Entrepreneurship Potential in Academia

Commercializing Research and Intellectual Property
Startup funding in Saudi Arabia jumped from $8m in 2016 to over $150m in 2020 and continues to rise.

For the longest time, the traditional role of academic institutions was to graduate the workforce who would go out into society and use their knowledge toward leading successful lives within set domain structures. However, the role of these institutions has morphed in recent times, expanding their platform to become extremely proactive in research and development. This shift has ultimately led to the transference of intellectual properties (IP) and innovations created within its campuses to startups and corporate entities that transform them into economic and cultural success stories.

One such story is that of Saudi Vision 2030, a prime example of the transformation of research into reality through commercialization. The three pillars of the Saudi Vision 2030 are a vibrant society, thriving economy, and ambitious nation. All of which are currently reflected in the booming world of entrepreneurship among our youth.

It goes without saying, connecting the innovative creation and spark of the academic world to the commercial world has both economic and long-term cultural benefits. The innovations of academic minds talk to the world and the culture we live in today. Since these are the minds who must face the future, a future they must mold to fit a rapidly changing world, one of their main efforts is to question how to construct the needed tools to ensure that their pillars remain strong. 

Recently, the Supreme Committee for Research, Development and Innovationhas announced its aim to enhance Saudi’s position through its Vision 2030 directives by focusing on assimilating academic research into more applicable, developmental projects that contribute to the national economy. In line with such a program, modern research universities, such as our own King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), are increasingly working on translating academic research into concrete creations with both a social impact and potential of economic development.

Across the globe today, the commercialization of academic research has proven itself in many fields. From high-tech advances in IT to the massive global developments in medicine – such as those relating to the Coronavirus – many corporations today no longer rely exclusively on their own R&D for new IP. These corporations are turning to the bright, new innovative minds of the academic field that have been working on ingenious concepts on theoretical levels. Today, universities are not only funding such research for substantive application, but are proactively encouraging their academics to develop their ideas into tangible IP, even going so far as to assisting them in licensing and protecting their developments. This endeavor has pushed academics to take their research to the next level. That is, introducing their work to the world of entrepreneurs, startups, and SMEs – in other words, YOU!

With Saudi Arabia aiming to spearhead the merger of academia with entrepreneurship, progress was made to develop a corroborative environment for growth. Here, we should consider the factors that impacted the shift from pure academia into real-life application.

  • An unrelenting focus on generating a startup ecosystem – particularly in the tech arena – matured quickly and dramatically into a space for the augmentation of research and ideas into reality.
  • Startup funding in Saudi Arabia jumped from $8m in 2016 to over $150m in 2020 and continues to rise.
  • Dramatic increase in consumer adaptation to technology. The KSA has a young, tech-savvy population with a big appetite for online services – making it an attractive target for marketers.
  • Change in regulations and the support of regulatory bodies to focus on empowering entrepreneurs. This is a key aspect of Vision 2030 where foreign direct investment (FDI) has been eased and eventually replaced in 2018 with the launch of the Saudi Venture Capital Company (SVC), PIF, and JADA funds.
  • The creation of The Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monsha'at) which aids founders that lack the traditional personal network of family and friends that tend to invest in such ventures.
  • The growing number of supportive initiatives for founders has helped grow a culture of entrepreneurship in Saudi reflected in the rising number of investments and burgeoning entrepreneurial growth.
  • Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda for social reform and economic diversification aims to expand investment in leisure, hospitality, and tourism. To help achieve this, authorities are working to create a favorable investment environment and to encourage local entrepreneurs, and in turn enterprising academics, to take the lead in developing these industries.

If we are to gauge if the merge of academia with entrepreneurship is successful, we must consider examples beyond our own borders. Countless successes in the fields of IT, biotech, and other innovative startups around the world that attribute their accomplishments directly to the academic research provided by universities, colleges, and the collaborative work and funding to develop such research into tangible commercial results. 
Possibly one of the greatest success stories of academic research turned into commercial success is none other than Silicon Valley. Over the past several decades, countless IT startups and entrepreneurial successes, not only within America but globally, came from academic think-tanks - the passionate, indelible, and irrepressible conviction of younger minds, who, with a vision took the early steps toward creating new developments, that today have changed our entire lifestyle. 
It isn’t only the US with such success stories that we benchmark ourselves to. The Chalmers University of Technology has successfully collaborated with major industry leaders such as  to integrate their academic research and development initiatives into real-time programs. They have worked with  PREEM, the largest fuel company in Sweden, to successfully co-develop a more effective means of production and use of energy resources. 

This pattern repeats itself across the world.
Now that we have established some examples of how Western academia has transferred research into real world application, I will take the chance to detail the vast accomplishments from KAUST. Much like other academic institutions, KAUST has merged its leading academic capabilities with preeminent applicability in the corporate world. 

  • Energy
    • NOMADD: “Solar panel cleaning solutions based on cloud-controlled autonomous waterless (brush-based) robots.”
  • Environment, Food, and Water
    • Edama:“Organic waste recycling targeted to desert environments using different composting technologies.”
    • Red Sea Farms:“Revolutionary salt-resistant crops and energy and water efficient cooling and control systems for controlled environment farming in arid, humid, and hot climates”
    • Wayakit: “Biotechnology hygiene manufacturers which develop cleaning formulations and disinfectants.”
  • AI, ICT, and Robotics
    • FalconViz:“End-to-end physical assets digitalization using drones and land surveying equipment using multi-copter based systems to produce large-scale, high-res 3D models.”
    • Sadeem:“World’s first solar powered integrated solution to monitor and respond to floods and traffic in real time.”
  • Health
    • PepPrint:“PepPrint provides state-of-the-art technologies in 3D/4D bioprinting for applications in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, diagnostics and drug screening to serve the private and public sectors, i.e. hospitals, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies.”
      Seeing these examples, there can be no doubt that the bright minds behind our very own academic research world combined with the right entrepreneurial spirit are a winning combination. The potentials and advancements when merging these two areas will undoubtedly lead to regional changes and shifts.

As academics, we continually look forward to collaborating with innovative leaders to help turn our academic research into your next success story.



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