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Turning research into startups

KAUST Ph.D. student Amal Aboulhassan established MaterialSolved, a startup created with help from the University's New Ventures Accelerator. Photo by Nicholas Demille.

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​​As part of the University's broader innovation and economic development mission, KAUST is expanding its support and training for entrepreneurship to meet the growing interest among students and young people across the Kingdom in innovation, creativity and design. There are some early signs of success with the incorporation of various new student-led businesses in Saudi Arabia.


Promoting student entrepreneurship in the kingdom

One of the University's goals is to foster an entrepreneurial mindset and culture among its students, researchers and the broader community. In addition to running a large variety of classes, events and other culture-building activities, KAUST has developed accelerator programs that support early-stage student startup teams to explore, test and build their business ideas, including the New Ventures Accelerator, which is open to all teams, and Hikma, which is specifically designed for teams with IP-based business ideas.

KAUST also provides entrepreneurial teams with coaching, mentoring and access to the University's extensive network of Saudi and international partner companies and their network of facilities designed for creative collision and knowledge-sharing.

"A good startup usually starts with a good vision, which demands R&D, creativity and hard work. Being at KAUST has enabled us not only to have the needed resources, but also to be surrounded by talented and diverse scientists and researchers, moving the wheel of technology and enabling us to go forward with our startup," said KAUST Ph.D. student Ahmad Dehwah, co-founder of startup Sadeem.

KAUST is currently supporting 14 student startup teams in sectors ranging from renewable energy, sensor and water desalination technologies to social entrepreneurship. Fifty percent of these startups are based on intellectual property developed at KAUST, and one-third have already incorporated.

These entrepreneurial offerings for student startups at KAUST are helping to contribute to a rise in entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia and the region that is reshaping, redefining and helping to diversify the economy. For example, a recent HSBC report reveals that the Middle East has one of the highest proportions of millennial entrepreneurs globally. 

Student Startups
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New innovative startups

KAUST accelerators provide students with strategic advice, mentorship and outside-the-box perspectives that help them take their idea to the next level.

For example, Amal Aboulhassan, a KAUST Ph.D. student, came up with a testing method and computer algorithm that significantly improves and lessens the costs for chemical testing times for solar panels. By attending the KAUST New Ventures Accelerator, Aboulhassan was provided with advice on how to create a customer base, hire key staff and fund a software model, which has now become a new startup called MaterialSolved.

"Not only does KAUST provide a superior ecosystem of labs and technical aids, the University also provides an excellent mentorship team, several funding opportunities, crucial facilities and more," said Aboulhassan.

Another example is Sadeem, which recently won first place at the KAUST Startup Accelerator Showcase. The Sadeem team, consisting of Dehwah, Mustafa Mousa and Edward Canepa, all KAUST Ph.D. students in electrical engineering, along with former KAUST professor Christian Claudel, have developed a wireless sensor network that is the world’s first solar-powered urban flood and traffic monitoring system. Sadeem has been part of the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center’s Hikma (intellectual property-based) Startup Accelerator program.

"Sadeem is based on four years of research experience at the KAUST Distributed Sensing Systems Lab, and it has been created to address the lack of monitoring systems for flood and traffic flow monitoring in cities. The company has two patents issued and one patent pending on sensors and sensing architectures," said Mousa.

“The dynamics for a startup are unique in the KAUST environment, where you have top-class laboratories and resources available and easily accessible,” Canepa said. “It’s also really exciting to be part of the generation involved with creating a knowledge-based economy for the Kingdom.”

CookHub, another social entrepreneurship startup at KAUST, was started by the University's Ph.D. students Andrew Yip and Ge Gao and recent Ph.D. graduate and current KAUST postdoctoral fellow Ronell Sicat. It is a platform that allows talented cooks in urban areas in developing countries to prepare quality food at a time-shared kitchen and fulfill online orders from office workers. 

Entrepreneurship support gaining momentum

The early signs are positive. KAUST Innovation received a "High Impact Incubator" award last year from UBI Global for startup incubation activities in the Kingdom. A number of KAUST related startups were listed as top 100 innovative startups, including three in the top 10, at a late 2015 Forbes Middle East Event in Riyadh.

The University is the ideal location for student startups, and also has progressive IP terms and an environment that puts a strong emphasis on experimenting, collaborating, and strengthening human relationships