KAUST launches first-of-its-kind SME Innovation Program

(From left to right) Sami Sarhan, program manager of KAUST SME Program Development and Omar Kutbi, manager of KAUST SME Engagement.

KAUST has launched Saudi Arabia's first university engagement program intended specifically to foster the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Kingdom. Designed to provide access to KAUST's innovation ecosystem, KAUST SME Innovation Services will help SMEs increase their customer base and reach new markets while diversifying and strengthening the Kingdom's economic landscape.

Within the Kingdom, SMEs account for more than 99% of the private sector, yet currently contribute only about 28.7 percent of GDP in 2018, according to a recent report by Small & Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monsha'at). With plenty of opportunity for growth, SMEs play an important role in Vision 2030, the Kingdom's blueprint for a thriving economy. To further this vision, KAUST is committed to supporting a primary objective: increasing SME GDP contributions to 35 percent by the year 2030.

"SMEs are the engine of the economy and create crucial jobs and income," notes Kevin Cullen, vice president Innovation & Economic Development at KAUST. "As a university driven by our economic development mission, we have identified SME growth as a key focus area - and we are keen to welcome these companies into to our world-class innovation ecosystem."

The new program follows the completion of KAUST's comprehensive survey of 500 SMEs throughout the Kingdom. Conducted in partnership with the Small & Medium Enterprises General Authority (Monsha'at); the Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam Chambers of Commerce; the Ministry of Investment Saudi Arabia (MISA); the Royal Commission of Jubail and Yanbu; and the Council of Saudi Chambers, the survey is the first to collect SME-university specific data.

"Innovation is growing rapidly and sustainably through an ecosystem," said AbdulMajeed Al-Omran director of the Innovation Department at Monsha'at. "This is reflected in the distinguished report: there is a desire for SMEs to adopt innovation in their products to enhance business growth and a desire to cooperate with a pioneering university such as KAUST."

"As part of the Jeddah Chamber's keenness to support small and medium enterprises in line with the Kingdom's 2030 vision to advance development, the Jeddah Chamber contributed with KAUST to circulate an opinion poll aimed at measuring the extent to which small and medium enterprises need scientific research and innovation with the aim of developing partnership programs in research and development," The Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), Mohammed Yousuf Naghi, said.

The Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones (MODON) has also been working with KAUST on enabling SMEs and supporting areas of improvement. "We are delighted to explore the outcome of KAUST Survey Report to identify SME's challenges and way forward to support this sector through a list of inventive packages," said Ahmed Al-Hilayel, health and environment director at MODON. "MODON plays a major role in enabling industry by providing different products such as ready factories and logistics. I believe that KAUST SME Innovation Services will support industries in areas that still need more development," he added.

Survey results revealed five key takeaways:

  • Respondents represented more than 25 industries including manufacturing dominating the participating industries, followed by construction, then information and communication technology (ICT)
  • Nearly half of respondents indicated that their greatest challenge was lack of expertise
  • 75 percent of SMEs want to partner with KAUST to address their technical challenges
  • Scientific and laboratory equipment, artificial intelligence (AI) and business development training were the top three, most sought after professional development areas
  • 80 percent of SMEs requested at least one innovation and entrepreneurship service

Based on the survey results, KAUST launched SME Innovation Services to engage SMEs through the KAUST innovation ecosystem. Through the program, SMEs will gain access to state-of-the-art facilities, including preferred access to the KAUST Core Labs.

In addition, they will have access to a pool of talented students and engineers, as well as research and scientific expertise in the form of consultancy. Specialized technical training will accelerate this knowledge transfer and help SMEs develop new products and funding opportunities. Participating SMEs will also have easy access to KAUST intellectual property.

KAUST SME Innovation Services has already completed workshops in artificial intelligence and rapid prototyping, with an ambitious aim to engage 1,000 SMEs in the next three years.

KAUST continues to be devoted to finding solutions for some of the world's most pressing scientific and technological challenges while making an impact through research and collaboration - now and in the future.

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