R&D investment key to commercialising innovation in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s higher education sector is expected to play a pivotal role in the emirate’s plans to reduce dependency on external sources for innovation and knowledge acquisition.

The focus on developing home-grown experts has already seen educators sharpen their emphasis on programmes related to Abu Dhabi’s traditional areas of strength, such as hydrocarbons, as well as others seen as strategically important going forward, including ICT and renewable energy.

Capacity build-out

One of the new planks in Abu Dhabi’s research and development (R&D) platform will be laid in early 2016, with the launch of a dedicated research centre by the Petroleum Institute, an arm of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

The Petroleum Institute Research Centre will be housed in a new $90m facility and will initially include 32 laboratories, with more to be added after a second, smaller facility is built.

The institute is also looking to expand its educational capacity, and has already applied to the Abu Dhabi Education Council to introduce a doctorate programme beginning in 2016.

Thomas Hochstettler, president of the Petroleum Institute, sees investment in research and local expertise as pivotal for steering Abu Dhabi towards its broader economic and energy objectives.

“Clusters at the new research centre will focus largely on enhanced oil recovery and supporting activities in engineering and geophysics, with an emphasis on domestic petroleum reserves,” he told OBG. “We will also have several labs working on downstream research, covering polymers and gas processing.”

Commercialisation is key

Khalifa University (KU) is also shaping its programmes to fit with a more diversified economy, the university’s president, Tod Laursen, told OBG, with teaching and research activities expanding into areas such as robotics, engineering and ICT.

KU’s plans include an innovation centre for start-ups that will help commercialise ideas, which is seen as vital for securing funding for and justifying R&D activity, Laursen told OBG.

“Commercialisation is very important. If governments are going to spend more money on R&D, the effects and benefits need to be clear,” he said. “We think it is crucial for the curriculum to reflect an emphasis on preparing people who can contribute to the emirate’s strategic goals.”

Global partnerships

The expansion of Abu Dhabi’s higher education and R&D capacity has already led to stronger international ties, including partnerships with foreign institutes and large corporations. Stakeholders expect such link-ups to facilitate skills and knowledge exchange without exposing the emirate to the “brain drain” witnessed in many other countries.

KU’s PhD programme has academic partnerships with the University of Tokyo, as well as Georgia Tech, the University of Southern California, and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. For its part, Masdar Institute has strengthened its links with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through a cooperative programme focused on human capacity development and collaborative research.

Looking ahead, Laursen said he was confident that raising the bar in education and boosting opportunities in R&D would also enable Abu Dhabi to hold on to its best and brightest.

“One of the great things about higher education in the UAE is that the brain drain no longer applies,” Laursen told OBG. “Students can study abroad for a short time, but when they return they can still get a comparable educational experience, even at the PhD level.”

Strategic importance

R&D payoffs could be particularly important for the oil sector in Abu Dhabi, which accounts for more than 5.5% of the world’s total proved reserves, according to the latest estimates from the US Energy Information Administration

According to a recent survey by Gulf Intelligence, creating a national research council could prove a key step towards achieving ADNOC’s target oil reservoir recovery rate (ORRR) of 70% – more than double the global average. The Petroleum Institute, for example, was created with a mandate to add 5%, or around $500bn of value, to Abu Dhabi’s ORRRs, according to Hochstettler.

In addition, Gulf Intelligence survey respondents underscored how tying R&D investment to the process of energy concession renewals, which are taking place over the next five years, could also help Abu Dhabi achieve its innovation goals.

There are early suggestions that the industry is moving in this direction. The Petroleum Institute has already forged relationships with several international energy majors, including BP, Total, Shell and Japan Oil Development Company.

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