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The Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) has unveiled a plan to promote investment in technology start-up companies in the Middle East, in the hope that such a move will help address the Arab world's poor investment in science and technology.

The plan includes the establishment of a database of technology investors, a venture capital fund, a business development centre, and the creation of a consortium of Arab investors who wish to invest in scientific and technological projects.

"In the Arab world, we have a real problem since there is no available cash for start-ups or R&D firms," says Abdalla Alnajjar, ASTF's president. "Regional governments and institutes believe such ventures are similar to black holes — that they only suck money, and provide no return on investment."

Arab countries invest just 0.2 per cent of their total gross domestic product (GDP) in research and development (R&D), compared to an average of 2.5 per cent, for example, for countries in the European Union.

Speaking at a forum on investment in science and technology organized by ASTF in Beirut, Lebanon, Alnajjar said that Arab R&D still focuses on specific sectors such as agriculture, environment and health care, in contrast to high-technology fields such as biotechnology.

He suggested that this was not surprising, as the private sector had preferred to import proven technologies than to develop them locally — even in sectors such as petrochemical industry and in water desalinisation in which the Arab world has expertise.

But he noted that Arab scientists associated with ASTF have already shown their capacity for developing innovations specific to the region's needs. These include a 'smart' robot for inspecting long pipes, antibiotics for camels, and biologically-based products for removing chemical pollution from sand.

"We just need to establish a solid network connecting venture capitalists with scientists and start-ups, so that we can create products that can be commercialised in the Arab world," he says.

The ASTF will be holding a future science and technology investment forums twice a year across the Arab world. The next one will be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in November and December 2004.

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