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New Member Spotlight: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

UIDP welcomes King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) as a new member organization. Located along the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, faculty at KAUST’s 10 research centers address global challenges related to food, water, energy, and the environment. UIDP spoke with Sean Flanigan, KAUST director of technology commercialization, who leads the team responsible for intellectual property management, research business development, and the strategic investment of resources in technology development.

UIDP: What is KAUST hoping to gain from its membership with UIDP in the coming year?  

Flanigan: We’re hoping to accelerate our already-established programs for engaging with industry.

KAUST is just over 10 years old. We spent the first decade getting our research infrastructure in place and building up our reputation. Working with industry partners has always been part of the primary and secondary mission of the university. We’re now ramping up to demonstrate that we can be a solid contributor to the national economy and to the broader environment of innovation—and a competitive advantage to companies in the kingdom and beyond.

We see our membership with UIDP as a way to accelerate our existing practices into best practices, a way to make us not only more effective in how we do sponsored research, but to make us more efficient and productive for our researchers as well as our partners.

KAUST is a highly-cited research university—we currently rank number one globally in citations per faculty in the QS World University Rankings. With a significant number of highly-cited researchers in world-class publications, we have established our research reputation. But instead of looking inward to develop our research capabilities, we have to look outward to apply them. Our establishing missions were to create a world-class research and education facility on the coast of the Red Sea and to provide economic development for the kingdom and beyond. Those missions are equally important. Now, we have to rapidly accelerate our efforts on the economic development aspect because it’s part of our core.

UIDP: What are the current challenges that KAUST faces in the development of university-industry partnerships?  

Flanigan: Building awareness is number one. This is a globally competitive landscape. You’re competing for mind space among people who might know about the research done at other universities but not KAUST. We know that faculty tend to be relatively fluid, and we have world-class researchers from all over the globe, with 110 countries represented on our campus. That results in us consolidating knowledge from around the world. But outside the kingdom—and even inside—we haven’t necessarily achieved the level of awareness required. So we have a job to do both internally and externally. This partnership with UIDP will enable KAUST to leverage that global community and high-quality international exchanges between university and industry.

Second, this is an evolving economy. The government has a lot of initiatives supporting the diversification of the economy. We are an active partner in these initiatives, but it’s a crowded space, and we have to demonstrate that we’re capable of making a difference for people every single time we meet with them.

In any university’s economic development role, you’re thinking about your local and regional growth. We all know that oil and gas are well-developed industries in the kingdom, but other industries are not as mature. Its early still in the diversification of the economy so it’s a bit harder hard to find local partners outside oil and gas who understand that R&D is necessary to grow their businesses and competitive advantage locally and regionally.

We have a significant small- and medium-sized enterprise outreach initiative targeted towards raising awareness of the value of working with the university to enhance their competitive advantage. We do that by demonstrating to companies that they can grow by undertaking R&D with the university without having to incur the cost or difficulty of building out a research infrastructure themselves. And to do that, we understand that we have to be a partner rather than an ivory tower.

UIDP: What are some innovative KAUST partnerships?

Flanigan: We are already well established in the physical sciences space – energy, food, water and environmental. Now, we’re looking to grow into life sciences. We recently partnered with a local company called SaudiVax to open the very first vaccine development and manufacturing facility in the kingdom right here on our campus. The agreement was signed about 18 months ago—well in advance of the pandemic and long before we all became aware of the challenges associated with vaccine development and access to vaccines at a national level.

It is a giant step forward for the country to have a secure vaccine supply for this or future pandemics as they might arise. It should be noted that while it wasn’t as widespread as COVID-19, the MERS outbreak a few years ago really crystallized the need for this type of vaccine capability. So when the government identified where the bio park for this type of initiative would be located, they turned to KAUST. As a result of that initiative, we are reaching out to companies to demonstrate that we have tremendous research capabilities in the life sciences, especially in biologics, that can be leveraged for everything from biomass development to manufacturing therapies for the local market and beyond.

I think for a university known for its research in solar energy, water desalination, circular carbon economy impact, and marine environments to suddenly be branching out to life sciences and biomedical research is a tremendous step forward. We don’t seek to do it ourselves; we aim to do it within partnerships, and we have to be prepared to make good collaborations with industry. That’s where we want to make sure that we’re conforming to best practices, and we’re developing and sharing the best practices we can possibly bring to bear.

On a smaller scale, we’ve helped develop startup companies directly impacting the solar power industry. We’re blessed with significant sunlight in the kingdom, but we’re also cursed with a lot of dust. One of our spinoff companies, NOMADD Solar Systems, is working with larger companies to deliver a waterless cleaning solution for solar panels. We are one of the world’s leading research centers in solar energy not only because of our large supply of sunlight, but also because of the demands being made to create alternatives to carbon fuels here in the kingdom.

People might be surprised to find out there is a significant effort being driven by the government to reduce the reliance upon carbon-based fuels and increase the amount of capturing CO2 and the reuse of it for other purposes. The circular carbon economy was just highlighted at the S20 meeting here in Riyadh as being a significant component of the environmental policies of the future, and KAUST is at the center of that.

We are developing solar energy in partnership with large multinational corporations such as ACWA Power, one of the largest builders of desalination and solar facilities in the Middle East. When they started doing R&D, they came to KAUST. We quickly established a master research agreement to help them  to solve problems that are unique to large-scale solar and desalinization projects seeking to improve and maintain the efficiency of these significant operations. So, from the startups all the way to the multinationals, we’re able to bring solutions within an industry.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say the coolest thing we do is our research partnership with McClaren Formula 1 Racing Team. We work with them on everything from aerodynamics to fuel compositions to a whole host of other significant components in the ultra-fast-paced industry that is F1 racing. We’re really proud to see the KAUST logo on the car’s floorboard as it goes into the pitstops. We’ve created a very healthy working relationship—almost that mythical high-water mark that we all strive for—an ease of communication between the university scientists and the corporate scientists to identify and solve problems within a timescale that is beneficial to both sides.

We’re also an active research partner with NEOM, a $500 billion project to build a city of the future in the northwest of the kingdom. We’re there with everything from solar power to wastewater treatment to innovative construction materials.

UIDP: What’s an interesting fact about KAUST that people may not know? 

Flanigan: While we exist in a country that is very dependent on oil and gas for its GDP, most of our research activities are in the environmental space. As a result of research done by a couple of our researchers, Mark Tester and Ryan Lefers, I can now go to the grocery store and buy Tomatimi tomatoes grown in water with a higher salinity than tomatoes ought to be able to survive in. That’s very important because we live in a country that gets about an inch of water a year and we desalinate water for agriculture, which uses significant power and resources. If we can reduce the amount of desalinated water used for agriculture, then we will help the kingdom become more food independent and reduce the carbon footprint of farming. We’re learning from our environment on the shores of the Red Sea and taking what is a seemingly abundant resource of seawater to find a way to use it for growing produce. And they taste really good.