Dr Umar Saif, a Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) has just become the first Pakistani to be recognised as one of the top 35 innovators of the world. The MIT Technology Review has named him as one of their 35 'World's Top Young Innovators for the year 2011'.
No surprise, given his background; Saif started out at Aitchison, went on to Lums, did his Doctorate at Cambridge and ended up doing his Post doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The MIT Technology Review (TR35) recognizes the world's top 35 young innovators that are radically transforming technology as we know and this is the first time in the past decade that a Pakistani has been recognised.
Saif says that he couldn't have done it without Lums. While talking to The Express Tribune, he said, "It would have been difficult at other universities. There are certain things that Lums has gotten right. The faculty is empowered and hiring and promotion is all done based on how research active you are."
"I am tenured at Lums and I cannot be fired. The rest of the universities in Pakistan have more of a teaching focus. Lums lets me do only two to three courses a year. This gives me ample time to do my research." Saif now joins an elite group of researchers and technologists including the likes of Google's Seregy Brin and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
While talking about one of his projects, SMSall.pk; he excitedly explained that it was like Twitter and that it was fanning out at an exponential rate in Pakistan. "Political parties, media channels; everyone is signing up for it," he exclaimed. SMSall.pk is Pakistan's largest SMS social network and has sent close to 4 billion SMS for users in Pakistan.
Technologies developed by Saif's research group and startups are used by millions of people in the developing world. Other notable technology isBitMate, which enhances the speed of Internet in the developing world using peer-to-peer technology.
The MIT Technology Review selects the top innovators after a rigorous evaluation process. Judges, who are leading experts in their fields from universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard, consider hundreds of high-impact researchers and entrepreneurs from all over the world, out of which top 35 are chosen for the award.
When asked about the innovation process. Saif explained that he had a startup incubator called the Saif Centre of Innovation. "It deals with new projects the same way as Silicon Valley," said Saif. People, mostly students come to me when they want to do a startup. "We keep discussing the idea till it is viable. Then we put together a team, distribute equity – I am always a minority stakeholder. Then I give the startup money to get it off the ground." Saif says that the reason these projects are successful is because he gets the kids to run these companies. And they work 18 hours a day to get their ideas to work.
Saif is working on some incredibly innovative start ups right now. One uses mobile phone cameras to allow illiterate people to understand English. People can take pictures of English text – newspaper clippings, labels, anything – from any cell phone, MMS it to a number and they will get a call back that that reads out the text to them in Urdu.
Best of all, Pakistan need not fear losing Saif to any other country. Because he has no plans to move his home base out of Pakistan. Even though he spends some time visiting other universities to get some work done, Saif says that he is in Pakistan to stay permanently.