The appliance of science

Qatar’s bid to diversify into a knowledge-based economy is speeding up with the launch of its high-tech R&D science park.

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By  Melissa Hancock Published  February 24, 2007

With a record 33% economic growth in 2005, US$133bn worth of investment due over the next five years, and the region’s highest per capita GDP of US$47,000, Qatar’s profile has enjoyed a meteoric rise. The emirate’s sharp rise, however, is not just all about financial growth.

The government’s drive to develop a thriving knowledge-based economy is seeing it return to its roots of Arabic research and development (R&D) and innovation through the establishment of the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP).

As Dr Eulian Roberts, CEO of QSTP says: “Historically, the Arab world has stood at the forefront of technological and scientific innovation. From significant breakthroughs in mathematics, irrigation, technology and medicine, to pioneering discoveries in astronomy, the Arabic people have played an important part in the development and dissemination of scientific expertise.”

In recent times, however, the region has been suffering from well-documented and increasing levels of so-called ‘brain drain’. According to a study by the UN Development Programme, 15,000 Arab scientists have left their countries to go abroad between 1998 and 2000.

“Consequently, it is known that the incentives the region offers must be very strong if expatriate Arab scientists, who have made a home for themselves elsewhere, are to up sticks and return to the Middle East,” explains Dr Roberts.

QSTP is playing a key role in helping to reverse the so-called brain drain trend. Established in 2004, QSTP is a free trade zone that has been set up deliberately to encourage companies from around the world to develop and commercialise their own technologies within the boundaries of Qatar, and by helping entrepreneurs to launch start-up technology businesses. Furthermore, QSTP is integrated with the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, where five prestigious US universities have established mini-campuses in recent years. The science park boasts educational relationships with, most notably, the distinguished international technology institutes of Weill Cornell Medical College, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M where students learn from the same curriculum as their North American counterparts.

“I have been involved in setting up and managing six science parks over the years and Qatar's is the most exciting and ambitious I have ever encountered,” enthuses Dr Roberts. “When I was approached by the Qatar Foundation back in 2003, I was immediately impressed by the serious and long-sighted commitment that the government was making to its knowledge economy. The universities already on the ground showed that this is a country that doesn’t just talk about vision, it also delivers.”

Qatar has continued to deliver. Since its establishment in 2004, QSTP has signed up major blue chips such as ExxonMobil, the largest company in the world, EADS, GE, Total, Shell, Rolls Royce and Microsoft, in addition to others, all of whom have committed to investing US$225m in R&D activities within the park.

“The tenants of QSTP are establishing significant R&D programmes that will provide opportunities for Qatar’s young scientists and engineers, and spur the development of industry,” says Dr Roberts.

There is no shortage of programmes to illustrate this. From the park’s inception Shell has been involved.

“Currently, the Qatar Shell Research and Technology Centre has around 15 staff. The research programmes will focus on the optimal and sustainable utilisation of Qatar’s natural resources, which is vital to Qatar’s development.”

Another tenant involved in developing the potential of Qatar’s resources is energy giant Total. Building on a 70-year partnership, the company is focusing on a scheme that aims to realise the massive potential of Qatar’s natural gas resources. The emirate holds the world’s third largest gas reserves and it is estimated that it will be the largest producer of liquefied natural gas and gas-to-gas liquids by 2012. “Total is focusing on groundbreaking developments that will match the practices of local energy industries, to the abundance of local resources, particularly in the crucial areas of multiphase production, carbonate reservoir modeling and polymer production,” explains Dr Roberts using complex scientific terms.

The collection of projects is aiming to create opportunities for local graduates and spur the development of industry, but it is not only about industrial growth. As Dr Roberts points out, some of the schemes will benefit the local population in more diverse ways. “Canadian company Gartner Lee will be focusing on park projects, environmental and waste management technologies, and their work will bring Qatar its first permanent municipal recycling system.

“Meanwhile, ExxonMobil Research Qatar (EMRQ) is responding to the challenges presented by the unparalleled growth in Qatar’s LNG business and will focus on environmental, safety, and sulphur management research.

“For its first research project, EMRQ has launched a US$2m study to evaluate the potential formation and impact of chlorination by-products from LNG cooling water systems.”

Aside from enhancing the community and the environment, other science and technology ventures are also helping to establish a social foundation in education. International heavyweight General Electric (GE) has also been keen to set up operations at QSTP. “Like other tenants, GE is using the science park’s rich technological and scientific environment by setting up a ‘Technology and Learning Centre’ with strong participation from several of GE’s other businesses.

“The centre will focus on technical training for GE customers, GE aviation and energy businesses in the region, and GE’s global research centre, oil & gas and water divisions, each undertaking the research and development of technologies applicable to local industries. GE is also building on QSTP’s strong links with Qatar’s well-renowned educational institutions,” says Dr Roberts.

The aim is that QSTP companies collaborate with universities on industry-based research projects, and many tenants have cited the proximity of the universities as a big plus.

It is predicted that a large number of student schemes will start in the near future, and that a key purpose of the funds will be to commercialise laboratory innovations, in particular in the fields of robotics, medicine and engineering.

Microsoft is another tenant aiming to support education through various forms of innovation. “An interesting observation made by Mohammad Hammoudi, Microsoft’s country manager, is that in the modern day Arab world we tend to be consumers rather than innovators. He told me ‘Microsoft hopes to begin fostering innovation, so that from this base of imported knowledge, we create the foundations of a pioneering knowledge economy,’” explains Dr Roberts.

Microsoft has recently unveiled six community education, research and development projects that it will undertake within the QSTP. It will invest around US$4m over the coming year in technology-related initiatives such as the development of an ‘Arabic Digital Literacy Curriculum’, a programme that will increase Qatar’s ability to take advantage of emerging digital technologies. QSTP will also begin developing of an ‘Office 4 Kids’ version of Microsoft Office, involving computer science students from Qatar’s universities, in collaboration with the company’s headquarters in Washington.

“QSTP is very excited about the project as it links directly to one of our key objectives — to encourage interaction between industry and academia.

“This type of collaboration is important for Qatar to develop a genuine knowledge economy, and facilitate the transition from being an importer of technology products to an originator.

“The fact that the science park is literally across the road from Carnegie Mellon and other top universities makes this sort of interaction very easy,” he adds.

QSTP, however, wants to attract even greater numbers of multinational companies, but at the same time maintain an even balance between the number of local and international companies with a long-term focus on homegrown businesses. Historically, there has been little investment in either R&D or technology entrepreneurship in Qatar and Dr Roberts doesn’t deny there is a lack of homegrown technology companies.

“Certainly we’ve had to adapt QSTP’s model relative to that of science parks in developed countries, which are typically occupied by small and medium technology companies in the immediate vicinity.

“Our strategy is to establish a ‘cornerstone’ of research and commercial activities in Qatar with international partners such as ExxonMobil, GE and Shell, and over time the fruits of Qatar’s investment in education and research will start to generate more homegrown tech start-ups,” he adds.

To date, there are currently two indigenous Qatari organisations within the QSTP. Q-CERT is a regional cyber-security agency, set up by ictQATAR in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, while the second is iHorizons, a software development company that specialises in diverse e-commerce and content management applications.

“We are especially excited by iHorizons joining QSTP because they align perfectly our aim of helping local companies to grow, and become internationally competitive, by developing and commercialising their own technology.

“They are now looking to expand into new areas such as bioinformatics and corporate knowledge management,” says Dr Roberts excitedly.

In September 2006, QSTP announced two venture capital funds totaling US$142m, that it hopes will take Qatar a step closer to its goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy. The US$12m ‘Proof of Concept Fund’ offers grants to Qatar-based researchers in order to evaluate and develop innovation. The US$30m ‘New Enterprise Fund’ was conceived due to the severe shortage of start-up technology companies in Qatar, in the hope that the fund will help move technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, by supplying the initial capital for new businesses.

Meanwhile, the US$100m ‘Technology Venture Fund’ is aiming to increase the rate of growth of ‘proven’ small-to-medium companies locating at QSTP, including those coming through the ‘New Enterprise Fund’.

The Qatar Foundation will contribute all US$30m of the ‘New Enterprise Fund’ and the first US$20m of the US$100m ‘Technology Venture Fund’. The remaining US$80m will be raised in four US$20m installments by fund managers — a consortium of Oxford Capital Partners, Qatar National Bank and Ansbacher, a subsidiary of QNB.

The two funds are expected to become fully operational in the second half of 2007, and while no investment has yet been made in any company, Dr Roberts is keen to stress that “several applications are under review”.

“As far as investors are concerned, QSTP funds have generated a lot of interest, because there are not currently any other private equity funds in Qatar that have a technology focus. We continue to receive very strong interest from institutional investors around the region in the funds,” he says, although he is careful not to disclose specific names.

In order to further assist entrepreneurs in setting up technology companies, QSTP is also building a business incubator to provide start-up companies with a physical location and training programmes to bolster their management skills. These start-up support programmes will come on-stream as new buildings open up later this year.

QSTP is building 45,000 sq m of new office and laboratory space in a US$300m complex spread out over 120 hectares of designated land, which by international comparison makes QSTP a large science park. With its state-of-the-art facilities, access to world-class centres of learning, US$142m of venture capital funds, entrepreneurship training and QSTP’s continuing efforts to champion industry-based research and development, the science parks testament to Qatar’s commitment to creating a progressive and modernised nation.

Work at the science park could have a profoundly important impact on the Qatari community. Aside from helping to seal Qatar’s global reputation for discovery and innovation, the world-class research and technology ventures are already proving attractive incentives for expatriate Arab scientists to relocate back to the region.

“We have had contact on an individual basis with many Arab scientists working overseas, who are interested in furthering their careers in Qatar. Obviously everyone has their own motives, and often they will have a family or historical connection with this region, but they’ve all said that they see the serious commitment Qatar is making to science, research and commercialisation as an exciting opportunity.”

Dr Roberts is hopeful that QSTP will reverse the region’s brain drain and serve to redress the current imbalance.

“We predict that by our fifth year, in 2011, there will be 1000 people working at QSTP. A significant portion of these will be scientists, but we also want many business managers and operational experts — since growing a technology business is what we are all about.”

"Our strategy is to establish a ‘cornerstone’ of research and commercial activities in Qatar."

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