Arab universities are increasingly getting involved in establishing startups as a means of diversifying their financial resources and linking their educational programmes with the labour market.
Universities in Saudi Arabia have been leaders in this area.
The KAUST Innovation Fund at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has invested in more than a dozen start-ups, including Nomadd, which manufactures automated waterless cleaning systems for solar panels, and Sadeem, which provides “smart city” systems that monitor flood, traffic, weather and air quality conditions.
Moreover, the Dhahran Techno Valley Holding Company, which is fully owned by King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, has also provided seed funding to several startups, including Telaa’ and ConCure.
Connecting Universities and Businesses
In the Emirates, Abu Dhabi University launched an Innovation Center that has sponsored startups in healthcare technology, media production, fashion, parking, and task-sharing.
Heriot-Watt University Dubai has also established a business incubator with the support of its Edinburgh Business School, which has helped establish 30 competitively selected start-ups, university officials say.
“Modern universities’ priorities … include cultivating a research culture and building active relationships with external stakeholders in order to adapt to the changing socioeconomic environment, and bridging the gap between education and the labour market.”Paul Hopkinson Associate head of the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai
These companies include “Freight Collab“, an innovative online platform that connects shipping service providers with their customers, and Story Box, a mobile application that allows parents to compose stories based on their children’s drawings.
Paul Hopkinson, associate head of the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt Dubai, advocates expanding the role of universities outside their home domains.
In an email, he wrote to Al-Fanar Media: “On-campus business incubators are now in a good position to stimulate and promote entrepreneurship, by helping them to overcome initial difficulties, address challenges, and enhance the economic role of universities in general.”
“The main factor behind the success and continuity of business incubators lies in encouraging many students, who have entrepreneurial ideas, to use the support of these university incubators,” he explained.
Hopkinson thinks one of the main strengths of university-based business incubators is their ability to connect higher-education institutions and the local business community and thus have a significant impact on economic development.
He wrote: “Modern universities’ priorities, at the present time, include cultivating a research culture and building active relationships with external stakeholders, in order to adapt to the changing socio-economic environment, and bridging the gap between education and the labour market.”
Benefits for Universities and Economies
Nabil El Kadhi, a Tunisian expert in higher-education quality, believes that establishing start-ups is evidence of a university’s ability to prepare graduates capable of engaging in the labour market.
“This will positively affect the university’s reputation, the extent of its recognition by the market, and the recognition of its graduates’ capabilities,” he wrote to Al-Fanar Media.
Those benefits are in addition to the companies’ contributions to the local economy, he added.
El Kadhi has 15 years of administrative and teaching experience in a number of Arabian Gulf universities, including eight years of teaching of computer sciences at Epitech, a French foundation concerned with computer engineering studies.
“Academic institutions must financially benefit from these start-ups once they are independent. … This will provide the university with additional income that will be positively reflected on education.”Nabil El Kadhi A Tunisian academic
In Paris, El Kadhi witnessed firsthand how students’ graduation projects were turned into start-ups in nontraditional fields, such as information security and distance selling.
“A start-up company at a French university has changed the economic system of its entire region,” he said. “It transformed it from an area that depends entirely on the port and maritime trade, into an area that depends on modern digital companies. It has become a major part of the French economy.”
El Kadhi thinks that universities should share in the profits of start-ups they help launch.
“Academic institutions must financially benefit from these start-ups once they are independent,” he said. “… This will provide the university with additional income that will be positively reflected on education.”
Successful Ventures in Egypt
Ayman Ismail, a professor of management at the American University in Cairo, agrees that “encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation programs is one of the ways that [universities] contribute to strengthening the economy in general.”
In 2013, Ismail founded the AUC Venture Lab, which has helped establish more than 200 start-up companies since its inception.
One of the lab’s most prominent successes is Swvl, a company that started as a mobile app for finding alternatives to public transportation in Egypt. Now worth more than one billion dollars, the company has gone beyond the borders of Egypt and is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the United States.
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Ismail links the expansion of universities’ efforts in establishing companies is enhancing students’ entrepreneurial capabilities, especially by linking project ideas to the university’s specialization or needs.
Startups still play a limited role in the Arab world, however, due to “the lack of funding on the part of universities,” Ismail said.
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