The Bioentrepreneur’s Introduction to the Middle East

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The Middle East occupies a culturally rich and versatile part of the world. The turbulent history marked by expansion and invasion by many cultures has culminated in enriching and diversifying this region’s population and contributed significantly to genetic heterogeneity (genetic diversity).

Yet the geographic separation of our major population centers, encouraged by the climate and cultural preservation, and influenced by restrictions on travel between those centers, has historically resulted in a high degree of consanguineous marriages. Even today, we witness the highest rates of consanguineous marriages in the Middle East (100 times that of the United States). Such unions account for between 20%-70% of all marriages in the Gulf States alone. Therefore, this ‘natural experiment’ bestows a rich ground for the emergence of a very high number of genetic related diseases (i.e., diabetic, autosomal recessive disorders and others).

This is a personal tragedy, but it does provide fertile fields for genetic-based research opportunities for bioentrepreneurs who can recognize these unique opportunities. Drawn to this opportune and needful population, the researcher and entrepreneur can combine their efforts to discover origins and cures for many diseases having both a regional and world wide impact.

But be warned that this entrepreneurial opportunity is not without its challenges. Just as the population genomics of the Middle East presents unique research and business opportunities, the legal, economic, governmental, and societal environment of the Middle East presents a special and unfamiliar business environment for the bioentrepreneur. I will discuss this in more detail in later posts, but of primary concern is first admitting that one is entering a cultural, economic, and scientific research environment that is unlike any other.

This means that the bioentrepreneur should seek out one who might best serve as a guide through the many potential obstacles to his success. For instance, a buyer’s market approach when selecting research development opportunities may be acceptable in Europe and America, but it is not in the Middle East. Also, while scientist and engineers in the Middle East are capable, motivated and inspired, the research infrastructure is still in a growing and developing state. Finally, while sophisticated research grows rapidly in Middle East research centers, it may initially seem to the Western entrepreneur that breakthrough technological discoveries are relatively sparse.

It’s also true that while the region offers very special resources and business opportunities, the legal, economic, governmental, educational and societal environment of the Middle East also present challenges for the entrepreneur and particularly for the Western entrepreneur making an initial foray into the region. The first thing to understand is that abundant Middle East oil resources have attracted oil-exploration teams, entrepreneurs, and investors and, as a result, the region has thrived on an oil-based economy. These regional oil reserves still remain plentiful, but there is a growing appetite for technological discovery and product development that is rapidly overtaking all aspects of modern Middle East society. The effect is that the Middle East is intent upon converting from an oil-based economy to a technology-based economy. Foremost in this rapidly evolving economy base is the need for biotechnology research, development, and capitalization.

The first order of business is for a bioentrepreneur to align with a guide or facilitator that can identify and then introduce him or her to the Middle East university, medical school, or research center scientist who has a head for scientific research and an entrepreneurial spirit for progress and discovery. First impressions are critical when building any alliance, and particularly when building alliances between entrepreneurs entering a new and different business environment – thus a guide can be invaluable to making that first step toward success here.

Finding a knowledgeable, helpful guide does not have to be difficult. Early in the development of our intellectual property we worked with a patent attorney who unfortunately did not serve our interest as well as we expected. Fortunately we found a new attorney who put our IP program back on track but who also was very well connected throughout the Middle East. Today, the bioentrepreneur doesn’t have to rely simply on good fortune to find a helpful guide and facilitator into the Middle East. We are familiar with an academic research information exchange website that facilitates making connections for universities and businesses from around the world: the Global Academic Innovation Network, through which reliable patent attorneys with experience in developing collaborative relationships in the Middle East can be easily located.

In my next post I will discuss some of the universities, science parks, and other research centers in the Middle East, what they have achieved, challenges they face, and what innovative research they are currently focused upon that may be of interest to the bioentrepreneur.

Fahd Al-Mulla