The final piece of the jigsaw in Qatar

05 June 2009

The opening of the Qatar Science & Technology Park in March was the key element in the Qatar Foundation’s plan to create a research hub.

The co-location of Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) and Education City is a key element of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development’s strategy to establish Qatar as a regional research hub.

The foundation’s aim is that graduates from the universities in Education City will be able to continue their career in the research laboratories of QSTP. It is here also that the foundation will seek to develop and commercialise any technological invention resulting from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) funding (see feature, page 21).

The Qatar Foundation’s vision is for QSTP to become an international hub for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, which will drive forward the development of its knowledge-based economy.

To kick-start that process, in 2003 it began sounding out international, technology-rich companies already present in Qatar to ascertain their interest in setting up research and development offices in the country. After receiving firm commitments from several key companies, the foundation began construction of the science and technology park’s first buildings.

By the time QSTP was inaugurated in March this year, 21 international companies had signed up to conduct research projects of common interest to themselves and Qatar for either five, six or 10 years. QSTP is a free trade zone, meaning businesses based there can trade without a local agent and are free from tax and duties. In return, the companies have to make technology development their main activity. This can include applied research, the development and testing of new products or services, as well as training and learning. The nature of the projects has to be agreed with QSTP before work can commence, however.

The first tenant to move in, in April 2008, was Shell, the UK/Dutch oil company that is building the Pearl, the world’s largest gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant in Qatar. The company has committed to investing $100m over 10 years in research projects at QSTP.

For now, most of the research work it is undertaking is linked to its existing oil and gas projects in Qatar. Shell is testing and developing GTL catalysts at QSTP, including the catalyst that will be used in the Pearl project. The firm is also investigating new commercial applications for sulphur, which will be a high-volume by-product from the GTL plant.

One application being studied is the use of sulphur as a substitute for cement in concrete or a replacement for some of the bitumen in asphalt. Shell has already developed the technology to make these products, but it is now testing them in Qatar.

International partners

“We are getting to a stage where we want to commercialise it and develop a plant where we can produce it in large volumes, quite possibly in Qatar,” says Andy Brown, country manager, Shell Qatar. “The aim is to create demand for sulphur so we can continue to move the sulphur we produce.” 

Among Shell’s other activities at QSTP is a joint project with partners including state energy giant Qatar Petroleum and national carrier Qatar Airways, UK engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and European aviation consortium Airbus to study the benefits of synthetic jet fuel with the aim of getting GTL kerosene certified for aviation use. GTL kerosene will be part of the product slate of Shell’s Pearl project.

“QSTP is a platform for us to do technology work,” says Brown. “We are not developing fundamental technology at the moment, but we are bringing work here and applying technology to things we can take and commercialise in Qatar.”

Shell already has about 35 staff working at QSTP.

The research focus of the park covers three main areas: energy and environment, health sciences, and information and communication technology. The QSTP leadership have been actively trying to build partnerships with companies in each of these fields.

“In energy and environment, we already have a number of industrial partners we can easily work with, but we are at a much earlier stage of development in health sciences,” says Eulian Roberts, managing director of QSTP.

Nonetheless, the science park is succeeding in attracting healthcare companies to conduct research. The UK’s Virgin Health Bank is setting up an umbilical cord-blood stem cell bank, while Germany-based Scientific Medical Applied Research & Development (Smard) will be developing diagnostic tools and treatments for chronic diseases, including diabetes.

On the IT front, QSTP has managed to draw in leading names such as the US’ Microsoft and Cisco to set up research and development operations in Doha. Cisco has pledged to invest $40m over three years to develop collaborative IT networks at QSTP for the healthcare, education, tourism and real estate sectors.

Much of the research conducted by heavy industrial companies at QSTP will be concerned with studying and mitigating the effects of their activities in Qatar and improving safety techniques. Norway’s Hydro, which is currently building the world’s largest aluminium smelter in Qatar, has pledged to invest $7m at QSTP over the next three years to look for ways to improve safety and maximise productivity at the plant.

The US’ ExxonMobil Corporation, meanwhile, is focusing on environmental management, assessing the impact of industrial activity on the marine environment. It has already carried out extensive analysis of the impact of chlorination by-products from cooling water discharges at the Ras Laffan industrial complex on marine life, concluding that there is no adverse effect. ExxonMobil is also working to develop automated remote gas-detection technologies to identify emissions at liquefied natural gas production and transportation facilities. The firm signed a commitment for six years with QSTP and plans to invest about $25m in research projects.

“Our effort here is modest if you try to measure it in terms of people or dollars, but it is very much focused on issues potentially arising from our industrial activity,” says Stephen Cassiani, president, ExxonMobil upstream research.

The company inaugurated its office at QSTP on 6 May and currently has four researchers working there. Three were brought over from Houston and one was hired locally. In total, it expects to have 10-12 staff stationed at QSTP.

In addition to conducting research, the companies at QSTP have to dedicate about 20 per cent of their time to offering training and technical assistance to local enterprises and universities. The idea behind this is to facilitate technology transfer. 

For example, French energy company Total recently ran its first training course at the park for Qatar Petroleum employees. The two firms are also working on a joint air-quality management initiative to measure surface ozone in Qatar and develop models to predict pollution levels. The results will be used by the Environment Ministry as the basis for new pollution control policies. “We are trying to evaluate the impact of industrial activity on ground-level ozone,” explains Olivier Dubrule, director, Total Research Centre Qatar. “This project is a good example of technology transfer where we are using technology from Europe and adapting it to local conditions.”

Total is also undertaking carbonate reservoir modelling of Qatar’s giant North gas field and testing new catalysts for polyolefin production at QSTP. The firm intends to invest $25m over five years in research projects at the park. Although Total only moved on to the site in April, there are already 16 permanent staff at its office including senior engineers, lab technicians, research engineers and assistants.

QSTP encourages the companies that have invested at the science and technology park to involve students from the universities in their projects whenever possible. Shell, for example, is working with students and researchers from universities in Oman and Qatar to study the Khuff gas reservoir.

QSTP also facilitates collaboration between other QSTP tenants, and with overseas academic institutions. Again, Shell is participating in a $70m, 10-year project with Qatar Petroleum, QSTP and the UK’s Imperial College London to study carbonate reservoirs and carbon capture and sequestration. Imperial College London will recruit 20 doctorate students and 20 post-doctoral researchers to work on the projects. Shell has also been in discussions with Cambridge University, also of the UK, over potential joint projects.

However, QSTP’s remit is not just to target large, multinational companies. It also aims to foster research activities and entrepreneurship in Qatar by encouraging start-up companies, existing small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and applied research centres to make a base in the science and technology park. QSTP not only offers these enterprises the financial support to commercialise their technology, but also provides them with the necessary skills to run a successful business through its corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, mentoring and investor readiness programmes.

Funding research

On the financing side, QSTP operates two funding schemes: the Proof of Concept Fund and the New Enterprise Fund. The Proof of Concept Fund gives grants of $100,000-500,000 for up to six projects a year to enable universities, research institutes and SMEs to demonstrate the technical and commercial viability of their innovations.

The fund is not exclusively for Qatari applicants; QSTP will consider any project provided the work is conducted in Qatar and the eventual start-up company is based at QSTP. The first such grant was awarded to Fuego Digital Media of Canada to demonstrate and commercialise software that allows interactive websites to be created via mobile phones. The $30m New Enterprise Fund provides capital for start-up technology companies at QSTP through equity investments ranging from $500,000 to $3m.

QSTP also makes its own investments into ‘platform technologies’ that it believes will support the academic and industrial base in Qatar. In March, it announced a $500m investment to set up a polysilicon manufacturing company. Polysilicon is the raw material used to make photovoltaic solar cells. The output from this plant will eventually go on to support endeavours at the other end of the solar supply chain, where QSTP is working with local renewable-energy business GreenGulf to study solar-to-electricity conversion methods.

GreenGulf will first run trials of photovoltaic and solar-thermal electricity generation techniques before going on to build a 500KW pilot solar plant, which will supply electricity to Education City. QSTP’s revenue share from the polysilicon plant will be channelled back into research and development work.

QSTP is also establishing a robotic surgery centre in Qatar in partnership with Imperial College London. The centre, which is due to open by the end of 2009, will include a simulation operating theatre and will be used to train 80 students and 50 surgeons from the region each year. The technology will be used at public hospitals in Qatar and the Sidra Medical & Research Centre being built at Education City.

In a third project, Qatar University and University of Sheffield have agreed to conduct initial-stage research for a plastics recycling centre that, when established, will produce materials for use in the construction industry.

QSTP is still very much in start-up mode. Companies are still in the process of moving in and setting up their laboratories, but it expects to have about 50 tenants and more than 1,600 people based at the current building within three years. Some 60 per cent of those are expected to be qualified scientists and engineers.

But that, as Roberts says, is just stage one. The masterplan for QSTP encompasses 1.23 square kilometres of land. The $600m first phase covers just 115,000 square metres, with the innovation centre and first two tenant buildings. There is plenty more room for growth, and companies can lease premises in multi-user buildings, or commission their own buildings at the park.

“It will take 15-20 years to really see the outcomes,” says Roberts. “But by then we will be looking at products developed in Qatar, launched in Qatar and intellectual property protected from here. “

The planned outcome for all the initiatives being led by QSTP is to accelerate the commercialisation of technology in Qatar and to provide employment for graduates at QSTP-affiliated companies. In the process, the initiatives will create study opportunities, drive technology transfer and foster innovation. In time, these elements will push Qatar closer to its goal of becoming a knowledge economy that is well equipped to compete in the global marketplace.

“We intend to be a home for international technology-rich organisations and an incubator of start-up knowledge-based businesses,” says Roberts. “And we want to make sure the skills that come out of the schools and academic institutions can support the development of companies at QSTP.”

QSTP has established an impressive physical building and succeeded in bringing a diverse group of companies and institutions together to develop technology and conduct research in Qatar. The tenants that have already moved in to the building are excited by the opportunities to which this could lead.

“This idea of a science and technology park with research centres from companies is completely original,” says Total’s Dubrule. “It is a gamble of course, but I think it has been quite successful already. We are only at the beginning, but now that people are starting to move in you have potential synergies that we have not even dreamed about. It is the first time we have had Shell as a neighbour, and this has created a relationship that will spark ideas.”

Imported talent

So far, the drive to stimulate research activity in Qatar has been an artificial, top-down process. Much of the talent has had to be imported. The research topics have been chosen specifically to align with the graduates coming out of the universities at Education City to ensure there will be jobs on offer that match their skills.

The international companies have also been obliged to partner and share their knowledge and technical expertise with local enterprises. This has all been necessary to lay the foundations for the new post-carbon economy. But the true measure of success of the Qatar Foundation’s ambition to create a research hub will be when that inspiration and collaboration comes unsolicited from the people on the ground.

“We have to make this thing live,” says Dubrule. “Researchers are passionate and like to meet and talk to each other. I hope this will happen here, that this becomes a really fun place to be and full of creativity. And then, when we have critical mass, things will start to happen by themselves.”

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