By Courtney Trenwith
Courtney Trenwith examines how Qatar’s dedicated research and idea development centre is helping to support dozens of entrepreneurs, as well as big name international firms
You have an idea, something that you believe could significantly impact society.
Perhaps it could improve solar power, change the way medicine is delivered or make transport faster. Or maybe it is a mobile phone app certain to go viral or a brand new technological invention.
But how do you advance it? Where do you go next?
That is where science and technology parks (STPs) come in, and in an increasing way in the Gulf. Qatar recently hosted the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (IASP) world conference, where it highlighted its role as a technology development catalyst.
In a region where youth account for about half of the population, innovation and entrepreneurship are being treated as key to preventing an impending employment crisis.
“The bi-product of innovation and entrepreneurship is job creation,” Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) managing director Hamad Al Kuwari says.
“When you have innovators, you’re creating companies, companies need people and that’s jobs that will be created through that cycle. In addition, there is a commitment of the country to go into a knowledge based economy, rather than just depending on the land and resources. Natural resources will always be there but we need to be thinking about the future generations and how to concentrate on technology based entities.
“One of the challenges is … we’re limited with human capacity. But it’s not only Qataris, we have a lot of people living in Qatar that have made it their home for a long time and they can also be a part of this innovation eco-system.”
Established in 2007, the QSTP has grand own to include 40 tenants including international names General Electric, Exxon and Microsoft, as well as a number of start-ups. At almost full capacity, the park is expanding with two more buildings.
QSTP has been involved in numerous significant projects across the fields of energy, the environment, health sciences and information communication and technology.
It has helped advance breast cancer screening, in collaboration with GE Healthcare and is home to the country’s first large-scale Solar Test Facility, launched in 2010 to test emerging solar technologies from around the world to identify those best suited to the Gulf climate.
“It’s essential for Qatar because everyone talks about how we have plenty of sun and we’re not harvesting the sun, but no one is talking about do we have the right sun? Is it too hot? Is it too humid? Is dust an issue? Especially when combined with humidity,” Al Kuwari says, explaining the importance of the project.
Small local technology companies also have joined the QSTP to work on ideas including tools to analyse Twitter in Arabic and computer systems to make organising endurance horse racing competitions more efficient.
QSTP is following in the footsteps of renowned science and technology incubators Silicon Valley and Bangalore in India, which are each now home to tens of thousands of employees, as well as well-established STPs in Russia, Canada and elsewhere in the US.
“Silicon Valley or Bangalore or MIT (Massachusets Institute of Technology) clusters they’ve been there for years, so for us it’s very important to learn from those different experiences, however localise them to our needs,” Al Kuwari says.
“What works somewhere else may or may not work in this region. The drivers are different. The driver here in Qatar is a vision [for] no unemployment, for example.
“However, we are in competition as well with many industries who are trying to attract talent.”
QSTP also faces a challenge from other Gulf cities embarking on the same journey to diversify their economies and create jobs for citizens.
In October, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, launched a strategy to make the country one of the world’s most innovative within seven years.
“I don’t see this as a competition; [we’re] complementing each other,” Al Kuwari insists. “Yes we have similar missions and visions but one of the benefits of this conference is to look at how we can synergise between us, how we can work together fulfilling each other’s vision but at the same time helping each other in different perspectives.”
Fulfilling those goals will rely on Qataris taking an interest in innovation and advancing their skills – and leaving public sector jobs that have for decades been a cornerstone of employment in the Gulf state.
Al Kuwari says Qatar has established several programmes to help cultivate entrepreneurship among its population.
“There is a huge interest and with the right support programmes people will see the real benefit more and more as we have [more] success stories,” he says. “The challenge is changing the culture and mentality [to understand] that failure is a positive thing and it’s not negative - it is a learning curve that people have to go through.
“Globally, 10 percent [of start-ups] make it and this is one of the things that science parks do – keep track of those companies, what happens to them after three years, five years, are they still in the market or not. [But it’s] essential to look at what else we can do [rather than give up].”
But with so many technology entrepreneurs having made it on their own, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Dean Kamen, whose self-balancing, electric-powered Segway Human Transporter was described by Steve Jobs as having society-revolutionising potential, and James Dyson, who invented the fastest selling vacuum cleaner in UK history, why would someone take their great idea to a STP?
“One answer – being part of the cluster, learning from others and benefitting from what’s available,” Al Kuwari says.