Spin-offs: Turning research discoveries into new businesses

Wealth creation and job opportunities may be far from the minds of academics embarking on research, but scientific experiments can produce unexpected economic benefits. This was certainly the case in 1982, when a Saudi science project on prawns spawned a firm that now occupies 250 sq km and employs 2500 people. Thirty years after it was founded, the National Prawn Company, which has just rebranded as National Aquaculture Group, is providing financial backing to a new venture based on scientific and medical research.

BIOTECHNOLOGY: National Aquaculture Group backed a start-up firm that is natural fit with its own business, but works in a very different sector. Diabetes Science International (DSI) is the brainchild of a doctor and scientist who used the latest research on nano-fibres to develop and patent a novel and highly effective wound dressing for diabetic foot ulcers. The key ingredient in Dr Khaled Al Robaian’s dressings is chitosan, a derivative of a natural polysaccharide known as chitin, which is found in shrimp shells or prawns. The US military recently funded the development of a chitosan bandage to be used during combat to help stem the flow of blood. The product has been tested extensively and proved highly successful in treating haemorrhaging.

The dressings developed in Saudi Arabia by DSI may not be designed for use in trauma cases, but research published in the Journal of Family and Community Saudi Arabia suffering from diabetes in 2010 and the 100,000 new cases reported each year, the firm’s chitosan dressings could offer great comfort. DSI is one of the firms fostered by the Badir Biotechnology Incubator at King Fahad Medical City and backed by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). When the start-up received its backing from the National Aquaculture Group, Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud, deputy chairman of KACST, praised Dr Al Robaian in an interview with the press. “Al Robaian is a distinguished doctor and scientist in the Kingdom who was able to develop, with the support of KACST, a Saudi medical raw material that would be beneficial to the entire world,” he said. Dr Al Robaian said the dressings were designed to prevent bacteria contaminating sores experienced by diabetic patients and causing infections that might necessitate amputation.

INCUBATION: The Badir Biotechnology Incubator offered help to 12 firms at its inception and singled out those focusing on innovative treatments or approaches to biomedical issues as well those working in environmental and agricultural science. Alongside DSI, another of the companies started there was Diabetes Telecare. It aims to develop care regimes for the remote treatment of diabetic patients using mobile telecommunications platforms. International publishing firm Elsevier joined with Diabetes International Scientific Institute to spearhead the International Journal of

Other companies nursed at Badir include Suhool Pharma, which offers analytical laboratory services and tests pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical products for firms in Saudi Arabia and overseas. Ace Biotech works to develop specialised kits and reagents for polymerase chain reaction, DNA/RNA isolation, cloning, electrophoresis and buffers. It manufactures all reagents in Saudi Arabia and aims to satisfy demand in the country’s growing life science market.

AWARD: Another tenant of the Badir Biotechnology Incubator, Dr Faris Al Mayah, won the inaugural Creativity and Innovation Competition in 2013 for developing a medical device that treats tumours with ultrasound technology and high-frequency heat. The competition, part of the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) drive to encourage medical innovation, drew as many as 217 entries that were judged by an expert panel on their creativity and business potential. At the award ceremony the executive general manager of King Fahad Medical City (KFMC), Abdullah Al Amro, said the MoH, represented by the KFMC, would back three of the winners and help them carry their ideas to the advanced manufacturing stage. The MoH urged its employees to enter their ideas for medical instruments, smart hospitals, medical education and simulation training, medical services and patient care into the competition. The total value of awards handed out was SR1m ($266,600).

RIYADH TECHNO VALLEY: Another centre of entrepreneurial activity with a focus on the life sciences is Riyadh Techno Valley (RTV) at King Saud University (KSU). One of the three strands of research and enterprise at RTV covers biological, agricultural and environmental technologies and its activities are designed to leverage the academic strengths of the university, which is also home to the King Abdullah Institute for Nanotechnology, the Prince Sultan Advanced Technology and Research Institute ( PSATRI), and the National Diabetes Centre. At the heart of RTV are its Incubator Centre, the Centre for Entrepreneurs and the Technology Transfer Office, which helps pass on the benefits of RTV’s expertise to the community. In May 2013 KSU signed an agreement with a commercial enterprise, Hayat Farma, to create a research and development (R&D) facility for the company at RTV, paving the way for more integration with the commercial sector.

PSATRI: PSATRI is a non-profit, contract-based research institute that falls under the auspices of KSU. It was created with a view to introduce the latest technologies into the Saudi military, but its remit allows PSATRI to also work with the potential for spin-off technologies that might have uses in other spheres, like medicine. PSATRI’s areas of expertise include unmanned vehicles, microwave and antenna radar technologies, infrared and thermal cameras, optical equipment, image processing and laser technology. The centre currently has 85 workers, but aims to employ as many as 700 Saudis in two to three years. “The Kingdom boasts considerable intellectual capital, given the large number of Saudis with advanced degrees from top universities. With the necessary funding, R&D efforts here could flourish. Petrochemicals have always been a strong industry, but with increased R&D spending we could become pioneers in things like 3D printing and thermoplastics,” PSATRI’s CEO, Sami Alhumaidi, told OBG.

HIGH-TECH HYGIENE: The KFMC invested in 12 portable disinfection systems that use ultra-violet technology to eliminate pathogens in June 2014. The equipment was supplied by a Los Angeles-based firm to counter the immediate threat of the Corona virus, but the hospital says it will be used much more widely. John Morrow, CEO of US-based UV-C Technologies, claims manual disinfection of a room is only half as effective and much more time-consuming than his firm’s 15-minute treatment. “Using our automated UV-C device, the kill rate of pathogens is 99.99%,” Morrow told local media. Health care and technology entrepreneurs believe Saudi Arabia’s highly educated workforce will increasingly produce home-grown solutions to problems like these if investments are made in R&D and in helping scientists, medical staff and others to turn their academic breakthroughs into commercial successes.

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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2014

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