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The Difficulties of Spinning Research Ideas Into Gold

DOHA—Back in 2003, Adel Sharif began working on an idea to change the way salt is extracted out of seawater to supply fresh water. Instead of pushing it through a membrane, which catches the salty compounds, he thought about pulling it. It’s an idea that, before a single desalination plant was built with the design, made tens of millions of dollars on the British stock market and caught the attention of Qatar’s rich and powerful.

Now, as the research director of water security at the Qatar Foundation, Sharif is in charge of developing similarly profitable and innovative research as part of Qatar’s strategy to build an economy with knowledge, not just fossil fuels.

The key to his achievements, say colleagues, is a patient determination—something that’s been tested since he moved to Doha a little more than two years ago.

Pushing seawater at high pressure through a membrane is expensive. Not least because pushing the water through clogs membranes with salt and damages them, which means the membranes have to be replaced more often than is ideal.

But pulling the water makes a difference, and Sharif likes to explain it with a cigarette analogy.

“I don’t smoke,” he says, “but when you pull the smoke with a drag you have less resistance than when you try and blow through the cigarette.”

Working on this principle, Sharif was sure that there had to be a way to pull water through a membrane and still leave the structure of the membrane more or less intact.

Martyn Buxton-Hoare worked with Sharif at the University of Surrey, where he was researching and developing this idea. He says that Sharif’s motivation comes from a personal mission to improve water access in the Arab world. “For him it’s about making a difference,” says Buxton-Hoare.

Sharif is originally from Iraq. He grew up on a farm near the ancient city of Babylon close to the banks of the Euphrates River, so he knows more than most about the importance of and need for a stable fresh water supply in the region.

Water scarcity is a problem facing many Arab countries today, but it’s only going to get worse. Iraq and 14 other Arab countries will rank among the 30 most water-stressed countries on Earth by 2040, according to the World Resources Institute.

Buxton-Hoare is the director of technology transfer at the University of Surrey, which means he is in charge of taking raw research projects such as Sharif’s and making them into marketable technology. It’s a process that fails far more often than it succeeds, he explains.

“We go through forty-odd inventions a year and then at the end of the year there’s only about 8 left,” he says. “The more innovative you are, the higher the failure rate.”

But that didn’t daunt Sharif, perhaps because financial gain seems not to be one of his main concerns. “Money is not what drives him, as it doesn’t for most academics,” says Buxton-Hoare, “although make no mistake, when it comes to negotiating, he’ll make sure he gets what he’s due.”

Indeed Sharif’s office atop one of Doha’s skyscrapers gives away no hint of the millions of dollars its occupant helped generate. The walls are unadorned and the desk boasts no expensive trinkets—in fact, it’s hard to believe he’s been in the office for two-and-a-half years.

After filing initial patents, Sharif won the U.K. Royal Society Brian Mercer Senior Award for innovation in Science and Technology, which gave him £250,000 to develop the concept, which eventually Buxton-Hoare and Sharif spun out into a company called Modern Water.

Sharif is overly keen not to take all the credit for the enterprise, “I had support from key people at Surrey to support me,” he says. “They let me get on with the research and then helped me to get it to market.”

Within seven months of creating the business, they floated it on the stock market and raised a staggering £32 million in exchange for 40 percent of the company. That was money Sharif couldn’t wait to reinvest. “We were able to build the first commercial plant of the technology in Gibraltar,” he said. This was followed by a similar facility in Oman.

It wasn’t long before people elsewhere began to notice Sharif’s success. In 2010 Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation, was in the UK on a state visit with her husband, who was then Emir. She met Sharif at a reception hosted by the Royal Society.

“Someone introduced me to her as a British scientist,” he recalls, “but she said ‘no, he’s one of us.’”

Water remains a key issue for Qatar, as is a desire to start reaping revenue from research initiatives. The Sheikha was so taken with Sharif’s apparent accomplishment that she poached him and he went to work for the foundation, where he was put in charge of the water security program.

Expectations are high. “My task is to come up with something equally impressive,” he says without seeming in the least overwhelmed.

But since arriving in Doha he says inefficient administration and an office atmosphere that doesn’t always encourage results have bogged him down. “There’s internal politics everywhere, but there’s so much of it here,” he complains. “And we’ve been hindered by management decisions.”

Those tribulations will not block Sharif from achieving his goals, says Buxton-Hoare.

“Because he’s so focused, he won’t play the political game,” says Buxton-Hoare, “There are occasions when that doesn’t do you any favors, it certainly hasn’t in Qatar.”

Having the confidence of the Sheikha in him has meant that Sharif has been able to weather these irritations, adds Buxton-Hoare. “If he didn’t have that he’d have been dead in the water.”

But even her patience is beginning to wane.

Since arriving two-and-a-half years ago, Sharif says meetings with the Sheikha are hard to arrange and so he rarely sees her. The last time they met she expected him to announce that he’d made big progress. It’s not an uncommon situation in Gulf countries, where the slowness with which science and innovation sometimes move forward meets with impatience on the part of government officials.

“Unfortunately I had to explain that’s not really how it works,” he says, “It’s frustrating.”

If Qatar wants to build its knowledge economy and replicate the sort of spinoff companies that the University of Surrey has produced, they’re going to have to be more patient, says Buxton-Hoare, who has also worked in the Gulf before.

“It’s not a game where you can pick winners early on,” he says. “You have be prepared for failure, but they have a tendency to want results almost instantly.”

It’s in that philosophy that Sharif now finds himself entrenched, but Buxton-Hoare says his former colleague is likely to persevere. “He’s not afraid to say that things are impossible or not done in a certain way. He says what he thinks and in that sense he’s a bit fearless.”
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