A Culture of Collaboration to Bolster Innovation

Left to right: Dr. Paul Simon Maher, Industry Collaboration Officer (ICO), Dr. Mario Blanco, Manager Industry Collaborations, Marcus Lentz, Industry Collaboration Officer (ICO) and Dr. Anika Trebbin, Business Analyst.

“Industry engagement is an integral component not only of Innovation and Economic Development’s mission, but also the mission of KAUST,” said Imad Abukhalaf, manager of KAUST’s Industry Engagement Office (IEO). “We really think of ourselves as integral enablers to accomplishing KAUST’s mission.”

The IEO is responsible for all facets of industry engagement and is industry’s gateway to KAUST. The office actively recruits partner companies who are interested in setting up a base on-campus in the University’s Research and Technology Park. The state-of–the-art Core Labs and KAUST itself are great selling points for potential industrial partners.

“If I had to name our relationship with the IEO, I would call them a one-stop-shop,” said Dhaval Shah, Director of the Corporate Research & Innovation (CRI) Center at KAUST and the New Material Solutions group at the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC).

The IEO helped SABIC decide where to set up their research center during KAUST’s early days, and they continue to help identify areas of interest for research faculty, draft research proposals and assist SABIC in the next phase of their expansion. In Shah’s mind, these activities make the IEO an invaluable resource.

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The nexus of research and industry

“Once industry prospects visit the University and meet with professors, they are immediately impressed,” said Abukhalaf. “It’s at this point that they form an in-depth understanding of how KAUST research can play a key role in adding long-term value to their business and R&D endeavors.”

SABIC, for example, is interested in focusing on areas the company believes will be critical for future business value and research activities. These initiatives are funded through sponsored research in collaboration with a select group of KAUST faculty. Five SABIC Chairs have been established and are currently occupied by faculty members concentrating on SABIC’s core topic areas.

As Shah explained, “We rely on faculty members to advise us through spontaneous interactions. We have invited them to our facilities and they’ve given talks to educate our scientists. Overall, we’ve been quite pleased in terms of our interactions.”

Building a bridge between faculty and industry

Another important responsibility of the IEO is to connect KAUST faculty with suitable industry partners by assessing and identifying viable pathways between research interests and business models.

“The industrial engagement team has provided exceptional help in connecting us with corporate partners,” Burton Jones, KAUST Professor of Marine Science, said. “They bridge the gap by assessing the interests and pathways among potential corporate partners and working with us to develop the business model for the interaction that is required to accompany the scientific proposal.”

In addition to working collaboratively with various research groups, the IEO works closely with KAUST’s Research Centers to foster successful relationships with a number of companies operating in the Kingdom, including Alstom, GE and Boeing.

Hashim Al-Zain, Business Development Specialist, (IEO) (left) and Loay S. Alfi, Business Development Manager (IEO).

“The IEO has been very helpful in identifying opportunities for KAUST’s Clean Combustion Research Center [CCRC], and even led an effort to develop the business model for a large-scale combustion test facility,” said Professor William Roberts, Director of the CCRC. “It takes time and delicate persistence to develop these relationships if they are to mature into funded projects, which all three of these have.”

Nurturing students as future leaders

Industry-sponsored research activities have been another great way for partners to engage with KAUST students and post-doctoral fellows. Partnering companies benefit in terms of research output while at the same time identifying top talent to hire.

“Quite a few of SABIC’s hires have come through research projects,” said Shah. “We’ve hired around 50 people over the past five years to work in different sectors around the region.”

Pablo Carrasco Zanini provides a great example of a student presented with a career opportunity via the IEO-hosted career fairs. Zanini has a background in mechatronics engineering and specialized in design, control and dynamics during his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at KAUST. After finishing his master’s in 2011, he was recruited to join Saudi Aramco’s Intelligent Systems Lab, where he puts to use both his education and his passion in robotics.

As a mechanical research engineer and a project leader in the Intelligent Systems Team within Saudi Aramco’s Research and Development Center, Zanini and his team of multi-disciplinary colleagues focus on business-driven research. In fact, almost all of them are recent KAUST graduates. Using robotic tools, they identify Saudi Aramco’s various operational challenges and address how to solve them through the use of intelligent systems.

The team has been faced with the challenge of devising better ways to inspect the integrity of steel operational assets. “Aspects like corrosion for a company like Saudi Aramco are a tremendously large challenge, so robotic tools in that field are needed all the time,” Pablo explained.

The KAUST Industry Collaboration Program

The KAUST Industry Collaboration Program (KICP) is currently comprised of about 40 members and is directed by the IEO. It is a membership-based program that serves as a network of strategic industry partners who benefit from access to the University’s research resources and facilities.

Each KICP member is assigned a dedicated subject matter expert called an Industry Collaboration Officer. Like an account manager, this person is responsible for managing the relationship and being responsive to the company’s needs with respect to KAUST.

The office has two main teams: the business team, tasked with generating company leads, and the scientific arm, responsible for handling technical discussions with industry through faculty andresearch centers,” said Loay Alfi, IEO’s Business Development manager.

“The main criterion for industry to be accepted into the program is the alignment of their R&D needs with KAUST’s research capabilities and offerings. This way we ensure a win-win situation for both the company and KAUST,” said Mario Blanco, IEO’s Industry Collaboration manager.

Achieving our objectives necessitates team work not only with faculty, but with other industry stakeholders on campus. We work very closely with the Office of Sponsored Research, Saudi Initiatives, Core Labs, and Graduate Affairs, to a name a few”, said Abukhalaf.

- By Meres J. Weche, KAUST News.