2015 GIS: Panel Discussion on Infrastructure and Competitiveness

2015 GIS: Panel Discussion on Infrastructure and Competitiveness


Dr. Ahmad Al-Yamani, Chief Operating Officer, Saudi Technology Development

Mr Suhail Masri, Vice President, bayt.com

Mr. Ganesh Rasagam, Practice Manager for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, World Bank

Mr. John Larson, Chief Information Officer, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Dr. Ajay Malshe, Chief Technology Officer, Nanomech

Moderated by H.E. Abdullah Lootah, Secretary General, Emirates Competitiveness Counci

Dr. Ahmad

“Commercialization is the toughest cookie as it is not easy to take what researchers are doing in their labs and come out with something commercial out of it.”

Ajay Malshe

“I have always found that young people are ready to take risks. The power of imagination is very fundamental to human race and the first thing we need to do is to unleash the power of that imagination.”

Abdullah Lootah: Today our esteemed panel of specialists is here to address the role of talent and innovation in the future of the world’s infrastructure development; talent and capabilities that are required across the infrastructure value chain including planning, delivery and operations. They will share insights on how the world can meet its infrastructure needs more efficiently through talent and innovation.

Ahmad: TAKHNIA was established particularly to build the infrastructure for two things: technology transfer and technology commercialization in Saudi Arabia. What is it that we need to do so that we set infrastructure for people to leverage it? The answer came out in 3 tracks. The first track is a technology transfer track – a track that sets up joint ventures with technology leaders around the world to set up shops and operations in Saudi Arabia in different areas or different sectors of technology like water, renewable energy and mostly solar, material science because of the petrochemical industry, ICT, defense and biotech as areas of national security and basic needs of self-reliance in the country. The joint ventures in these areas should help us establish or to transfer some of these technologies in the country. The second track is a track of setting up venture capital investment fund and basically tries to invest in technologies that belonged to one of these sectors in a way that can either help this technology get transferred to the country or grow in the country or get linked to a value chain that is relevant to this industry. The third track is a track of inspecting what happens in research centers because researchers typically do not have in mind a path of converting what they do in the research center into a commercial product. We have taken that burden off the shoulders of the researchers and research centers themselves and have established an alliance. The objective of this alliance is to evaluate, access, develop, scale and scale up all of these potential research projects that happen in research centers. The patents come from the three research centers KAUST, KFUPM and KAKST; the funding comes from ARAMCO and KAKST; the operations are managed by TAKHNIA and RTI. Looking at the three tracks the setup of an infrastructure that will help realize the transformation or the transfer of technology as well as the commercialization of technology once these tracks are in a ready state. Any company in Saudi any startups, entrepreneurs, researchers can come up with their ideas and thoughts and take them through the pipeline of this transformation.

Abdullah Lootah: How do you measure the tracks in terms of KPI & how does it operate success measurers?

Ahmad: It’s measured by three things – the number of jobs that the JVs are going to transfer or going to create, the quality of these jobs that they are going to create (the higher up you are in the technical complexity of these JVs the higher the quality of the jobs that they’ll create) and keep in mind everything that all of the JV’s that are currently considered will be at the very top 25 percentile of technology complexity. So the type of the jobs, the number of the jobs, the size of the investment and the number of the JV’s as well as the coverage of the different sectors are the five tracks that we measure ourselves against. On the venture capital investment fund, it’s basically the size of the invested capital. Commercialization is the toughest cookie of the three as it is not easy to take what researchers are doing in their labs and come out with something commercial out of it.  It’s often a struggle of ownership. More often we don’t care about commercialization as this is done for the betterment of the world and we don’t care about making a commercial return out of it. Even setting the KPIs for this at this stage of development is by the number of products that have been launched – its not about the size, it’s not about the jobs, it’s not about the investment, it’s how many products have we taken out of a lab and made a commercial value out of it.

Abdullah Lootah: As seen in US many innovations reach a point where they cannot get over the hurdle and end up leaving the country with the jobs and the intellectual property.   Are you focusing on that valley of death or is that something you figured out how to solve?

Ahmad: We have a different valley of death in Saudi Arabia, the valley here is the valley of starting is actually getting out of the research center in to the initial phases of developing that company. So we have a slightly earlier valley of death. Our venture capital track is the track that lives in the valley of death as described that the companies that could have a potential of growth but because of one reason or another they basically hit that valley of death and end up disappearing.  The best example of this is Solar Junction, a California based company, which produced the highest efficiency solar cells for concentrated photovoltaic solar energy. We ended up acquiring the company hundred-percent because it has the highest efficiency in the world. But because of hitting that valley of death, it has reached a situation where it meant something for us to acquire it both as a commercial opportunity and in terms of potential for developing it further through the Saudi market as the Saudi solar opportunities are about to boom.

Abdullah Lootah: What would it take to develop talent for the infrastructure space?

John Larson: We were created to solve the infrastructure problems, create the knowledge and the intelligence to support and maintain this infrastructure across the board. We started not only educating Masters and PhD students to do discovery but also helping companies build the infrastructure that we need and the rest of the country needs to use these very complex tools that are out there.  Now we are sharing that same infrastructure with other universities and other businesses around Saudi Arabia’s so that we are all using the standard format and structures and working with the government agencies. Another interesting infrastructure issue was global connectivity so we requested a 10 Gigabit circuit in 2009 to Amsterdam to plug into Internet, which is the educational network. So this infrastructure that we are building requires very technical capabilities to maintain, support, grow and operate. On top of that the students and faculty who are doing the research to be able to use that infrastructure is critical for any tier 1 Global Research University today.

Abdullah Lootah: Can you shed some light on some of the most recent initiatives that World Bank have been embarking on and what do you see in the horizon for talent in the infrastructures?

Ganesh Rasagam: There are three parts to what we do in the World Bank to support innovation and entrepreneurship. The first is in helping our client, governments to establish the ecosystem for innovation. This is at a policy level and institutional level. At the regulatory level developing human resources in various countries across the globe. Second part is through the INFODEF program we support business incubators, business accelerators in many countries in three thematic areas – first is climate, acknowledged the green growth and climate technology; second is digital technologies and thirdly in agro business.  So in these areas we work with the entrepreneurs directly, we provide some funding for precede grounds, we help them run booth camps and help them to navigate the valley of death and this is being done in number of countries. The third part is in knowledge and partnerships. So we partner with other international organizations like we partner with OECD to establish innovation policy platform, which is a one-stop shop for information and research on innovation. We recently did a study to look at the market size for clean technology in the developing countries.  It is 6.4 trillion dollars over the next ten years and the questions is who is going to meet that demand. So the market opportunities are incredible, a big chunk of that market is an infrastructure development, it’s developing infrastructure for clean water, for clean energy, for waste management etc. This is an opportunity for us to think and explore. There are two challenges despite all the advances in technology. First is the SMEs are not benefiting from the advances in digital technology. They don’t have access to the infrastructure, latest technologies, they have challenges and capacity to absorb, modify and adopt these technologies for their own purposes to grow. So we need to look at how the wonderful technologies can benefit SMEs and enable them to grow.  Second challenge is the talent i.e. challenge for firms to train, attract, manage and retain talent. The need to enhance global flows in talents, to open up movement of people and skills globally is a key challenge that we need to look at.

Abdullah Lootah: Do you think that the youth see all these opportunities that are available in the region or is there a gap?

Suhail Masri: With the emergence and development of large-scale infrastructure projects a new set of skills are in demand and also these projects are providing a huge opportunities for talent around the world whether in regular businesses or in finance, IT and for more specialized jobs. The opportunities that offered to youth as a result of this changing in industries are immense. First one of these opportunities is the shorter recruiting cycle i.e. for an organization it took less than one month to fill a position and this by itself creates more opportunities for youth to find jobs and to compete on positions. Second one is more jobs in the SME sector because of contractors, suppliers etc. The third point is more jobs for women. Middle East is becoming more diversified and we see more women are taking important positions in this community. Fourth is the increased reliance on transferable skills. The three most required skills regardless the industries are problem solving  & analytical thinking, creativity and leadership.

Abdullah Lootah: What would it take for our youth in the region to look at emerging technologies?

Ajay Malshe: I have always found that young people are ready to take risks. The power of imagination is very fundamental to human race and the first thing we need to do is to unleash the power of that imagination. Second thing that we should do is not penalize people for failing. Failure would teach us something and you rise above that and that is part of the natural process. The 3rd thing is human hands, as when we work with both hands we learn better. In today’s education system there are less and less classes of making things with the hand and more and more on the computer modelling.

Abdullah Lootah: What is the right way to go forward for a country like India, like Egypt and countries with large populations?

Ajay Malshe: I think project based learning is more important than memorization. In India the education is more memory driven but in countries lie US the learning is more project based. Hence we need to change the education systems.

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