BEIRUT: In an attempt to offer Lebanese innovators a place to explore and create, Innovation Factory is a one-stop shop for those seeking to do the “impossible” with design thinking in Lebanon. “Here in Lebanon, there is a gap in the way we understand design and the function of design,” Ibrahim Zahreddine, co-founder of Innovation Factory in Metn’s Mkalles, told The Daily Star. “We’re restricted to culture and media perceiving design as decorative items. Design is a much larger and broader discipline and it goes into everything.”
Innovation Factory officially opened in October 2016, the “brainchild” of a Lebanese NGO engaging in design thinking to develop local communities called Public Interest Design, and design and strategy agency IZEM. Both are now based at the center.
Combining design thinking, industry, technology and business, Zahreddine and longtime partner Karim Attoui opened the factory as a space for individuals and collectives to take their ideas to prototypes and ultimately finished products.
The repurposed three-floor furniture factory also houses wood- and metalworking machinery, a variety of 3-D printers and a media lab.
“Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to do what you want,” Zahreddine told the Daily Star. “Go prototype, do it. We give you the expertise, we give you the machinery, we’ll teach you how to use the machines.”
While the factory is, on one hand, a co-working space that rents out desk space to individuals, collectives and small companies, it also consists of a core team with expertise in a variety of disciplines. Many of the Innovation Factory’s craftsmen are former employees of the foreclosed furniture factory, bringing together older and younger brains.
Canadian medical company MeaCor, which has a base in Beirut, is currently in the process of developing artificial heart valves to treat mitral valve regurgitation – a condition where blood leaks backward through heart valves – without open heart surgery. To create the first designs of a prototype, MeaCor sought the help of the Innovation Factory’s team.
“Basically, we really needed a very specialized printer that they have. We had parts we wanted to [make], and they had the expertise and equipment to do it,” Toufic Azar, company representative in Beirut, said.
“We do medical devices and there definitely is a gap in Lebanon. Will someone fill in that gap? I’m not sure, but in terms of the mechanical [needs], yes it will happen. And these guys [at the Innovation Factory], they know what they’re doing.”
Modeo Systems, a smaller Lebanese company that rented space in the factory has also collaborating with the in-house team to develop prototypes of its self-customizable furniture that customers order via a mobile app.
“Modeo is a do-it-yourself furniture solution ... allowing anyone to customize ... and order modular parts that are very easy to assemble and reassemble,” Emile Arayes, co-founder of Modeo, told The Daily Star. “What is challenging is to create the mechanism and the parts in good quality and at an affordable price.”
After a year, and 10 prototypes, Modeo says it has made progress, but not enough to create something that would be feasible to sell in the market. Yet after a month working with the Innovation Factory and its mechanical engineers, Arayes said they saw enormous progress.
“In one month we made huge progress and finally came out with a convincing prototype. Now [we are] working on an optimized prototype: better performance, cheaper cost and half the weight,” Arayes said. “Coming to the Innovation Factory was like finding a shortcut to everything in fabrication ... their expertise and network and the space are enough to accelerate us.”
For Arayes, the factory facilitates the process of organizing expertise and material while also offering smaller companies the chance to break into the industry.
“Lebanon is very rich with its industrial zones ... but the big problem is that it’s not well-organized and accessible, especially for someone who just want to try things. So 90 percent of the time is searching and 10 percent is doing,” he said. “And if you’re not working on a big deal, it’s not easy to get help. Industrial people, manufacturers and suppliers don’t have time to answer you, they focus on big clients.”
In the heart of the factory lies a drive to catalyze collaboration and bring together heads of Lebanon’s innovative collectives. The first floor of the center is testament to the attempted synergy, as companies from different sectors help one another on projects.
“The factory is opened for designers, hardware entrepreneurs to access our facilities and have expertise on hand [to help them]. It brings them a lot of value,” Zahreddine said. “But it also brings us a lot of value to learn from them.”