From the outset, Kaust’s founders saw the need to bring in major corporates to add credibility to the university’s research facilities. Some 17 companies have signed up as Kaust industrial collaboration programme members, representing a mixture of state-owned entities and private sector groups from countries including Saudi Arabia, the US and Germany.

“We wanted a mix and I think we have that mix,” says Raed Bkayrat, manager of the programme. “We now want to recruit more companies that are strategically diversified to complement the elite club.”

Key facts

5 – Number of countries involved in the Kaust industrial partnership programme

12 months – Estimated completion time for the Dow Middle East research centre at Kaust

3 – Number of levels of membership offered to Kaust’s corporate partners

Source: MEED

Bkayrat says companies that have joined the collaboration programme have an opportunity to join pilot project initiatives that have the potential to become a commercial success, and privileged access to information about the Kaust seed fund grant programme. 

Issues surrounding intellectual property are an obvious priority for corporate members, who want to gain rights to promising pilot projects at an early stage. Kaust pursues an industry-friendly intellectual property strategy, says Bkayrat.

“The level of openness depends on the benefit this operation or transaction would bring to the region, and to Saudi Arabia,” he says. “We may be able to grant intellectual property rights if this leads to the establishment of a manufacturing or technology business in the kingdom – for example, if [Germany’s] Siemens is interested in a process we at Kaust have developed, it may decide to implement a manufacturing operation based on that process in Saudi Arabia.

“There is then the potential that we can give them the rights to that licence, as that is exactly what we are after – economic development in the kingdom.”

“We may be able to grant intellectual property rights if it leads to the establishment of a business”

Raed Bkayrat, industrial collaboration programme

The Kaust industrial advisory group, made up of senior executives, one from each founding company, helps the university align academic and research interests with long-term industry needs by ensuring the university’s research is applied practically within industry, so the institution is directly contributing to the kingdom’s goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy.

Case study: Acxiom Corporation

Global marketing services group Acxiom Corporation became a founding member of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology’s  (Kaust’s) industrial collaboration programme.

Membership of the programme will grant Acxiom’s Middle East and North Africa (Mena) division – whose regional corporate headquarters is in Jeddah – access to the university’s global collaborative research network, as well as a seat on the Kaust industry advisory board and strategic access to Kaust’s start-ups and seed funding programme. Seed money is typically used to pay for the preliminary operations of a new company, such as market research and product development.

US-based Acxiom is a relative newcomer to Saudi Arabia, having acquired Direct Marketing Services (DMS), a pioneer in the development of the Middle East’s direct mail industry and now a full-service direct marketing agency in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in September this year. 

The relationship with Kaust fits neatly with Acxiom’s regional marketing strategy, as the company prepares to expand its presence in the Arab world via its DMS acquisition.

Joining the collaboration programme will help Acxiom achieve its strategic aims. “It is a strategic decision that will allow us to fortify our position in the market, and across the Mena region,” says Yousef Hamidaddin, Acxiom’s Mena chief executive officer. “The Kaust industrial collaboration programme will contribute to our regional strategy, and Saudi Arabia is our platform to deliver our solutions across Mena, and the global Islamic market.”

Economic benefits

But there is more to Acxiom’s decision than bolstering its market presence. “It is also our adopted direction to align ourselves with the economic development of Saudi Arabia,” says Hamidaddin.

Hamidaddin says co-operation with Kaust will provide material benefit to the company’s operations. “We are the global market leader with regard to data management and database marketing, and as such there are specific requirements to the region of Mena that are unique,” he says. “We look forward to working together on common initiatives with the Kaust visualisation centre, and also that of computing sciences, and applied mathematics, to create an edge [in data management].”

These applications have a direct relevance to Acxiom’s regional ambition to tap a massive, young Arabic-speaking audience of an estimated 300 million people. 

“The research we are engaged in will give us the capacity to manage and handle Arabic as a language within the solutions we provide,” says Hamidaddin. “It is evident that the level of technical investment in optical character recognition in the Arabic script is not as advanced in comparison with that of other languages.”

The company is keen to invest in Kaust.

“Kaust represents a highly developed skill set,” says Hamidaddin. “Through our internship programmes and campus work, we expect to see great skills join our organisation.”

The company is also keen to recruit and retain local talent, and contribute to research and development in the kingdom. It sees Kaust as a great source of talent and one that is inviting for many Saudis who have graduated from high-end research institutions in the US such as Columbia, Stanford and MIT.

“We see Kaust an excellent incubator for talent,” says Hamidaddin. “We want to have the capacity to host these people locally, to see them join our organisation and to engage in a cycle of research and development that can deliver against our expectations.

The Acxiom-Kaust collaboration will seek to address a long list of priorities, requiring careful negotiation.

“We have to balance between the requirements of delivering the vision of Kaust to develop the Saudi economy, and those of corporate needs,” says Hamidaddin. “As a Saudi, I believe the delivery of the bigger picture reaps greater benefits, and creates greater value, and therefore an exponential return on investment.”

Building links with business

The Kaust campus, located just 80 kilometres from Jeddah, has quickly tapped into the Western province’s long-standing entrepreneurial business traditions. Two key family conglomerates, Abdul Latif Jameel and Xenel – the Alireza family enterprise – joined the Kaust industrial collaboration programme, and the Jeddah-based diversified business group Midroc is also a founder member.

Abdul Lateef Jameel, which has diversified interests in the automotive sector, advertising and financing, was the first Saudi member of the programme. Xenel, a multinational diversified holding company, became a supporting member and plans to enter into a strategic relationship with Kaust to collaborate more closely on research and development.

Midroc, which is involved in several areas of business globally, including oil, construction, industry, agriculture, mining, trade, and services and real estate, became a founding member. According to general Abdullah al-Amoudi, director of Midroc, speaking at the Kaust inauguration in September, the company plans to play an active role in strengthening the strategic relationship between the business and academic sectors, as part of its continuous effort to participate in the kingdom’s economic development.

Alongside the other major Saudi members of the programme, which also include Saudi Aramco, Acwa Power and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, are some major international blue chips active in the region: Boeing, Dow Chemical, IBM, GE, all of the US, Japan’s JGC, and Germany’s LyondellBasell.

US-headquartered Schlumberger, the global oil services giant, had already signalled its interest in establishing Saudi Arabia as a major centre for innovation with the opening in 2009 of its reservoir completions manufacturing centre at Dammam Industrial City in the Eastern Province.

Knowledge exchange

Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical Company’s part-icipation in the programme will focus on the exchange of technical experience and scientific knowledge, Kiyohiko Nakae, director and senior executive managing officer of the company, said at the Kaust inauguration. 

Some companies’ links with Kaust go back nearly two years. In January 2008, Kaust signed a memorandum of understanding with the US’ GE, the university’s first private sector alliance. The partners agreed to explore collaboration opportunities in several areas, including design, construction and initial operation of Kaust’s research centres and laboratory facilities, collaborative research programmes, the exchange of scientific, technical and administrative staff.

Kaust and GE will explore research opportunities related to crude oil treatment and processing, and combustion-fuel flexibility. Other principal areas of research being explored include carbon dioxide emissions reduction and sequestration technologies, integrated gasification, geological data processing and visualisation, renewable energy and environmental technologies, oil and gas technologies such as multi-phase pumping, and water desalination and treatment technologies.

“Alongside the Saudi members of the programme are some major international blue chips”

Dow Chemical’s strategic relationship with Kaust will initially focus on using catalysts as a means to develop new ways to produce chemical derivatives. In September this year, the two partners announced plans to build on their partnership by establishing the Dow Middle East research and development centre at the University’s research park and innovation cluster. The proposed state-of-the-art centre, to be jointly designed by the partners, is expected to be mostly finished by the end of 2010.

Initial research at the Dow Middle East research and development centre at Kaust will focus on water and water treatment technologies, eventually expanding its scope to oil and gas, processes research and development, and infrastructure materials. All of these activities are aligned with existing Kaust research centres.

The centre will also financially and intellectually support programmes and initiatives including funding students’ thesis research, as well as the Dow talent programme to develop and train Saudi talent.

“By establishing the Dow Middle East research and development centre at Kaust, Dow has taken the lead among a group of distinguished multinational companies to partner with the leading representation of King Abdullah’s vision for Kaust,” said Andrew Liveris, chairman and chief executive officer of Dow Chemical, on 23 September, when plans to build the Dow centre were announced.