Nature Biotechnology | Trade Secrets

Entrepreneurship and the Middle East

In my last post, I elaborated extensively on the demographic and unique cultural behavior that, in my opinion, makes the Middle East (ME) a fertile ground for novel biology-related discoveries.

I will now critically discuss the steps taken by local governments and related agencies in capitalizing on this immense and ‘hidden’ resource.

Oil and its derivatives have contributed greatly in the development of the ME. This fact is true for oil-producing countries or other countries of the ME and beyond, whose populations enjoyed the prosperity bestowed from the black gold. However, time waits for no one, and oil-producing countries have not capitalized on their huge resources as yet. A recent UNESCO report stated this deficiency loud and clear.

Let us look at what is available in the ME:

Virtually, all ME countries have universities and these institutes have been key in producing graduates. In Kuwait, for example, biotechnology and science-related graduates have been struggling to find suitable placements. I am not surprised, given the scarcity of biotech-related industries. It is personally disheartening to see a graduate in genetics employed in a bank, but this is not unusual these days, given the dissociation between ‘wishing to be’ and actual availability of biotechnology-related jobs. My personal experiences and observations are that ME-based universities are more concerned with generating graduates than with enhancing and encouraging entrepreneurship, which is looked at as a luxury and not a necessity for local economies. Nevertheless, people are trying against all odds to rectify this situation, though the pace has been too slow to have any impact.

In Kuwait, his Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah highlighted the importance of investing in human capital and promoting the culture of innovation by establishing a center: Sabah Al-Ahmad Center for Giftedness and Creativity (established May 2010). The goal is to sponsor talented/gifted and creative people in hopes of generating transformational effects across the community, which engenders social, economic and cultural development. The Center is headed by an ambitious, well-informed director, Dr. Omar Al-Banai, who also recognizes the importance of linking the University Technology Transfer Office to the development of patents and marketing.

In Qatar, the situation is rather mixed. There, research and development focus on foreign recruitments and some local input. The Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) is the national agency charged with executing applied research and delivering commercialized technologies in four themed areas: energy, environment, health sciences, and information and communication technologies. QSTP is located in Qatar Foundation’s Education City and has access to the resources in leading research universities. In addition to QSTP’s centres, members include small companies, international corporations and research institutions, which have together committed to funding new ventures, creating intellectual property, enhancing technology management skills and developing innovative new products in line with the national vision. QSTP supports economic and human development in Qatar and has achieved recognition as an international hub for applied research, innovation and entrepreneurship. QSTP has ongoing projects in these four pillars.

In Dubai, the most ambitious of the United Arab Emirate states, the drive has been largely fueled by attracting foreign companies. The Dubai Biotechnology & Research Park is propagated as the major life sciences cluster in the ME. It is located in Free Zone that provides the ultimate platform for life sciences companies to set up operations and access the fast growing and emerging markets of the region.

To date, over 75 life sciences companies operate from the park, including Genzyme, Amgen, Pfizer, Merck-Serono, Maquet, National Reference Lab oratory and Firmenich. However, how these commercial entities integrate into local bio-entrepreneurship and most importantly the universities is rather unclear, at least to me.

During the last Human Genome Organization meeting held in Dubai, 14-17 of March, I had the great privilege of meeting the National Reference Laboratory representative, and we exchanged ideas. I was surprised to learn that the lab plans to export samples to the West for diagnosis. To me this action works against the local entrepreneurial spirit. The ME has suffered enough from the ‘Brain drain’ and the unique patients and samples drain. Let me just remind you of my first post on this blog where I have discussed the importance of our unique population in bio-discovery and the bioentrepreneurship processes.

Generally, I believe that there is a lack of understanding of the bioentrepreneurship ideology in the ME. Entrepreneurship must depend on local manpower, universities and research centers with the encouragement of outside contribution, support and partnerships. These efforts require more than 0.1-1% of GDP currently spent on research and development.

Ultimately we need to look forward and offer viable solutions to the future generations. A revolution in research and development is needed and urgently.

I am looking forward to hearing your opinions on the points raised here. Why has it taken us so long to develop a proper research and development program in the ME? Why has the Western investment in the ME been so limited? Surely, such investment may be of benefit to all humanity.

Fahd Al-Mulla

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Said Dermime said:

    Dear Fahd,

    I have made comments to a subject similar to yours in Nature Blogs Middle East. Please see this link below:

    /houseofwisdom/2011/07/why_we_need_more_collaborative.html#comments

    "A very important question related to this subject is whether the decision makers in the Arab world believe in science and technology as a major part of their national security.

    The very low budget spent on research and development by most Arab countries () will clearly answer this question.

    Indeed, there is still a large gap between Arab countries and the international community in scientific research spending. According to the Jordanian newspaper al-Majd, spending on scientific research in all Arab countries did not exceed 0.5% of GDP in 1992, which is a small percentage compared to those in Sweden and France, where it reached 2.9% and 2.7% of GDP, respectively.

    In 1999, the percentage of GDP expenditures on scientific research was 0.4% in Egypt, 0.33% in Jordan, 0.2% in Morocco, and 0.1% in each of Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The 2004 UNESCO data indicates that Arab countries combined allocated $1.7 billion for scientific research, a rate which is equivalent to 0.3% of their GDP.

    The government sector finances about 80% of the total funding dedicated for research and development in the Arab countries, compared with 3% by the private sector and 8% from different sources. This is in contrast to developed countries and Israel, where the share of the private sector finances 70% in Japan and 52% in Israel, the United States and other nations.

    This demonstrates the lack of private investment in the development process in the Arab world.

    Another important element is the Absence of a Clear Strategy for Scientific Research in the Arab world. Most Arab countries lack a well designed scientific and technological policy. So far, there is no informatics industry in the Arab world, and there are no special funds to finance research and development. This is in addition to the bureaucracy, the administrative and organizational problems, and the neglect of ongoing training.

    There is no doubt that many Arab countries have all the human resources and academic capabilities to advance in this field, provided that they adopt a clear strategy for scientific research, allocate a reasonable percentage of their national income on scientific research, and that the expenditures be specifically directed towards applied research.

    The low level of financial support for scientific research has meant that researchers have utilized 31% of their working time.

    Moreover, there is poor or a lack of relationship between industry and business on one hand, and academic and non-academic research institutions on the other hand, which further exacerbates the problem.

    Reference (Scientific Research in Arab Countries – Facts and Figures, by Dr. Imad Alaw: http://memrieconomicblog.org/bin/content.cgi?article=91)"

  2. Report this comment

    Philippe Youkharibache said:

    Dear Fahd,

    Your post (as well as the previous one) raises multiple issues.  I do not think one can answer all dimensions of the problem raised in a comment.  Also maybe one should distinguish various parts of the Middle East in addressing the issues. It seems that you refer mostly to the Oil-Rich countries who have the financial means to allocate funds to research.

    I’ll just make a few quick comments

    – Clearly the investment in R&D between 0.1-1% is way under the minimum in western countries which runs more in the 2-3%, with 3% seen as a target.

    – The other type of capital that you mentioned: the Intellectual capital.  If I read you correctly you have enough graduates to fuel R&D in say startups.

    – You even have Government organizations, especially in some Gulf states, that can foster incubation

    What sounds like missing – and it is only more pronounced than in many countries – is an entrepreneurial culture based on R&D, which can be seen through the level of private funding for R&D.  This is missing in many countries, and the US certainly is te place where the concept has been declined in so many ways successfully.  You mention Israel, who also so successfully applies that model.

    The culture is what has to develop.  I rarely met business people in the Middle East that would even consider a high tech venture making any business sense.  The common sense is that you have to make a profit quickly: you have goods and can sell them for a profit.  The "Souk" (or "Bazaar" in other parts of the ME ;-)) is the model.  This is so different from Venture Capital, and high risk-reward ventures. This is something beyond a different world, it is a different galaxy! 

    The analogy that is used is usually the "Gold Rush" mentality … knowing that very few seeking Gold did make it, yet a whole industry was built around, developing and selling Gold Mining equipment …  Your analogy with Black Gold (Oil) leading to the development of technologies and an industry … yet most Oil Rich countries have just been selling the oil, while others have developed the technology. Who developed an entrepreneurial culture in the process?

    I see many countries developing "clusters" to foster development of that very culture … Probably that is one direction to take.  Yet maybe if you want to rely more on a local Culture and History to develop your own path, you could rely on a purely scientific and philanthropic approach (that can only be for rich people and rich countries of course), and with time spin-offs would occur.

    A third approach – in your area of research – is to link R&D, innovation, and medicine, based on your "unique human genetic resources" and also on the amazingly "unique disease issues" – unique in its scope – say for diabetes – yet with a global health market.  In that sense you could think about a disease not as a curse, but as an opportunity and build a rush mentality in looking for a cure … This is what the (health related) biotech industry is all about.

    A last comment is on human resources (intellectual capital) for R&D as well as finance, management, etc. .  If you go to any startup in the US, is is very cosmopolitan.  In Israel also, looking at individual’s backgrounds …  This may also be a dimension to consider in developing an entrepreneurial culture.  That may well be a highly underestimated point by many countries …  In other words diversity may be also have to be at the core. 

    Also, and that is a must for any achievement, Passion – like yours – must be at the heart of any enterprise.  It is an essential element of the culture we are talking about.  It is also part of any human culture.  It just need to be ignited.

    Finally, I would also warn not confusing R&D and innovation, especially innovation with business development potential.  I am sure many people can comment on that.

    Good luck in your endeavor!

    Philippe

  3. Report this comment

    Salah Al-Humood said:

    Dear Fahd,

    In my view, this is a complicated issue. Although some ME countries are trying to build its infrastructure for research and development, I believe ME countries are still way behind in this field. As long as this task is being handled by governments, I think we are not going to see a significant progress in this matter. It is crucial that a partnership develops between private sector, through the involvement of companies, and non-profit international corporations and research institutions. Apparently governments of ME countries are not yet convinced that investing in research and development should be one of its priorities; and until this is realized the future of research and development will be unclear. Furthermore, scientists in ME countries don’t view themselves, or at least, are not encouraged to view themselves as important part in the equation of development. They do what they do as part of their job e.g. academic staff members in universities who are expected to perform research for their promotion. In the absence true research institutions, I believe that the progress in this matter will be very slow.

    Salah Al-Humood

  4. Report this comment

    Ghazi Omar Tadmouri said:

    Dear Dr. Al-Mulla,

    Please allow me to hint to some points that may need some highlighting in future blogs:

    1. Saudi Arabia as one of the largest science incubators in the region.

    2. The flux of back emigrants of Arabic origin who are establishing themselves in the region in academia or research.  These individuals carry two strong qualifications: rich scientific backgrounds and networking capabilities with the west.

    3. The fragmented collaborative networks among geneticists in the region, despite the fact that genetics is considered to be a collaborative science.

     

    Ghazi Tadmouri

  5. Report this comment

    Fahd Al-Mulla said:

     

    Dear Said,

    Thank you for taking the time and making the effort in commenting on my Blog. Communicating with you and my colleagues has always been a great pleasure of mine. I agree with your statements and posts. We are all on the same boat I think. In reality, we, and our Governments all know what the problem is and where it resides. However, the major bottle-neck has been reaching/convincing the Policymakers in taking necessary actions to implement bold steps to reform our Universities, education and economy. I never understood why we can’t reach the Policymakers but then I hypothesized that may be they don’t exist! Or if they do, they have their own agenda!  I ask you how many times did we hear from our Governments on the importance of education? The example you gave based on "Baitulhikma" or translated as "The House of Wisdom" is a clear example of how our ancestors understood and implemented the mechanisms of advancing their people and economies. The House of Wisdom main driver was the appointment of great scientists to drive the ruler’s policy. Therefore, Policymakers were armed with Knowledge and the will to change for the betterment of their people. Today, how many scientists are appointed to advise Policymakers? And why are they marginalized? This, in my opinion, is the problem. The Darwinian consequences to Governmental ignorance are clear and we are all witnessing them now in the Arab-Spring.

     

  6. Report this comment

    Fahd Al-Mulla said:

    Dear Ghazi,

    I think these are important points you have raised and I truly do not expect anything less from you. I thank you for your comments and I do hope to address them in the near future.

    The Saudi situation is rather interesting to us all. I ignored it in my post because the situation in Saudi Arabia is less clear to me and I wanted to be fair to them and our readers. Let me explain. There is no doubt in my mind that Saudi has recently invested hugely in establishing new Universities and Scientific parks. King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is a prime example. Clearly, the Biotechnology Business Program with its innovation and technology transfer focuses is inspiring to me http://www.kaust.edu.sa/economic_development/economic_development.html

    Their model of attracting top notch scientists is also inspiring and entertains our calls for international scientific collaboration necessary for Human development. Recently, I searched the ISI Highly-Cited database, which enlists the most influential scientists and scholars worldwide http://isihighlycited.com/ There was no single such individual from or working in any Arab University except Saudi Arabia (KAUST). We have to give them the credit for recruiting these individuals and hope they can start propagating their knowledge and know-how. I do hope this drive continues and that it is not a mere spike on the long road to development.

    Fahd

  7. Report this comment

    Fahd Al-Mulla said:

    Where are all the people who want to improve the status of research in the Arab countries? Why don’t they comment. I guess as a lot of Arab Citizens Tired, fed-up and think this move will not help! Of couse it can be right but we need to push, we need to say, we need to explore and we need to work. Silence is not an option.

    Please write your opinion down and your comments.

    Fahd Al-Mulla