Deeba Hasan sits down for coffee with Sultan al Subhi, an Omani inventor and lover of technology who starred in the recent reality TV show Stars of Science
Moments before the winner of Stars of Science series six was announced, 22-year-old Sultan looked into the faces of the jury and the studio audience, feeling both excited and nervous at the same time. Then it was revealed. His invention, the Wudu 1, had come second to Qatar’s Mohammed al Housani, who won with his energy-efficient solar system.
Stars of Science focuses on young Arab inventors and Sultan’s invention, an automated robotic device that cleans areas where ablution is performed in mosques and other places of worship, received 23.4 percent of the total votes. His reward was a cash sum of $150,000. “Of course, I wanted to be the winner, but Mohammed and I had this discussion several times. It was either going to be him or me – we clicked well together and weren’t going to worry over the final position too much.”
Sultan is a graduate of the Royal Guard of Oman Technical College (RGOTC) and his prize-winning invention uses special sensors to dry surfaces after the ritual washing before prayers takes place. Downloading an app enables users to sync the robot to their local prayer times and the Wudu 1 takes care of the rest.
The idea first came to Sultan when he noticed that the wudu area of a local mosque was dirty and he felt something ought to be done. The Wudu 1 wasn’t Sultan’s first invention, though. “Since I was a young child, I have been into electronics – opening things up, seeing how they work and putting them back together.”
This fascination led to a job with an electronics firm at the tender age of 16. Sultan served in different departments and travelled to Bangalore in India as part of his traineeship. While there, he studied the mass production line and visited a school for the blind, where he made a Braille map of the Sultanate for the students to learn more about Oman.
But success didn’t come overnight. “I did my homework,” he tells me. “My daily rituals included reading about knowledgeable people and learning from them. I made use of websites that offer free courses to increase my knowledge.
“I like learning from people, I have read biographies of tech giants like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I try to learn from other people’s mistakes, but I was not doing all this just for Stars of Science, I was doing it to improve myself.”
After excelling in his studies at RGOTC, Sultan received a scholarship to attend Penn State University in the US, where he’s currently in his third year, pursuing a double major in Entrepreneurship and Mechatronics Engineering.
Sultan recalls watching the first season of Stars of Science and feeling inspired. Now that he has taken part, he feels a great sense of achievement. “It makes me feel proud that I have done something at this age, but I took huge risks. I was thinking whether to risk my scholarship or just go with my gut feelings and do what I love doing.”
After the final, which aired on November 15, Sultan now finds himself in talks with The Research Council in Oman as he seeks investors to support his onward journey. According to Sultan, Omantel has pledged to cover all patent costs.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Sultan, who was beset with difficulties in his design from development to delivery. “There were technical issues and shipment of some of the materials took time. When I saw other contestants getting way ahead of me, it made me tense and nervous and that never really went away until the very last minute.”
Overall, he said the experience has been eye opening and he is thankful to have met so many amazing and talented people from different places. With his sharp sense of style, Sultan is a million miles from the traditional image of an inventor. You may expect wild white hair, spectacles and pens everywhere, but when I brought this up with Sultan he only laughs. “One of the messages that I want to send out to people is that being an inventor doesn’t mean that you have to look bad or be nerdy – an inventor could be a cool guy at the same time.”
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