- Published on Wednesday, 06 June 2012 06:42
- Category: Letters From Tunisia
A year and a half into the "new" Tunisia, a team of entrepreneurial engineers may revolutionize renewable energy. Hassine Labaied and Anis Aouini of Saphon Energy have introduced a new technology aimed at harnessing and storing wind power. According to its designers, the "Saphonian" captures and stores wind energy more efficiently, cheaply and safely than windmill technology. In the spirit of the Jasmine Revolution: out with the old, in with the new.
The Tunisian start-up hopes investors and other partners agree. But, like political change, how will new technology and business models survive and thrive beyond the enthusiasm of the “beta” phase? What will words like revolution, innovation, entrepreneurship and partnership mean over time?
In an uprising sparked by a small businessman’s desperation, the public and private sector naturally seek ways to foster entrepreneurs. From fruit vendors to clean-tech inventors, small businesses will more likely flourish in a well-regulated market, one that protects producers and consumers, alike.
For the moment, Saphon Energy is attracting fans and hopes to raise its visibility. Following a successful presentation at the talent-recruiting TED@Tunis event, Labaied is slated to speak at TEDGlobal at this summer's Edinburgh gathering. In addition to an angel investor, the team received a boost from another significant partner. On May 29th, accounting firm KPMG honored Saphon with its "Innovation Award."
At the trophy ceremony in the tony Golden Tulip Hotel, Labaied detailed the path and challenges in launching the venture. From the agony of waiting 18 months for patent approval to learning how to fundraise and build a team, he underscored how a “start-up” doesn’t bloom overnight.
Inventor Aouini ran through the technical pitch. The Saphonian, he explained, overcomes multiple obstacles of traditional windmill designs to maximize wind energy. Among the advantages of its “zero blade” technology, he cited low manufacturing costs and significant efficiencies in wind capture and power storage. The movement of wind in a sail inspired the design. Similar in shape to a television satellite disk, or gramophone horn, the Saphonian works on the wind’s drag force to generate energy.
Wind power, harnessed by sails, is Tunisia's inheritance, said Labaied. Renowned for it navy and sail design, ancient Carthage drew power from wind. The Saphonian is “an homage to a civilization.”
Whether the team has accurately described zero-blade’s advantages and the shortcomings of technology it seeks to replace may not be relevant. Investors and the business environment will ultimately decide whether the design delivers on its claims.
Vice President of KPMG for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Jean-Luc Decornoy praised the team’s persistence. "I have no doubt they will succeed,” he said. Perhaps this type of confidence (and marketing) will draw additional interest and investment in the idea, transforming a promising prototype into a truly "disruptive" technology. Hassine and Aouni have so far succeeded against the odds, in an environment currently lacking the infrastructure to support start-ups and innovation. As with political change in Tunisia, much depends on securing gains.
Additional: On YouTube, Film – Saphon Energy Story
Also: The Arab Spring and Its Lessons for Democracy and Development (by Cameron Khosrowshahi of USAID. A focus on fostering start-ups) “It has been shown, time and again, that countries that nurture their entrepreneurs and provide the healthiest enabling environment for business creation experience the fastest job growth. The best policies have always been a mixture of reduced regulation and red tape, coupled with active support, such as tax incentives for early-stage investment and public funding for incubation.”
Cameron Khosrowshahi is a Business Specialist with USAID’s Office of Civilian Response and an Advisor to the joint USAID-Department of State partnership to foster entrepreneurship in the MENA region.By Haleh Hatami, Aslan Media Contributor