As a part of our series about the future of Artificial Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wisam Costandi and Mohammad Hourani, EMMA Systems.
Wisam Costandi, Co-Founder and CEO, EMMA Systems.
As an entrepreneur, Wisam enjoys the thrill of innovation and the challenge of disrupting new markets. His commitment, perseverance and entrepreneurial acumen has helped him build various technology companies from the ground up.
Most recently, during his time in Qatar, he spun off a new software entity called EMMA from his system integration company IQ. Wisam spent the previous 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area working in the high-tech sector as well as management consulting. He holds a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and an MBA from UC Davis and received his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University.
Wisam has held various leadership roles in the U.S. and Middle East and currently sits on the board of various technology organizations. He is currently chair of the YPO’s Qatar Chapter.
Mohammad Hourani, Co-Founder and COO, EMMA Systems.
Mohammad brings a wealth of experience in airport systems with various roles including project management, design, implementation, supervision and testing and commissioning, including the construction projects of two major airports in the Middle East. His knowledge of aviation and innovative spirit has led him to high-ranking positions at many key aviation and technology organizations, such as Airport International Group and Parsons Corporation.
Mohammad holds a master’s degree in engineering business management from Coventry University and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from University of Jordan.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?
I started my career in management consulting and technology, where I spent 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. After my time in the U.S., I was looking for new opportunities, so my family and I decided to move to Qatar in 2008 where I created a system integration company called IQ. We grew IQ to be one of the largest in Qatar and were asked for an information-sharing dashboard for Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha. I didn’t know much about aviation at the time, but quickly realized that it is an industry ripe for innovation and disruption. At the time, Mohammad was the Project Manager for HIA, and over time, I learned more about the intricacies of aviation, and we saw an opportunity to spin off a new software entity from IQ which we called EMMA. Incubated at Qatar Foundation’s Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), EMMA is focused on Total Airport Management solutions, specifically Airport Collaborative Decision-making. With my roots and expertise in technology, and having developed a partnership with Mohammad in launching EMMA, this naturally led me down the path of developing a product that incorporates artificial intelligence.
My background is in engineering, where I studied electrical engineering and engineering business management. Since my childhood, I have always been passionate about aviation and curious to know how things are managed, for example, why an aircraft is delayed. I became an active member of the aviation industry, having held various roles including project management, design, implementation, and construction. This led me to develop a great passion for enhancing airport operations and the passenger experience.
While I had the chance to work with some of the world’s leading airports, such as Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, I was aware that in other parts of the world, aviation is significantly lagging behind in terms of technology. Utilizing my experience and technical engineering knowledge, I have seen firsthand the impact that artificial intelligence can bring to this sector by making it more efficient and better optimizing resources.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Wisam and Mohammad:
Before bringing our product to market, we knew we would have an uphill battle. The aviation space is a hard sector for startups to penetrate; legacy players act as gatekeepers to innovation, and the slow sales cycle adds another layer of difficulty. But we were confident in the fact that we had created something that is solving some big issues in a space that has not seen very much disruption, and is making it better in the process. Aerospace and defense have one of the lowest investments in R&D as compared to other sectors, yet we hear from industry stakeholders that there is growing interest in cost-efficient innovations to improve operations. We have remained confident in our offering, and in the fact that the aviation industry is ripe for something new, and will need to innovate in order to meet customer demands.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
We are focused on our flagship EMMA platform, which leverages AI and machine learning to optimize airport operations and enhance collaboration among stakeholders where they can communicate through a single platform. We’re working with four airports in Europe and the Middle East and are in talks with 70 other airports around the world. Our goal is to grow our presence in these geographies, including in Asia and the Americas.
While 80% of the world has never flown, this percentage is decreasing. In the coming years, we see tremendous growth in aviation as air travel becomes more accessible to the world. The amazing post-Covid recovery is accelerating this trend. This means we need innovative, data-driven solutions like EMMA quickly to ensure the industry’s growth is sustainable.
Most recently, we were at the Paris Air Show, one of the world’s leading trade events for the aviation industry, where we announced our latest collaboration with Zagreb Airport, the largest airport in Croatia in terms of passenger traffic. EMMA will support Zagreb Airport in introducing A-CDM at the airport, helping improve its overall efficiency and sustainability approach.
We’re excited about EMMA’s robust capabilities when it comes to managing data points and offering insights into flight patterns, taxi time, and turnaround time. EMMA is designed to seamlessly integrate with multiple data sources from various airport stakeholders, including ATC (Air Traffic Control), airlines, airports, ground handlers, and other relevant entities. Upon receiving data, EMMA performs thorough validation processes to ensure data accuracy and reliability. Subsequently, it utilizes this validated data to predict the key timestamps throughout the flight cycle. This integration with diverse data sources empowers EMMA to provide comprehensive and reliable insights into flight operations.
EMMA utilizes advanced analytics and algorithms to generate insights and KPI reports based on the analyzed data. These insights help airlines and airport authorities make informed decisions about resource allocation, operational improvements, and contingency planning.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Wisam and Mohammad:
Without grants and government support, it is difficult to innovate regulated industries that don’t have quick return, so we are very grateful to Danny Ramadan at QSTP’s Tech Venture Fund (TVF) who has been instrumental as part of our startup journey in Qatar. As Investment Director, Danny believed in what we were doing, despite our setbacks during Covid, and he has been an amazing source of information and ideas. We were supported by a grant from Qatar Foundation’s QSTP to continue our R&D on the platform such as adding elements of AI and predictability to our platform.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
Wisam and Mohammad:
- The potential for greater efficiency, productivity, and predictability. Simply put, AI gives us back more time and mental capacity to focus on problem solving with less time spent on busy work and allows a level of predictability by foreseeing adverse events.
- The power to process large amounts of data in a short period of time. This capability also helps us be more efficient, and in the case of EMMA, can process the many aviation data points that exist at any given moment, helping an airline or ground handler better understand what is happening in real time.
- Its ability to scale. With AI, there are virtually limitless possibilities to grow.
- Its ability to learn and adapt. AI models are developed to learn and adapt quickly, which enables products and platforms to change and update based on shifts in the industry.
- Its application for sectors and spaces that are in need of disruption, such as aviation. With the use of AI as part of EMMA, we can do things such as estimate taxi time and turnaround time, key factors that can have a significant impact on the efficiency of the aviation industry.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
Wisam and Mohammad:
- Privacy/security concerns. While AI can collect and analyze massive amounts of data, one of the biggest concerns pertains to issues of privacy, and the potential for unauthorized access to data.
- Bias. Depending on how they are trained or developed, AI models can be susceptible to unintentional bias or other inaccuracies.
- Potential overreliance on the technology. AI does present major opportunities in different fields, but there is a strong potential for its users to become overly dependent on the technology.
- Potential for misinformation. If used correctly, then AI can be a real benefit for many of us; however, if used incorrectly, it could lead to a widespread dissemination of misinformation, which is quite harmful.
- The impact on jobs and the workforce. It is important that we don’t look to AI as an option for outsourcing jobs, which could completely alter the workforce. AI should complement the human skillset, not completely replace it altogether.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI poses an existential danger to humanity. What is your position about this?
There are two main aspects to this dilemma of the growth and adoption of AI. This first is the Sci-Fi scenario being debated by the great minds, who see either a Terminator-like dystopian future or a Star Trek utopian society. But the second, more immediate dilemma is the massive and rapid replacement of the white-collar workforce. It’s not just AI, but the convergence of all the technologies that will lead to an exponential growth in usage, which is why I emphasize that the rapidity of transition is concerning. The public got its first true taste of AI (knowingly) through ChatGPT, a type of generative AI called Large Language Model (LLM). LLMs are so early in their infancy and jobs are already being replaced by them. The entire workforce can be replaced, from the call center up to the VP suite. So, while tech billionaires discuss the future of humanity, they are quietly reducing their 70,000-employee headcount.
What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?
- The public is less concerned about Skynet in 20 years than losing their jobs next week, but both can be addressed in parallel with short-term and long-term planning. In the short term, governments, and society in general need to take initiative in re-educating and supporting the displaced workforce. In the long-term, there must be oversight on the development of AI, in the same way the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversees nuclear development, for example.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
- In Qatar, I work with startups by mentoring them, not only on the standard startup ideology and leveraging the local ecosystem to springboard them to the world, but more importantly (and less discussed) on the mental toll that entrepreneurship takes on us. We tend to look a lot at the big picture with grandiose ideas of changing the world for the better. But as entrepreneurs, sometimes we need to see the trees and not the forest. Most notably for me was when one of my employees called me in tears, I thought something terrible had happened. Shirley was one of my first employees and had been with me for over 10 years at the time. It turned out her tears were tears of joy; her daughter had been accepted to medical school. When Shirley joined my company, her daughter was in middle school, and now she was entering medical school. Sometimes we don’t realize the impact we have on people’s lives.
- As an entrepreneur, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in numerous valuable workshops and sessions conducted by successful and esteemed entrepreneurs. Additionally, with the generous support of QSTP, I had the privilege of attending an intensive 8-week program at a renowned accelerator in Silicon Valley. This experience further ignited my passion for sharing the knowledge and insights gained with aspiring young talent in Qatar and in Jordan, my home country.
- In my view, entrepreneurship extends beyond mere books and theoretical learning. It encompasses the power of sharing personal experiences, embracing failures, and imparting valuable lessons learned to others. Above all, it is about fostering a mindset — one that I am eagerly determined to bring back from my learnings in the United States and transfer to our region.
- As a result, I have become highly engaged in mentoring and coaching other young entrepreneurs who share the dream of making the world a better place. It brings me great joy to guide and support them in their journeys. Moreover, I am actively expanding my network, seeking out like-minded individuals who are also dedicated to supporting this goal. Together, we can create a collaborative and supportive community that empowers and uplifts one another in our collective mission to drive positive change.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
- Starting at the top, in the boardroom: a more diverse and inclusive board makes better decisions and results in better outcomes and profits. Higher levels of gender diverse boards positively correlate with better future financial performance. More specifically for AI, as previously mentioned, as models are trained there is a concern of bias without diversity. But this type of engagement needs to be driven from the top to develop a culture of inclusion so our inherent biases are not unwittingly transmitted to our technologies.
- In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend of more women in the technology field. While the level of progress may vary across countries, the Middle East is witnessing women emerging as a crucial driving force behind economic growth, showcasing remarkable improvements in terms of quality, dedication, and work ethics. However, despite these positive developments, there is still a need for further encouragement within the AI industry. Universities and large organizations, taking a leadership role, can play a significant part in addressing this by raising awareness about AI and its immense potential. By increasing educational efforts and promoting AI-related programs, they can inspire more women to explore and pursue careers in this transformative field.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
- “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
This famous Winston Churchill quote is a testament to perseverance. There is nothing more important to success than perseverance. I learned this from my daughter when she was only 6 months old, as I was working from home, suffering in the early days of one of my companies. I was sitting at the dining room table behind my laptop, and she was in the living room which was one step down from the dining area. She was too young to crawl and could only creep, and that step kept her in the safety of the living room area. I would hear her moan as she would drag herself to the step and try to climb up that one, single step, but of course she could not. One day I looked up and saw her smiling as she had conquered that one step. Her quiet determination inspires me to this day.
- “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- The journey of an entrepreneur is marked by a tapestry of victories and defeats, highs and lows, and accomplishments and setbacks. I consistently remind myself and those around me that struggles and failures are an integral part of this path. There is no shame in acknowledging our missteps or mistakes; instead, we should embrace them openly and encourage others to understand that they are the stepping stones toward success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
- Just worry about the 10 feet around you. Keep the 10 feet around you clean. Be kind to the people in your 10 feet radius. Imagine if the eight billion people on this planet thought that way. These small acts would lead to tremendous outcomes across the population of this planet. And it’s easy to do, not a monumental task of revolutionizing the world.
- Encouraging the young population to dream big and instilling in them the value of hard work is a powerful movement. By inspiring them to set audacious goals and nurturing a mindset of dedication, consistency, and resilience, we empower them to overcome challenges and realize their potential. With the right mindset and a steadfast commitment, seemingly impossible barriers can be conquered. This movement can unlock a world of opportunities and drive positive change, not only in the lives of individuals but also in shaping a brighter future for communities and society as a whole.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Wisam and Mohammad:
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.