THE MIDDLE EAST’S SILICON VALLEY

UAE, Sharjah 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: RTI PARK

Researchers and innovators are the key to making the American University of Sharjah the top research university in the Middle East and Sharjah the region's Silicon Valley.

The American University of Sharjah (AUS) announced last year its plans to open the Research, Technology and Innovation Park (RTI Park). AUS was given 175ha to build the RTI Park by the Supreme Council. It then created American University of Sharjah Enterprises (AUSE), a limited liability corporation, as the commercial arm, in order to create an endowment for research activities. The goal is to bring hundreds of companies that focus on R&D to create synergies between academics and commercial companies, creating a Middle Eastern Silicon Valley and engaging students and teachers in local applied research projects. Six research areas were identified: water technology, transportation and logistics, energy, industrial design and architecture, environment, and digitization.

The park is to be self-sustaining and will have residential homes, schools, event centers, an exhibition space, shopping facilities, museums, and hotels. The first phase of RTI Park, a 20 million sqft (1.9 million sqm) area, will open in 2019, welcoming around 200 companies and allowing 100% foreign ownership. RTI Park will be a free zone, exempt from many taxes and bureaucratic requirements that have a negative effect on other innovation campuses.

The student to faculty ratio is today at 13 to one, but after the changes and strategic reforms, the aim is to have a ratio at around 11.5 to one. Björn Kjerfve, Chancellor of the AUS, told TBY, “Between all the educational institutions in University City, there are some 2,000 PhD candidates working and teaching and 30,000 students. We predict that over the next five-10 years, if 500 companies establish themselves in the RTI Park, we will see an additional 9,000 people come to University City including 2,000 scientists, engineers, and professionals as well as 7,000 supporting staff and family members.” Also according to Kjerfve, researchers will have two laboratories to support their research: one with high-power computing facilities and the other a geospatial analysis laboratory, applying GIS for mapping and supportive research. The laboratories are expected to draw an additional 140 researchers over the next five years, on top of the current 380 faculty, and help make AUS the top destination for research in the Arab world.

The project will diversify the university's revenue streams, as it is currently entirely dependent on student tuition fees and the Emirate's economy. This diversification should allow the university to fund its focus on research, as it plans to become the top research university in the Arab world by 2022. In the UAE, only 0.47% of the GDP is devoted to R&D investments, with a worldwide average at 2.1%. As the UAE is looking to diversify its economy, it is promoting a surge in research and technology investments across the private and public sectors. Thus, RTI Park plays a strategic role in the UAE and Sharjah's long-term plan, laid down in UAE Vision 2021, calling for research, science, technology, and innovation to become structural pillars of the economy, particularly within Sharjah's industrial grid of SMEs.

With a similar goal, the Centre of Excellence for Digital Government will offer cooperation with firms to push for digital transformation. It aims to complement public innovation and to become a regional research hub. It will work in close partnership with AUS and RTI Park, focusing on fostering entrepreneurship. RTI Park will also form close partnerships with AUS's new Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa). It is backed by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), with the mandate to connect businesses and higher education and promote entrepreneurship.

The influx of academics will spur considerable growth and expansion of the University City, benefiting the entire Emirate, and it will strengthen AUS's capacity to establish itself as the top university in research in the Middle East. But more than that, it is a flagship for the UAE and Sharjah's aim to diversify its economy, making it more sustainable in the long run.