King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

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KAUST’s Innovation Ecosystem Benefiting Technology-Based SMEs and Startups

Saudi Arabia is making huge efforts to diversify its economy and attract foreign investment.

Since joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2005, the Kingdom has started to open up key sectors to foreign investment and promote diversification in a number of key sectors such as renewable energy and clean technology.

Saudi Arabia is also making major investments in the infrastructure and education required to make the Kingdom a destination for innovators, researchers, academics, entrepreneurs and investors from around the world.

KAUST as an Innovation Destination

The Kingdom has created a number of new universities, especially to boost science and technology. One educational institution built to diversify and develop this knowledge-based economy is King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

Established in 2009 by Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, KAUST aspires to be a destination for scientific and technological education and research. It strives to serve as a beacon of knowledge that bridges people and cultures for the betterment of humanity.

King Abdullah envisioned KAUST to be a modern-day Bayt al-Hikma or ‘House of Wisdom,’ the great Baghdad research and education center of the Islamic Golden Age between the 9th and 13th Centuries, situating the new university in the context of Islamic scientific achievement.

The University is a catalyst for innovation, economic development in Saudi Arabia, especially in four areas of global significance – food, water, energy and the environment.

Its mission is to advance science and technology through distinctive and collaborative research integrated with graduate education. Its three Academic Divisions encompass multiple disciplines and 11 Research Centers.

The Results of Authentic Partnering

A core part of KAUST’s strategy to promote economic growth and diversification is to focus on authentic partnering with startups and SMEs.  

KAUST enables the creation of startups and the growth of SMEs by engaging them on many levels including research collaboration, helping them establish a presence at the Research Park and providing them with scaling up, technology demonstration, and licensing opportunities.

It also puts a high priority in investing in tools and state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor facilities that accelerate the innovation process.

This collaboration has produced some strong results for an institution that has been open for almost seven years. KAUST has a startup rate that matches top U.S. universities, which is a strong performance indicator. It has seen its disclosure rate double during the last fiscal year, which is significantly higher than benchmarks from the Association of University Technology Managers. Academically, KAUST citations in materials science and energy publications match top U.S. and European academic institutions. It was also listed as one of the top institutions in the Middle East region by Nature Index for high-quality science.

Celebrating Commercialization and Entrepreneurship

“KAUST commercializes research through its strategically connected innovation and economic development programs,” says Mark Crowell, KAUST’s Vice President of Innovation and Economic Development.  “This ecosystem accelerates both early stage and market ready technologies and provides our partners with a gateway for strategic growth,” adds Crowell.

For example, a variety of entrepreneurship and accelerator programs are offered at the University’s Entrepreneurship Center. KAUST also has state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor facilities.  Innovators can use the University’s Proof of Concept Funding Program to accelerate and commercialize their startups.

The KAUST Research and Technology Park is an integral part of the campus.  It provides an environment for technology-based businesses to access the University’s laboratories, technology development facilities, and faculty and student talent. Several KAUST startups have now grown to a point of leasing space within the Park. 

In addition, KAUST’s Industry Collaboration Program or ‘KICP’ provides members with exclusive access to the University’s research, emerging technologies and thriving network of fellow industry partners to collaborate with.  Partners come from a variety of important sectors and include Saudi Aramco, SABIC, Boeing, Dow and many others.

Providing Funding for Technology-based Startups

The University is also committed to developing startups through a variety of funding options.

KAUST’s Innovation Fund and the newly-established Beacon Fund invest in high-profile international technology companies willing to establish their operations in Saudi Arabia and benefit from KAUST’s research activities. The Fund is one of the very few players in Saudi Arabia making venture capital investments in technology-based startups from seed to early-stage.

In November 2015, KAUST hosted a Tech Tour regional event for leading venture capitalists, high-tech entrepreneurs and industry and government influencers. Over the course of three days, 50 teams, including several KAUST startups, pitched to an audience of over 100 investors from Saudi Arabia, the region and the world.  To continue developing this ecosystem, a similar Arabian Venture Forum event will also be held in late 2016.

All of these startup efforts and KAUST’s wider innovation ecosystem are starting to get recognized.  In October 2015, KAUST received a ‘High Impact Incubator’ award from UBI Global for startup incubation activities in the Kingdom. A number of KAUST-related startups were listed as top 100 innovative startups at a Forbes Middle East Event in Riyadh, including three in the top 10.  In addition, two KAUST entrepreneurs were recently recognized as “Innovators Under 35” at the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition.

In an era when many institutions worldwide have limited funds or limited ambition, KAUST’s innovation ecosystem allows innovators to collaborate, innovate, thrive and do some bold experimenting.

By establishing a presence at KAUST’s Research and Technology Park, startups and SMEs have direct access the University’s industry partners, laboratories, technology development facilities, and faculty and student talent.

It is an ‘innovation playhouse’ designed for creative collision and knowledge-sharing.