Walking the Talk and the Legacy of Women Innovators: a Q&A with Rahinah Ibrahim of Oceanori
Oceanori took the top prize at the GIST APEC Startup Training in Brisbane, Australia in 2018. The intensive training program brought startup teams from APEC countries to improve their business ideas, perfect their pitches, and showcase their innovations in front of business leaders, policymakers, academics, and chief science advisors from around the world.
This conversation between Oceanori’s Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim and GIST Innovation Hub program lead Drona Dewi was conducted March 17, 2021 and was edited for clarity.
GIST: Let’s jump right in with a big question. What was 2020 like for you as an innovator and for your startup, Oceanori?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: 2020 was when things really started to heat up for Oceanori. 2019 was a real learning year for us, really starting with winning the GIST APEC Startup Training in Brisbane, Australia in the fall of 2018 and coming back and joining the LIF training in London and then going to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the Netherlands. We were at a crossroads deciding to be a for-profit enterprise or a social enterprise. That was a really big decision to make. Up until then we were just thinking of being a for-profit company. But I had been involved with NGOs for 25 years. It just really clicked for us to be a social enterprise. This changed the whole approach for commercializing our product. We knew we would still be able to make money but also be able to create more value for marginalized communities. 2020 was when the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre announced the Year of Social Innovation. In December of 2020 we finally qualified for funding as a social enterprise. In a few years we will become an official social enterprise.
GIST: Can you tell us a bit more about the need that you saw and the product you designed to meet that need?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: About seven years back I was at a wedding for a friend. It was on the east coast of Sabah. It was my first time there and I wanted to see the water villages. I had a chance to walk out over the water on the platforms they had built there. It’s very beautiful. But as I did, I noticed something about the water. It had a very strong smell. And then I noticed some other things floating in the water. We discovered that the geographic conditions on the land and on the water made it just impossible to keep the ocean clean. So I approached a PhD student who was working on a toilet design for timber houses and asked him if he could design a very simple toilet for people who can’t otherwise afford them. It’s actually a great exercise I do with my students. We create an extreme situation and then come up with some great solutions.
Dr. Ibrahim at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
GIST: That’s so inspiring! You just shipped four iSTP tanks to be set up in Lok Urai in Sabah. How big of a success is that for Oceanori? Was that through a partnership with ACT Malaysia? Or are they a customer? What role do you see for partnerships in social impact ventures?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: It’s emotionally really exciting because after so many years we have finally gotten this great first official customer - ACT Malaysia. We had installed two of the preliminary tanks, one in a swamp and another in a river. What we really needed was an ocean test. Oceans have waves and choppy water. We can finally put the tank into the environment it was designed for.
GIST: As a professor at University of Putra Malaysia, how was the transition from working and teaching in a lab to building a startup?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: My experience is probably a little different than most people who might be going from lab to market. I went to Stanford University for my PhD. I also worked in property development for a number of years so building things is very normal to me. At Stanford I learned that if you have certain skills, you need to give back. Almost all the professors at Stanford had students who were involved with startups so they became advisors to these projects. When you are in that vibrant environment for entrepreneurship it’s easy for you to imagine also being an entrepreneur. So when I came back to Malaysia I had to create a product and it is not just anything. The problem was that we didn’t have certain parts of the ecosystem in place. We didn’t have the innovators nor the support system nor the investment opportunities.
First, I needed to nurture the new kind of innovators and researchers. I had thirty students the last 15 years and from those we came up with twenty-two intellectual properties. We had a hard time determining which invention to move forward with, so the way we decided was, whichever could attract an industry partner to come in, that’s the one we would move forward with. That helped to really start the ecosystem.
"The reason I do this work is because of my daughters. I am their first role model. I told them they don’t have to choose between staying at home or working. They can do both."
I knew from the GIST Startup Training in Brisbane, Australia that we needed the United Nations to validate us. We eventually were able to contact the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). This is called translational research and that means you bring your product out into the real world, you test your product in the market with real people, and then do more research and testing. This is what makes it so exciting. It’s not just the technology. It’s the human element which is usually missing when you are just developing your product in the lab.
Next, I knew that we had to get funding. What I saw with my professor at Stanford was that he would leave the lab to work directly with the industry. And this created the connection to funding. And I then saw a new higher level of research, what I call the investment through industrial implementation.
GIST: That’s really inspiring. As you know very well, climate tech is definitely on the rise. VC firms count it as one of the most promising areas of innovation. But do you find a certain stigma with climate tech? Do some people think you can’t run a successful startup around products that do good? When will social entrepreneurship be more accepted?
Receiving the transported iSTP units.
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: In short, the realization is there. When I came back to Malaysia I wasn’t using concrete like everyone else. In fact, one patent I did with a student, which is patented in nine countries, is a timber framing system that used less than 20% of the timber a normal house in Malaysia would use. Still, people kept asking me why are you going against the trend? I told them I’m not going against a trend. I’m protecting the future generations. Similarly, people don’t know enough about the importance of oceans. A recent report stated that 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. If you don’t have enough oxygen in the ocean it cannot trigger the evaporation system and then the land will face drought. Water and sanitation go together. When we started we were not thinking about this method at all. But as we gathered more data it became quite scary. People need to be aware of what’s happening with pollution in our water.
One problem I found we had was that we were all working in silos and that meant we never really aligned with the bigger picture. Now, every month we have a new expert speaker from the Global Wastewater Initiative Programme present on an important topic and that has really helped broaden our perspectives and understanding. Understanding the bigger picture is critical to getting buyin for social entrepreneurship. Another way we are getting that awareness is by working with the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We are grateful that the Faculty of Design and Architecture would support the Webinar Series for SDG 6 as an official UPM program for the whole year and that’s been a great way to get the word out.
GIST: What other climate tech solutions are you excited about? What areas are showing the most promise for having considerable impact on climate change issues?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: One technology cannot solve the whole climate problem. One thing that made the U.N. excited about iSTP is the ability of this intervention to meet 12 supporting SDG goals. It was looking for a technology that could maximize the impact of that intervention. Last year, iSTP was selected as a technology to participate in the clean water and sanitation goal. We thought we would just do a pilot project but were informed that we would do a demonstration for UNEP. We just sent 10 tanks to Sabah. People do recognize that it is a real problem to have raw sewage in their water. People don’t want to live like that. They realize the issue and the role they have in it. They don’t want to be ashamed of their role. They want to live with dignity. They want to take care of the environment for future generations. You have to go into the homes and talk to the people and talk to them about empowering themselves to take the solution into their own hands.
The village we selected for the demonstration has more than 1000 homes. Standard daily wastewater discharge is about 1250 liters per family of five. That’s 1.25 million liters of untreated wastewater per day, making 465 billion liters per year. The Borneo Island alone has 40,000 homes located in water villages. It has been impossible to install a centralized sewerage treatment plant because of the natural geographical conditions. We are working to stop the pollution at the source but what is exciting is that then we are looking at additional downstream solutions for using that captured waste.
People were talking about this many years ago, that we need to address waste water the same way we built a whole movement called the green economy around deforestation. I’m starting to hear talk about the blue economy. I am excited that waste water is getting the same recognition. We’ve talked about clean energy, solar power. But how about water power? There is always a current in the ocean to get energy from. Most people are looking just at big technology solutions to get the biggest return on investment. But if you use smaller technology, in larger numbers, they will give you a similar return. If you look at building a solution that addresses one house, that’s a very inexpensive solution. It can be implemented more easily. It could also be a very profitable venture.
GIST: You talked about dignity in your solution and bringing dignity to families. On the human level, what kinds of interactions do you find when working with these communities?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: I go into people’s homes to talk to them about these issues to understand how to create a better solution. And I get to know the people better. I see little girls there when I talk to their parents. The little girls are very curious about me. They ask if I went to school. And I tell them that I did. And they ask if I also have children. I tell them that, yes, I have four children. And this is amazing for them to see a mother doing this work. It’s really inspiring. They will tell me they would also like to go to university. And now I have one more person willing to work a little bit harder to get into school and eventually be part of the bigger solution.
Setting up the iSTP units.
GIST: Your book, Thinking Tools: Navigating a Three-year PhD Journey, was published last year. While it’s mostly about how to use critical thinking and perseverance to complete a PhD, how much of that could be used in starting and running a company? And do you have plans for a second book?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: You cannot run a company without a product and you can’t have a startup without an invention. The book is my contribution to what I call developing country students and entrepreneurs who never had the chance to go to a better school like me. Students can make up for this by perseverance and a willingness to work hard, and that is definitely transferable to running your own startup. Even though the book deals with critical thinking, it is actually about empowering yourself to create your own destiny.
I almost failed my PhD. I spent three years working on my thesis questions but I was thinking only in terms of the Malaysian education world which is very different from the Stanford education world. For three years I was working with that model and when I realized it wouldn’t work for me, I threw it out. Within a month I had my new thesis questions approved and my dissertation completed in a year.
When I began teaching, I looked out at all of my PhD students and I saw the same problem. They were all so afraid of failure. So this book simplifies the three-year process for them. Over the years I’ve taught this method to many students. And those early ones who became professors with their own students came to me about the method. Some of them still had their notes from my class but the notebooks were in bad shape. They said I should write this book so they could then teach it to their students. But this book was just part one. Now I have to write part two which is more important because it is the theory development which is not taught well. In my opinion this is the most important part because this is what enables the deep tech you develop to be a patentable product. You can still put existing technology together in a new innovative way but that’s not the same as having that deep understanding of the technology. That deep understanding is what cannot be challenged by a patent agency when you file for your novel innovation.
Back in 2018 we went to Australia to participate in the GIST APEC Startup Training. It was a really eye-opening experience for us. Myself and Oceanori co-founder Rafeah Mustafa Kamal discovered some very important things about our startup and each other. It validated our product and our choice to be social innovators. But the most important thing we discovered was that researchers like me are very stubborn. One of the GIST mentors, Melissa Bradley, told us that but in a good way. One of the things I took from that comment is that I can try to be more humble and I can listen more. The second most important thing I learned is that you can’t speak to people about your product in technical terms only. No one will understand you. This lesson I give credit to another GIST mentor, Rhonda Shrader. It’s partly because of her that I began to use storytelling in order to connect with people around the technology. We have to be able to explain our technical jargon in layman's terms. Today, when I see other researchers present their solutions, I notice that right away when they are too technical. And I joke with Rafeah, “Were we like that?” and yes, we were. So those were both good lessons.
Oceanori at the GIST APEC Startup Training.
GIST: Those are great lessons. I think looking at how seriously you are embarking on your entrepreneurship journey, and the fact that you are bringing that back to your community, that is something we all need so much. You are really walking the talk and giving back to society. You talked a bit about empowering women which is such a huge goal. Could you share just a bit more about your experiences with that?
Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim: Growing up, I saw my own mother struggle with hardship. We were orphaned when I was just 15. So, when I do my work, my focus is often on single mothers with many children. It’s very hard for mothers to work outside the house because they have to take care of so many children. And then they cannot afford to go to school. The poverty cycle can never be broken unless we change things. That is why, from the beginning, when I first became involved with NGOs 25 years ago, I have always had this focus. For our startup, we wanted to make sure that children get a chance to go to school.
The reason I do this work is because of my daughters. I am their first role model. I told them they don’t have to choose between staying at home or working. They can do both. And it has worked. They go out into the world and are influencing other people with these same ideas. I was fortunate to marry a very good man. He has been very supportive of my goals. But it doesn’t stop there. We also have to educate our sons to be understanding and supportive partners and appreciate the contributions of the wives and the sisters. Women can be independent and contribute to the community.