is to incorporate more superior features at the least cost. VR connects people around the world without the need to travel.
This year has been very enthralling in achieving bigger milestones and I am elated by the past achievements and persistence of the team. Going forward, we have a bigger onus of making the Middle East Vision 2020 a success. High-quality and financially sustainable healthcare is an imperative component of this agenda. Doing my bit and realising this responsibility, I've been involved in an ongoing research program, seeking to counter malnutrition and neonatal diseases. I am assisting the NGOs working in 3rd world countries to develop awareness through technology aided learning and development programs. I am working to raise awareness about AI based AR/VR programs that can be also used for development here. Apart from this, I am in talks with some major industry leaders in the education, training, and healthcare domains and many significant projects are in pipeline, the details of which will be announced at the right time.
What will be the key trends in the AR/VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
For ROI based trainings, people will switch to Virtual Reality. Every employee looks for learning in an organization that leads to personal growth. To conduct engaging trainings that can also be implemented in work, Virtual Reality is the most promising EdTech revolution.
The number of Virtual Reality users is expected to reach 171 million by 2018. Two years from now, videos are going to drive about 80% of the traffic on the internet. With VR videos and gamification, training the employees, interns and graduates will become easier and many companies are already using the technology. The related experiences will only get better with in-depth AR/VR sessions.
What will be the key trends in the emerging tech industries in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading, especially in the Middle East?
The development is happening thumpingly fast and the growth models of leading countries today encompass huge investment in science and R&D. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Intelligent Apps & Analytics are the front line technologies.
The number of Virtual Reality users is forecasted to be 171 million by 2018. Two years from now, videos are going to drive about 80% of the traffic on the internet. Artificial Intelligence, presently a 2.5 billion dollar potential market, is predicted to drive the market with its worth of 60 billion dollars by 2025! And, we have already discussed the tremendous potential in the IoT and Wearables domain.
Passionate entrepreneurs who won't cease to upgrade and work harder will be rightfully rewarded by these technologies. There's a potential for spurring growth and opportunities, but the competition is huge too. With innovation and drive, businesses with intelligence and good service quality will be able to steer their own progress.
What are the challenges of being a female founder and entrepreneur in AR/VR?
I had a vision that relentlessly drove me to accomplish my goals. There are very fewer women who find positions in the topmost management. However, it has also been proven that women are able to make the companies more successful. Having more women on board increases the commitment of every employee and maintains a professional environment, I believe. There are very few women in technology, I am privileged to be in ARVR, which was also challenging at times.
I believe you never fail at businesses, either you make profits or you learn and grow. Learning must happen.
Inequality and Discrimination were inevitable, and I was prepared for the same. I listened to the critiques but always judged myself on the parameters of honesty and sincerity. I overcome that by using logic in my explanations, and relating things to real life experiences. Molding the speech to the listeners' challenges often help them pay attention and appreciate good domain knowledge.
Until you're toiling hard and have a good cause, nothing else matters.
My arsenal has backed me up always; it comprises self-confidence, positive attitude, and useful information backed by researches, studies, and proven results.
Many women organizations support our initiatives locally and regionally, where a lot of attention is given to women empowerment.
What were / are the challenges of being a woman in tech in your country?
Bahrain is amongst the most progressive countries where the importance of having more women leaders on board is being realised. Women are actively holding high diplomatic positions and decision-making posts.
In tech field also, women can be easily spotted taking up technical roles. However, there is quite a room for improvement.
Girls are mostly inclined towards acquiring soft skills whereas boys are prompted to take interest in technology. Oftentimes, boys also have better access to gadgets and technology. The challenge must be solved at the primary level where children from both the genders are prepared for technology-aided learning. As a cohesive society, we must train our children equally and make the classroom more inclusive. Change in perspectives can happen the best at this initial stage.
At workplace, one challenge is of perceiving women as lesser confident or under-skilled when dealing with technology. My message to women who wish to have a way with technology: 'Align your focus on learning and create strong identities by empowering yourselves with facts and high moral values. When you are true to your work, good results follow and people become accepting, creating a well-knit society.'
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in AR/VR out there?
Before starting any venture, have a clear vision of what you want to do. Talk to yourself about your plans. When you can convince yourself about your business model and be satisfied, the goal is half achieved.
Passion and determination are the key points to success. While it seems difficult in the beginning, an innovative idea will soon rise and show its spark. Technology needs more women who work for themselves after they graduate and fulfil their dreams. We must have a checklist of a clear and workable strategy, engaging the right sources, managing timeline, and bearing patience. Strategy and execution must go hand in hand. And patience, well, it always bears fruits.
How does tech ecosystem look in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE? How about landscape of wearable tech and IoT startups and businesses?
While envisioning the Middle East future, a rapid focus shift has happened towards technology. The explosive growth of information and communication technology (ICT), wearables market, IoT startups and business, education, and healthcare service providers is attributed to innovative developments.
The service sector of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE has become a predominant contributor to GDP.
Persistent efforts are more than evident. Saudi Arabia is set to conduct a major IoT Conference in early 2018 to pitch light on digital transformation of cities, communities, people, data, and commodities. IoT is believed to unlock significant perks soon.
The American global management consulting firm, A.T. Kearney posits that IoT is capable of contributing $45 billion (Dh165 billion) to the UAE economy by 2025. Also, it is expected to contribute $72 billion to the Saudi Arabia economy and $5 billion to the Bahrain economy.
More than 6 million machine-to-machine devices might be connected at homes by 2021.
Shipments of wearables were up around 30% year on year in the Middle East and Africa region and also, the market is predicted to reach about 3 million units in 2017; a whopping figure and a fertile soil for the start-ups and enterprises to boom.
The future seems carved out for these emerging technologies, which are also getting appreciable support from our governments.
What will be your main goals as Women of Wearables Ambassador in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE?
The plan is to inculcate confidence and social responsibilities in educated women and work vigorously to empower the ones needing upliftment.
Self-reliance and belief in oneself are two important qualities for personal growth. To face the challenges of tomorrow, proactive nature and deep persistence will go a long way.
I plan to spread awareness about mandatory education and enriched values through a refined pedagogy and profound awareness of technologies like AI, AR, VR, IoT, etc. for professional development.
The long-term vision will be to nurture an inclusive society where the basic ingredients are united responsibility, autonomy to both genders, and societal harmony.
LinkedIn: Dr. Sana Farid
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.