Interview with Rania Rostom, GE’s Chief Innovation Officer for the Middle East, North Africa & Turkey

You work at one of the most innovative companies globally. Can you tell us more about your responsibilities as chief innovation officer? What does that mean?

Imagination and innovation are part of the organizational DNA of GE, and it is personally a great time to serve the company as its Chief Innovation Officer for the MENAT region. To understand the scope and responsibilities of my work, it is important to gain an overview of the emerging market landscape of the region. Over the past years, we have seen a greater emphasis to identify innovative localized solutions for unique challenges; for example, in the UAE, the National Innovation Strategy has been a key driver of new ideas, technologies and processes.

This shift is led by two key factors: A growing population, and the need to further strengthen the efficiency and productivity of industry, to support economic & industrial diversification.

At GE, we have a history in the region of over 80 years, and we are committed not only to responding to the shifting trends, but also to recommend proactive solutions that help drive social and economic progress.

My role as Chief Innovation Officer is to lead the innovation initiatives of GE in the region, while also supporting our partners and the community at large to be active participants in a transformational growth journey. This doesn’t mean simply sharing technology that we develop in our worldwide labs, but also focusing on interacting with our partners and helping to identify their needs so that we can work together to co-create innovative solutions. A great example of this focus is the GE Ecomagination Innovation Center in Masdar City, where we are working with academia and our partners to develop innovative solutions that address challenges, particularly in the energy and water sectors.

How do you encourage your employees to be innovative within GE, and how important it is for an employee to be innovative?

Innovation is part of our organizational culture, which means every employee is encouraged to think beyond his or her comfort zone, and to conceptualize or work on new and disruptive ways of doing things.

Internally, the FastWorks methodology, which draws on lean start-up principles, ensures better outcomes for our customers, through constantly experimenting and learning, with the customer at the center of everything we do. Every employee is encouraged to contribute to our operations in supporting innovation for our partners and the community.

Innovation across sectors is further embodied in what we call the “GE Store.” The GE Store is giving our partners access to the diversity of all of GE’s businesses, technologies, expertise, and locations, to bring together just the right solution for a customer. It’s a true differentiator we can leverage for speed and technological advancement. For example, imaging technology we built originally for the healthcare is applied in a new way to inspect oil and gas pipelines. The GE Store helps us innovate and bring solutions to the market faster and more cost effectively. As we speak, over 50,000 experts at GE are inventing the new industrial age. This is the kind of innovation ecosystem we have fostered within our organization.

We also encourage a culture of innovation – not just within the organization – but in the communities we serve through what we call the open innovation, or the “global brain” – the collective intelligence of connected societies. That is the spirit of innovation which drives GE, and that is what enables us to bring real innovation that can make a difference and even surprise our partners.

How is GE contributing to developing the next generation of innovative Emirati leaders and empowering them across various industries?

Localization is a central commitment at GE. That is why in all the markets in which we operate, we focus on developing the skills and talents of the local population. We have been doing this in the UAE since our inception in the country, and today we have a strong team of UAE Nationals in business leadership roles across our organization.
Over the past years, we have signed agreements with several Ministries and other entities to support them in boosting the talents of Emiratis, and the results have been excellent. From reaching out to the student community through scholarships and internship opportunities, to creating tailored training programs and innovation challenges that target Emirati students and entrepreneurs, we are seeking constantly to create a strong talent pool of next generation Emirati talent within our organization.

You’ve done a number of impressive initiatives in the UAE. Can you tell us more about “Intelak”, how it’ll impact the country’s innovation ecosystem and what is GE’s role in it?

Intelak is a fantastic initiative that not only highlights the spirit of partnerships in the UAE to drive innovation, but also in ensuring the role of Emiratis in driving innovation and entrepreneurship.

We are proud to have joined hands with the Emirates Group and Etisalat to bring together selected entrepreneurs and students from across the UAE to participate in a travel, technology and aviation-focused Incubator. Four winning teams, who will be selected through a rigorous judging process, will be enrolled in the Intelak Incubator training program and will receive AED 50,000 to fund and further develop their ideas.

Meaning ‘taking off’ in Arabic, Intelak will support young entrepreneurs to become part of the innovative ecosystem in the UAE. The initiative serves the dual purpose of not only nurturing talent in the UAE, but also contributing to the growth of the aviation and travel sectors, both drivers of the national economy. Our partnership with the co-founders will set the platform for bringing bright new ideas to life. The sky is the limit for this one!

What about GE’s latest innovation challenge, the sensors for small biological molecules. Can you tell us more about it?

Our open innovation challenges, part of the “global brain” I mentioned earlier, are strong platforms for local researchers and entrepreneurs to brainstorm their ideas and potentially incubate them; it is very much a part of our long-term commitment to fostering a spirit of innovation around the world.

The new challenge – Sensors for Biomolecules – aims to find new methods to monitor and control the environment in which cells grow so that we can improve quality and reliability when using cells as factories for new therapies. We’re looking for new ideas to measure and analyze small organic molecules and proteins that are sealed within a sterile growth chamber. Essentially, you could say we are looking for sensing and monitoring technologies that can help transform health sciences.

The objective of our Challenge is to identify an array of sensors, applicable to biopharmaceutical and/or cell therapy production that can monitor a variety of small organic molecules and proteins, either directly in the bioreactor or remotely outside the bioreactor, and report on the data.

Can you brief us on your partnership with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology?

GE and Masdar share strong synergies and have been working hand-in-hand in promoting a culture of innovation in order to address pressing challenges. A great example of our partnership is the GE Ecomagination Innovation Center in Masdar City, where we are undertaking innovative work in the energy and water sectors. We have co-authored a ground breaking white paper on energy efficiency in the UAE and launched a research study on the Water-Energy Nexus, with the Middle East as one region of focus, at this year’s World Future Energy Summit. The reports states that improved water management will be critical to reducing MENA’s water gap. In addition, unconventional water sources like desalination and wastewater will be needed as well.

Perhaps most exciting, we have launched a pilot program that combines technological innovation with digital software in an effort to make the process of recycling wastewater energy neutral to help alleviate the water shortage we see across the region. This program will begin piloting shortly at a wastewater treatment plant in Abu Dhabi, and with Masdar Institute as a partner, we look forward to the next phases of the project.

How does GE plan on treating wastewater in the region using green and less energy?

As mentioned above, this is a key area where we are working with Masdar. In the “Water-Energy Nexus: Business Risks & Rewards” report, we outline actionable opportunities to support emerging research on energy recovery, evaluate and prioritize water-efficient cooling technologies, and even harness big data and analytics to increase the water efficiency of industrial operations.

Through the Ecomagination initiative, we are now collaborating with commercial partners in MENA to address the challenges of this water-energy nexus. We are partnering with Masdar to implement the first energy-neutral wastewater treatment process in the Middle East. We are also working with MWH Global to develop new water reuse and energy-neutral wastewater projects using innovative business models.

Finally, how do you see the innovation ecosystem in the Middle East? What is good, and what can be improved?

The innovation ecosystem of the region is going through one of its most exciting phases, and this is an unbeatable opportunity for innovators, especially in the digital industrial space.

To further strengthen this, we are making in-country investments and nurturing the strengths of local talent. We are contributing further by focusing on innovating in sectors that are extremely important for the community. By building local innovation centers, and co-creating solutions with customers, we are focused on what’s needed in the region, for the region. We also work with universities and schools to roll out training in advanced manufacturing and 3D design and printing.

We are also committed to nurturing the entrepreneurship ecosystem through initiatives, including those through our MEMakers program with startup accelerator Wamda. We hold mutual mentorship programs between digital industrial startups and GE employees, feature entrepreneurs. Investors, and other partners on the MEMakers microsite, and work to give exposure to the great ideas regional startups have to the GE Global Innovation Network.

Through these and other initiatives, we are further strengthening digital industrial capabilities of entrepreneur, in order to support and strengthen the wider innovation ecosystem of the region.