Entrepreneurship and the Middle East

In my last post, I elaborated extensively on the demographic and unique cultural behavior that, in my opinion, makes the Middle East (ME) a fertile ground for novel biology-related discoveries.

I will now critically discuss the steps taken by local governments and related agencies in capitalizing on this immense and ‘hidden’ resource.

Oil and its derivatives have contributed greatly in the development of the ME. This fact is true for oil-producing countries or other countries of the ME and beyond, whose populations enjoyed the prosperity bestowed from the black gold. However, time waits for no one, and oil-producing countries have not capitalized on their huge resources as yet. A recent UNESCO report stated this deficiency loud and clear.

Let us look at what is available in the ME:

Virtually, all ME countries have universities and these institutes have been key in producing graduates. In Kuwait, for example, biotechnology and science-related graduates have been struggling to find suitable placements. I am not surprised, given the scarcity of biotech-related industries. It is personally disheartening to see a graduate in genetics employed in a bank, but this is not unusual these days, given the dissociation between ‘wishing to be’ and actual availability of biotechnology-related jobs. My personal experiences and observations are that ME-based universities are more concerned with generating graduates than with enhancing and encouraging entrepreneurship, which is looked at as a luxury and not a necessity for local economies. Nevertheless, people are trying against all odds to rectify this situation, though the pace has been too slow to have any impact.

In Kuwait, his Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah highlighted the importance of investing in human capital and promoting the culture of innovation by establishing a center: Sabah Al-Ahmad Center for Giftedness and Creativity (established May 2010). The goal is to sponsor talented/gifted and creative people in hopes of generating transformational effects across the community, which engenders social, economic and cultural development. The Center is headed by an ambitious, well-informed director, Dr. Omar Al-Banai, who also recognizes the importance of linking the University Technology Transfer Office to the development of patents and marketing.

In Qatar, the situation is rather mixed. There, research and development focus on foreign recruitments and some local input. The Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) is the national agency charged with executing applied research and delivering commercialized technologies in four themed areas: energy, environment, health sciences, and information and communication technologies. QSTP is located in Qatar Foundation’s Education City and has access to the resources in leading research universities. In addition to QSTP’s centres, members include small companies, international corporations and research institutions, which have together committed to funding new ventures, creating intellectual property, enhancing technology management skills and developing innovative new products in line with the national vision. QSTP supports economic and human development in Qatar and has achieved recognition as an international hub for applied research, innovation and entrepreneurship. QSTP has ongoing projects in these four pillars.

In Dubai, the most ambitious of the United Arab Emirate states, the drive has been largely fueled by attracting foreign companies. The Dubai Biotechnology & Research Park is propagated as the major life sciences cluster in the ME. It is located in Free Zone that provides the ultimate platform for life sciences companies to set up operations and access the fast growing and emerging markets of the region.

To date, over 75 life sciences companies operate from the park, including Genzyme, Amgen, Pfizer, Merck-Serono, Maquet, National Reference Lab oratory and Firmenich. However, how these commercial entities integrate into local bio-entrepreneurship and most importantly the universities is rather unclear, at least to me.

During the last Human Genome Organization meeting held in Dubai, 14-17 of March, I had the great privilege of meeting the National Reference Laboratory representative, and we exchanged ideas. I was surprised to learn that the lab plans to export samples to the West for diagnosis. To me this action works against the local entrepreneurial spirit. The ME has suffered enough from the ‘Brain drain’ and the unique patients and samples drain. Let me just remind you of my first post on this blog where I have discussed the importance of our unique population in bio-discovery and the bioentrepreneurship processes.

Generally, I believe that there is a lack of understanding of the bioentrepreneurship ideology in the ME. Entrepreneurship must depend on local manpower, universities and research centers with the encouragement of outside contribution, support and partnerships. These efforts require more than 0.1-1% of GDP currently spent on research and development.

Ultimately we need to look forward and offer viable solutions to the future generations. A revolution in research and development is needed and urgently.

I am looking forward to hearing your opinions on the points raised here. Why has it taken us so long to develop a proper research and development program in the ME? Why has the Western investment in the ME been so limited? Surely, such investment may be of benefit to all humanity.

Fahd Al-Mulla