ICT Fund Innovation Enabler

The UAE’s ICT Fund is a key enabler and supporter of some of the most important strategic initiatives for the technology sector in the country today

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ICT Fund Innovation Enabler Engineer Omar Al Mahmoud, CEO of the ICT Fund.
By  Mark Sutton Published  February 28, 2018

Technology has played a central role in the rapid pace of change in the UAE, and government has been one of the main drivers of that change, both in leading initiatives, and in creating the environment for the ICT sector to flourish.

As the regulator for the sector, the UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has helped to create that environment through regulation and governance, but the TRA has also played an important role as a supporter and enabler of innovation and growth, through the ICT Fund. Formed in 2008, the ICT Fund was established with a mandate to “achieve rapid, progressive and concrete developments within the ICT sector in the UAE and to jump start innovation within the ICT sector in the UAE”.

Today the ICT Fund is involved in a range of different areas in the ICT sector, acting as financial sponsor, and as an expert driver for many of the country’s most important IT innovation initiatives.

The ICT Fund draws support from the IT sector and the nation — the Board of Trustees of the Fund is chaired by the TRA with board membership from the public and private sector and academia — while the fund is financed by one percent of the annual profits of each of the UAE’s telecom operators, du and Etisalat.

In terms of activities, the ICT Fund is broadly involved in four main areas: education, research & development, entrepreneurship, and support for the UAE’s key strategic national objectives and initiatives.

Education has been one of the main activities for the ICT Fund, through three main programs, which include scholarships, building academic infrastructure for ICT in universities, and strengthening ICT teaching in schools.

Engineer Omar Al Mahmoud, CEO of the ICT Fund, said that the ICT Fund’s scholarship program, called ‘Betha’, has been one of the most significant achievements of the fund. Betha is now the largest technology-oriented scholarship program in the country, with 936 scholarships awarded to Emirati students since inception. The program supports Bachelor and Master’s degree students in ICT and related disciplines, providing them with tuition, expenses and salary. The ICT Fund has established relationships with many of the leading universities in UAE to run the scholarship program.

The Fund also offers additional support for higher education, with support for undergraduate projects in the ICT sphere, at ICT Fund-approved universities. Higher education institutions in the UAE are also able receive funding for academic research projects in ICT.

At the primary and secondary level, the ICT Fund is focused on the early introduction of ICT to students, so it has supported schools to establish technical labs and IT centres which will engage the curiosity of young learners.

Another area where the ICT Fund is looking to improve to engage with audiences is the development of Arabic content. The ICT Fund is supporting a project with Khalifa University, Al Mahmoud said, which utilises crowd-sourcing to improve translations of scanned digital books and other content. The ‘reCaptcha’ project allows Arabic users to easily provide correct translation of words which are not recognised in scanned manuscripts and documents, which are provided by libraries and other repositories, to improve the quality of translations and the amount documents which is available. The aim is to ‘recapture’ the Arabic content of historical importance.

In the R&D field, the ICT Fund is providing funding to basic and applied research, and into the infrastructure which supports research.

Al Mahmoud explained: “The ICT Fund encourages R&D in the UAE by means of grants to any R&D projects that are ICT-focused in nature and involve Emirati researchers.”

Projects are assessed on their potential impact to improve the ICT sector in the country, and on the ability of the project team to execute on the project. To date, 16 R&D projects have been funded by the ICT Fund, along with two R&D centres, the Etisalat BT Innovation Centre (EBTIC) and the UAE Center for Space Technologies and Sciences.

Al Mahmoud said that these projects are an important contribution to the introduction of new technologies to the UAE, which is helping to foster the R&D environment.

“The recent shift in the landscape, with many future technologies becoming mainstream in the UAE, is transitioning to more R&D efforts being made on the ground,” he said.

The EBTIC is a good example of how the ICT Fund is supporting R&D. The centre for research and innovation was established in 2014, as a joint venture by communications company BT, UAE telco Etisalat and the Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (KUSTAR). Located on the Abu Dhabi campus of KUSTAR, and housing staff and research personnel from all three entities, the EBTIC is focused on developing next generation network (NGN) technology and intelligent systems, application and services that will be built around NGN, to support the UAE’s digital economy.

EBTIC is focused on three main areas — the smart enterprise, smart infrastructure and smart society. In smart enterprise, research is focused on all levels of organisation, including SME, corporations and government entities, with the aim of developing technologies that can address the main challenges faced by organisations today. The work covers many areas, including technologies that will allow organisations to utilize the huge amount of data available to them to enhance operations and develop new services for customers.

In the smart infrastructure space, EBTIC carries out research and development to meet the needs of next generation’s networks, systems and services both on the network and the IT sides of the infrastructure. The EBTIC research in this area focuses on solutions that serves residential and business customers based on emerging wireline and wireless broadband technologies.

For smart society, the centre is focused on creating and deploying solutions to improve the functioning of society such as smart city solutions; solutions to improve efficiency and competitiveness for cities, and on providing new ways of dealing with the challenges of different social and development ssues.

EIBTC’s activities have resulted in many different benefits, Al Mahmoud said, including skills building and knowledge transfer to support national capabilities and encouraged open and collaborative research and innovation between industry, academia and government.

To support entrepreneurship, the ICT fund’s mandate is to fund promising entrepreneurial ideas and in provide the infrastructure necessary for start-up businesses to succeed. Funding is available for both incubators and incubates, for projects and startups that will support national objectives and help the academic and business sectors in the country to develop new areas of economic activity.

One such program to encourage new ideas which is being supported by the ICT Fund is the Seeds for the Future Program, from technology vendor Huawei. The program, which operates with universities around the world, including ten in in the UAE, aims to develop student projects into technology solutions. The best student ideas are incubated by Huawei, with students taking part in a mentorship program at Huawei’s headquarters in China.

The ICT Fund is also a supporter of important national projects, having backed many of the UAE’s strategic technology initiatives, including the Mohamed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Program; the UAE Astronauts Program; Mars 2117; the World Government Summit; the Federal Smart Government; the UAE Drones for Good Awards and the UAE AI & Robotics for Good Awards.

In future the Fund will be announcing an initiative relating to AI, drones and Robotics later this year, Al Mahmoud added, with more initiatives to follow.

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