FOSTERING AN INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM IN QATAR

Qatar 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Maher Hakim, Managing Director of Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), on the social impact of technology, the start-up environment, and the future of Qatar.

How would you assess QSTP's role in creating an environment that fosters innovation and product diversification in Qatar, as well as that supports private entrepreneurs on the peninsula?

QSTP's mandate falls under the umbrella of Qatar Foundation's Research and Development, which has heavily invested on these types of activities and has been preparing young Qataris to enter the cycle of science, research, and technology development. Innovation means turning scientific research and technology development into a social and economic impact by creating technology products that becomes useful for society. That is the area where QSTP is focused. We are creating an ecosystem with people, mindset, and processes, quadrupling the attention and investment on technology innovation. QSTP is helping turn Qatar Foundation's investments in education and technology research into useful technology products and economic opportunities. Additionally, we are supporting and training the business community that aims to create new technologies in the Qatari market. Therefore, we view our role as essential in the country's transition from a resources-based economy to a knowledge-based one. The core of this vision is creating industries that bring technology products to market, and QSTP can leverage all the good work that has been done in QF in education and research to achieve this goal.

Since your appointment last August 2016 and looking at your experience in Silicon Valley, what are the lines that are drawing your strategy as QSTP's Managing Director?

I am a tech startup entrepreneur at heart. I love the game of innovation and the hard work and creativity that comes with building new technology products and bringing them to the market. What I bring to the table is the understanding of the core elements and processes as they happen at innovation hubs like the Silicon Valley and others and how the world can benefit from it. There are some fundamental ingredients that are applicable to the Qatari ecosystem, and the first one is diversity. It is crucial to bring product innovation to a market that will be global in nature. The impact of innovation determines its success, and is measured by how many people adopt it. In this process, working with a diverse team of people that has a broader understanding of how to appeal to a global audience is essential, and Qatar provides this ecosystem. Secondly, there has to be an innovator mindset that understands that in order to create a product you need to focus on a niche market and acknowledges the sacrifices associated in the short term. The last crucial element is to be surrounded by an incentive structure that supports you in case of failure or delay when setting up a tech company. All of this is offered at QSTP. I am just helping our stakeholders understand that this type of talent, skill, and innovation ecosystem requires the appropriate investments to put together with the right processes. This is essential to successfully transform the country and see local companies that can introduce tech products to the market.

What are the sectors that offer the most potential to drive Qatar's future growth?

We have to consider what the core competencies of the country are. If I want to start a tech startup, I would have to ask what Qatar could bring to me that I cannot get somewhere else. By doing so, we do realize that there are three different elements. Firstly, we know Qatar is building new cities, such as Lusail. Therefore, if I am a company that is focused on smart city solutions, Qatar is an interesting place to start. Secondly, the country is considered a major player in the world energy market. Consequently, Qatar has a competitive advantage in any innovation associated with the oil and gas industry, including the opportunities to discover new energy sources. Thirdly, another key industry would be sports. The FIFA World Cup is happening in 2022, and Qatar is heavily investing in the sports industry, so it could potentially be a great market for sport-related companies. Qatar is a great early market for startups, with a friendly ecosystem and with worldwide credibility.

How are you capitalizing on the potential of your state-of-the-art facilities to attract major foreign tech players?

If we envision the world 20 years from now, when oil and gas will no longer be available, Qatar has to start providing products and services that globally people will be interested in buying—for example, generating income through exporting tech-based products and services regionally and globally. In today's world, the more innovative and technologically advanced your products and services are, the more we can demand a premium for them. Therefore, Qatar's transition to a knowledge-based economy has to be based on its ability to create a technological development and export sector. Our brand new Tech4 building comes as a result of our purpose to expand our offerings and strengthen our footprint in the free zone area, becoming a technology and innovation hub able to attract more foreign companies. We welcome R&D companies, like some of our current tenants, and innovation startups.

How is QSTP cooperating with other science and technology parks and encouraging companies and institutes from around the world to commercialize their technology in Qatar?

QSTP is a member of the International Association of Science and Technology Parks, and that gives us connections and access to other communities. Technology and science parks around the world are just one element of our global ecosystem, but there are several others. We need to build connections with other accelerators and incubators around the world. We also have to develop connections with venture capital industries and organizations that can provide talent to us. We have outlined a program to recruit global startup companies that Qatar can add value to and support its development. In this sense, we are partnering with Challenge 22 to attract global startup companies involved in sports technologies.

What is your outlook for the year ahead?

We are laying the foundations for a whole range of programs. We are currently conducting several pilot projects, so my expectation for this year is to see the launch of a number of programs and analyze their results. We want to make sure that we get ahead with all of these initiatives and that the community understands that the goal to experiment with these ideas. After one year some of them will stop because they did not work and some will be based on what we have learned. For the few of them that create a real impact, we will double down on them and pursue them further. Therefore, within a year, I am hoping to have a clear understanding within our team of what are the good programs that can take us to the next step in terms of building the innovation ecosystem we all want to see in Qatar.