NERD Center Ethiopia - Engineering Creativity
NERD (New Era Research and Development). An inspiring story of how commitment to problem-solving gave rise to an exceptionally dynamic and innovative space.
It is more of a research and development community than a tech startup. Established in 2020 by a passionate engineer and a political science graduate, NERD has set out to stir up the underdeveloped engineering sector in Ethiopia. Yes, NERD stood for the name of the stereotypical “geek”. A brand was built out of that concept and the acronym, New Era Research and Development, came later.
Here is an inspiring conversation we had with NERD’s CTO, Natnael Kebede. Take a few minutes to be inspired by how commitment to problem-solving gave rise to an exceptionally dynamic and innovative space.
We couldn’t proceed without asking the CTO to introduce himself. He told us about his aeronautical engineering background, which he is quite passionate about. His curious nature was behind his research and development pursuits. Two years running, NERD has given Natnael a chance to nourish his unparalleled aspirations of giving back to the community.
Where it all began
NERD was not where it all began. Natnael together with friends had been creating e-learning platforms when he was in university. With the country’s severe internet fluctuations and block-outs, it became impractical to keep on. Just as the team graduated, they thought about transforming the platform into a firm, Ewket for Ethiopia. This made it possible for them to give basic robotics and engineering training. The training venture evolved into NERD. NERD was established to challenge the skepticism surrounding engineering.
NERD’s aimed to serve where the education system lacks. It does so by providing training and facilitating an environment for trained engineers to practice their knowledge. NERD is highly conscious of the untapped potential in graduates and the resource-intensive nature of working on creative projects. It facilitates resource sharing, networking, and opportunities to take part in solving real-world problems.
NERD provides project-oriented training in which students engage for six to eight weeks. The outcome is a model which adds up to the existing knowledge base. The firm is not fanatically piling up research and developments, but rather, it’s seeking to get a product out to practical use. Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, smart traffic systems, security systems, and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machinery are a few of their prominent project areas.
Among NERD’S exciting projects
Building a mechanical ventilator as its first project, NERD was able to get people’s attention. It rendered itself among those at the battlefront when COVID hit. It was never about finding quick fixes, Natnael told us, but an extensive endeavor to utilize local resources to save lives in the country’s remotest areas. Through this project, they were able to raise about 11,000USD from crowdfunding. Prototypes are all ready for mass production.
Traffic light management is another system under development. This system is one of a kind, as they built most of it on their own. Although the NERD team had several designs that did not work out and made them restart, they have produced ample prototypes. In a place committed to sustaining itself on its own, the pace goes: design, build, break, and rebuild. So far, NERD has got into multiple projects, but it believes in integrating engineering startups.
In tough times
“If you can go through today, tomorrow is definitely better.”
We asked Natnael to tell us what the biggest challenges were for NERD. His brief answer was, "The first challenge is changing one's mindset." He then put light on the difficulty in getting the many resources needed. This has even led the NERD team to get into recycling imported components. The other challenge was consistency during tough times. Finding financing was also a hustle the NERD team had to learn through time. All that said, Natnael believes setting one’s mindset right is the key to overcoming any hurdles on the way.
Natnael didn’t hold back from telling us that NERD had its fair share of troubling times. “Research goes off track, products fail, and finance dries up, making you doubt everything,” he admitted. As the variables are many, problems could come from anywhere. But there is an arsenal for bad days. The NERD team has a culture of encouraging one another. Natnael said NERD has a philosophy of not taking stress personally but getting up and moving forward. NERD is more of an idea to pursue than a company. “There is always a way to find inspirations and opportunities,” was how Natnael put NERD’s way of getting through.
The NERD impact on society
“It is simple,” Natnael said when telling us how they evaluate people just by conversations they have before and after their time at NERD. “We do not ask for it. People give us testimonies of how their time at NERD influenced their lives.”
There are people who, after spending a few months with NERD go about freelancing their services, opening their own startups, and more. Natnael is confident that even if they had the idea beforehand, NERD has made their launch easier by reducing their skepticism.
Changes NERD wants to see regarding policy
Natnael thinks NERD is not in a place where it can comment on policies. He, however, touched on areas he would appreciate seeing improved. He said that the undervaluation of research and development in Ethiopia is a bottleneck to them. In his view, not necessarily financial support but other provisions and facilitative moves by the government are crucial. Natnael understands the risk and reliability problems associated with contracting startups. Nevertheless, he strongly advises giving chances.
“We know we have to measure up to international companies. As we are more familiar with our society’s problems, it gives us a competitive advantage,” Natnael explained. Incentives like tax exemptions, in his view, are still instrumental in allowing startups to invest back into their company's growth. Even if Natnael was holding back from commenting on Ethiopian policies, he wished the government could understand their work and make facilitative moves.
Who gets into the NERD team?
Natnael was concisely describing the criteria to join NERD. He said, "Anyone who wants to contribute something can work with us." He told us they did not want NERD to be bound by the founders’ imagination, so they never closed doors on anyone. So far, three to four people have been working at NERD, with many more crossing their paths through internships, training, and partnerships.
Creative projects and related intellectual issues were interesting points raised by Natnael. He is an ardent believer in open source communities. At NERD, they encourage people to carry on from where projects are left off. It is not typical of NERD to accumulate knowledge and be ahead in its sector. They chose to be the ones fighting at the front, making it easy for others to move along. “Ideas are like 5% of the equation; there is blood and sweat to get things done after that.” He said that once they are a brand competing internationally, intellectual property rights might be a concern.
The 5 to 10-year vision
NERD is an idea. That idea materialized in a tiny lab. That tiny lab grew into a larger place and is now stretching in all forms. Natnael shared with us his vision for NERD. "I see NERD as a huge space where some 2000 engineers of diverse domains work on their innovations," he was quite enthusiastic when uttering those words.
NERD has embarked on a rocky journey into the uncharted research and development sector. It is one of the most unprogressive areas in Ethiopia, straining the startup’s effort. But the NERD team has befriended the stress and is committed to seeing their imaginations realized. One NERDer backing another, they are reaching out to the heights.