Companies, universities and governments need to be innovative if they are to remain globally competitive. This message underpins King Abdullah University of Science & Technology’s (Kaust’s) industrial collaboration programme, which closely links academia with business as part of a wider government effort to develop a knowledge-driven economy in Saudi Arabia.

The programme lies at the heart of Kaust’s vision for engaging the private sector and will, in theory, convert discoveries into prac-tical applications.

The programme works with a variety of partners – industries, individuals, foundations, private associations and governments – that share a common interest in translating scientific achievements and ideas into economic growth and job creation.

“Saudi Arabia has room to transform from a consumer-based economy to a technology or innovation-based economy,” says Raed Bkayrat, manager of the programme. “Job creation is the bottom line and our method of boosting job creation is by developing home-grown technology businesses.”

Under the umbrella of industrial collaboration, there are multiple programmes, but this is the main one, says Bkayrat. “It is all about strategy, communication and business development. It links Kaust to the larger picture – to the big regional and international companies.”

Key facts

17 – Number of founding members of the Kaust industrial collaboration programme

$20,000 – Cost of entry-level membership to Kaust’s industrial collaboration programme

$100,000 – Annual fee required to become a founding member of the programme

Source: MEED

The industrial collaboration programme has two mutually supportive functions. First, it provides opportunities for collaboration between the university, its academic partners and those in industry to further the economic development of the kingdom and neighbouring countries. Second, companies can provide feedback to the university, helping the faculty and students in their research.

The programme is designed and managed both centrally and at the level of each Kaust research centre to maximise the chances of effective industrial collaboration with partners, and aims to do four things: to link Kaust’s research and development with industrial partners on a global and regional scale; to introduce, demonstrate and test new technology pilot projects; to develop collaborative business opportunities with global companies with interests in Saudi Arabia and the region; and to create jobs through the development of a viable technology-based economy in Saudi Arabia and the region.

With 17 founding corporate members and two supporting members signed up in three months, from international blue-chip companies such as the US’ Dow Chemical Company and IBM, through to significant local companies such as automobiles-to-consumer financing group Abdul Latif Jameel, the programme is off to a good start.

Its early success reflects the core appeal of the programme’s vision, as outlined by Charles -Kingdon, director of Kaust’s research park and industry collaboration division. “I wanted to come up with a structure of collaboration that would reflect the complexity of Kaust, with its virtual university outside the campus, while recognising that, if it is to successfully engage with industry, it must be very responsive and customer-oriented,” he says.

The result is a two-tier process. Tier one membership allows access to and awareness of all Kaust research, seminars, events, networking events and conference information. Tier two membership means being part of the centre industrial affiliates programme, which focuses on building the relationship between individual research centres and industry.

Two-tier membership

“The two tiers are parallel components,” says Kingdon. “Kaust industrial collaboration programme membership fulfils the business role of members; centre industrial affiliates programme membership has more to do with the research.”

The collaboration provides an opportunity for corporate members to steer Kaust towards areas where they believe future research would be important. An advisory board of 17 corporate members brings the industrial collaboration programme members together within a formal framework. Research involving industry can create conflicts of interest that have to be managed by centre liaison officers through the conflict of interest committee. Similarly, all matters relating to intellectual property are managed by the liaison officers, working with the university’s technology transfer office.

The incentive for corporate businesses to join the programme is clear. “Companies want to connect,” says Denis Gauvreau, commercial manager of the research park and industry collaboration division. “This is a graduate-only engineering school and it is fairly impressive in terms of its platforms, its core labs and the choices it has made for its thematic research centres. These are all connected to economic development concerns, and companies want to be connected to that pipeline of information.”

The industrial collaboration programme’s founding membership provides access and an overview of the research work being executed on the main campus in Thuwal, as well as through the significant global collaborative research network, a seat on the Kaust industry advisory board, and strategic access to Kaust’s start-ups and seed-funding programme.

Preferential access to the best graduate scientists and engineers is a big draw for companies. But it is not just the prospect of tapping a significant local talent pool that is attracting the attention of blue chips, they also want to connect with the scientists and research and development leaders working at Kaust.

“It is very important for those companies to know they have access to a pool of good students, selected on the basis of stringent criteria, who are going through a stringent master’s or PhD course and who might one day become employees of those companies,” says Gauvreau.

Kaust did not have to mount a huge marketing operation to lure in the 17 companies that have so far signed up. “Many of them came to us as they saw it complemented their needs – they all have big investments in the region,” says Bkayrat.

Regional start-ups

The collaboration programme could provide the trigger for a new breed of innovative, regional start-up company. “We are already looking into half a dozen serious start-up proposals from faculty,” says Gauvreau. “These are either spin-offs or spin-ins – something they have started or ideas they want to develop. It is very much part of our job. We are here to attract large companies but also to promote and help spin-ins, spin-offs and start-ups come together.”

With different levels of membership, the industrial collaboration programme is not just geared to the interests of the largest companies. Entry-level membership, aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises, costs just $20,000 a year. “The idea of the programme is to strengthen or expand market position for these companies, to help them access technology and connect with the right partners,” says Bkayrat. “So at the founding member level, we are really just expanding their business. They can see the benefits in contributing to venture capital funds and start-up projects.”

The collaboration programme could evolve in several different ways, as corporate awareness increases and membership expands beyond its core base. “We hope industry will engage actively with our researchers and sponsor research,” says Kingdon. “We see them [industrial companies] getting involved in internship programmes and mentoring, and we hope to engage them in helping to start companies. We have a seed fund to do that.”

A second phase, yet to be realised, could take start-up companies the next step up the ladder. “When we have formed and seeded them, there will be a need for a next level of funding,” says Kingdon. “We need to be thinking about who is going to be supplying that.”

The industrial collaboration programme

The Kaust industrial collaboration programme seeks to engage key partners from industry, individuals, foundations, private associations, government departments, and organisations with a keen interest in the translation of knowledge into economic growth and job creation.

Within the programme, there are three categories of membership: founder, the highest category, requires an annual contribution of $100,000; supporter, the second category, requires an annual contribution of $50,000; and the third category, small business, charges members $20,000 a year.

Membership of the programme may begin at any time in the year, and the membership level is determined by a collaborator’s total contribution to the university.

The industrial collaboration programme office will be staffed by a manager and assistant appointed by the research park and industrial collaboration director. A centre liaison officer will report both to the programme manager and to each appointed centre director.

Proceeds from the collaboration programme will be used to fund Kaust -research, and will be distributed at the discretion of Kaust’s senior academic administrator, the provost.

Each centre will derive advice, guidance and support from Kaust’s industrial advisory board, which meets regularly to receive progress reports on the programme.