Later this week, I’ll be traveling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a very special event – the official launch of the i2 Institute, a new organization dedicated to building an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond.

I2 is the brainchild of my friend and colleague, the biotechnologist Hayat Sindi. Hayat is one of those people whose career path is as improbable as it is extraordinary.  She left her home country, went to the UK alone, got into Cambridge, then MIT and Harvard to do her post-doc work. There, in one of the preeminent chemistry labs in the US, run by George Whitesides, she helped launch a breakthrough medical diagnostics company called Diagnostics For All – which is developing ultra-low cost medical tests for critical health conditions.

Hayat’s fierce determination and abundant talent has been widely (and rightly) lauded in her home region and around the world – she was the only person to receive both a PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship and a Science Fellowship; she has since been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and was recently named a UNESCO World Ambassador for Science, among many other justly-deserved honorifics.

When Hayat met with Leetha Filderman and I in a Camden, Maine coffeehouse, after her first PopTech gathering in 2009, she laid out a big challenge, and an equally bold vision to address it. Her remarkable experience – not just pursuing scientific work at the highest level, but also working to see it translated from a research context into a company – is comparatively rare, at least by the standards of her home region. This isn’t for lack of talent – the Middle East is full of brilliant people. Instead, what is often lacking is an ecosystem – not just of money, but of mentors, colleagues, role models and institutions who could provide the services, encouragement, peer support, skills training and connectivity to help turn scientists’ and engineers’ research ideas into applied innovations that create wealth, employment, and prestige.

The consequences of the absence of this gap are significant. For example, according to NPR, the unemployment rate for college-educated men in Saudi Arabia is and eye-popping 44%. That number is an proxy for countless stories of people unable to realize their dreams and contribute to the richness of society and the world. And, as Hayat told us, it’s a story that is repeated, in different ways, across the region.

Hayat wanted to tackle this enormous challenge, and she had a clear vision of how to do so – to create a new kind of institution, starting in her home country, which could become the hub of a network of high-capacity innovators who could blaze a new path, and themselves become role models for the next generation.

So, over the next two years, with PopTech’s enthusiastic early support, she marshaled world-class resources (including the renowned strategic design firm Wolff Olins, and later McKinsey, as well as signing on MIT and Harvard). These would be essential to the task of scoping, communicating and delivering the elements of her vision.

After much work, next week, in Jeddah, Hayat’s vision will become reality: the Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity – i2 – will officially launch, opening the nomination process for its first round of Fellows.

I’m delighted to be speaking at the launch, joining innovation and design luminaries like Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab, noted digital thinker and venture capitalist Esther Dyson, Robert Fabricant of Frog Design, and Greg Brandeau of Pixar and Next. We will be joined by HRH Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Al-Saud, as well as Mohamed Al-Mady, the Chief Executive Officer of SABIC, Abdul Aziz Al Khodary, deputy Governor  of Mekkah, and Arif Naqvi, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Abraaj Capital, among others. I’ve also joined i2’s Board of Directors as a charter member.

It’s been an honor to play a small part in all of this, but it’s been ten times more inspiring to have watched Hayat undertake the never-easy, always-exhausting process of putting together a new organization from scratch. She is part of a global ‘reaspora’, which is the opposite of a diaspora: global elites, educated in the world’s best institutions, who could live and work anywhere in the world, but who choose to return to their home regions to labor on issues of critical social significance. That makes Hayat not only a social innovation hero, but also an embodiment of the very principles she seeks to inspire in others.

Image Credit: I2 Institute