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  • Science fund backs innovation in Arab Spring countries

[CAIRO] A foundation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has launched an initiative to fund research-based start-up companies in countries affected by the Arab Spring.

The organisation behind the initiative, the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), works to encourage investment in science and technology across the Arab region.

The new initiative — launched this summer (5 August) — will support innovative research ideas to move from the laboratory to the marketplace through funding start-up companies, with a specific focus on enhancing living standards.

The first grants to be awarded by the initiative will be agreed later this month, and the winners will be announced in November.

The project will initially focus on Egyptian researchers, in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Egyptian Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF), then widen its focus to other countries.

"We surveyed some of the innovative research funded by the Fund [the ASTF], that has not been commercialised yet, and identified twenty research projects that can be transferred to start-up companies," Mahmoud Sakr, executive director of the Egyptian Science and Technology Development Fund, told SciDev.Net.  

A committee of the ASTF and government agencies' experts will now identify five projects to be funded through a US$10 million fund.

In recent years, foundation members have been concerned that political turmoil in the region would damage progress of scientific research, said Abdalla Alnajjar, ASTF's president.

They felt that in the aftermath of revolution, governments would feel compelled to focus on projects with immediate social impacts and on employment generation schemes — particularly as grievances over joblessness, wages and workers' rights had been instrumental in spurring unrest — to the neglect of science.  

"But on the contrary, we have seen a real interest in a scientific research renaissance in the Arab Spring countries," Alnajjar said.

"In our region, researchers alone cannot transform the results of research into products with commercial potential," he added. "Our role is to support collaboration between researchers and entrepreneurs in addition to investors, to deliver products that are competitive in terms of price and quality."

Most countries in the region are in urgent need of such initiatives, as there is a persistent gap between scientific research and industry, Ehab Abdel-Rahman, director of the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center at the American University in Cairo, told SciDev.Net.

"But unfortunately the success of these initiatives is usually very limited."

Abdel-Rahman said that creating a link between scientific research and industry requires industrial experts to be included in the committees choosing research for such funding initiatives, as well as new intellectual property protection and technology commercialisation strategies.

The ASTF was established in 2000, to develop practical means to advance science and technology in the Arab region, and now works in 18 countries across the region, with a network around 22,000 Arab scientists, engineers and technology entrepreneurs.

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