Developing strong research, development and innovation (RDI) capacities is key to Abu Dhabi’s and the UAE’s economic development and diversification efforts. In November 2019 the emirate launched the Abu Dhabi Research and Development Authority (ADRDA) under the remit of the Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK). The goal of the ADRDA is to boost research capacities throughout the emirate’s education system and synergise those efforts with the needs of the job market by collaborating with private stakeholders.
Efforts to boost RDI output are in progress in other GCC countries, as several have committed significant resources to related initiatives in recent years. Advanced technologies are an integral part of RDI activities, as they improve research capabilities and, in many cases, are the result of RDI projects. Abu Dhabi has set its sights on becoming a regional and international centre for advanced technology RDI.
The Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), the emirate’s overarching organisation for such research, focuses on formulating, coordinating and augmenting the emirate’s strategy and policy in this field, building on the ADRDA’s efforts to synergise RDI implementation across academia and industry. “The establishment of ATRC underscores Abu Dhabi’s commitment to transforming its economy from commodity based to knowledge based, while simultaneously addressing the world’s most pressing challenges and fostering global benefits,” Ray Johnson, CEO of the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), told OBG.
ATRC’s duties include attracting and retaining local and international talent for research projects, and forging strategic partnerships with local and international entities to facilitate the development of Abu Dhabi’s advanced technology RDI ecosystem. ATRC operations flow through three channels: the ASPIRE platform, which focuses on program management and development; the TII, which is centred around applied research; and VentureOne, ATRC’s commercialisation arm. ASPIRE is designed to propel technological innovation in the UAE and Abu Dhabi, guiding and funding RDI activities and programme development, while boosting the broader national RDI ecosystem by funding emerging projects and working with various stakeholders. The TII is a globally prominent research body that not only enables the UAE and Abu Dhabi to respond to technological change, but also to shape this change through its activities. The TII is home to 10 deep-tech research centres covering advanced materials; artificial intelligence (AI) and digital science; autonomous robotics; biotechnology; cryptography; directed energy; propulsion and space; quantum computing; renewable and sustainable energy; and secure systems. The goal of VentureOne, which was established in January 2022, is to commercialise RDI projects and monetise the intellectual property produced in TII labs and the emirate’s broader RDI ecosystem.
Among the most significant advances that have been made by TII relate to its work on language processor programming, specifically the Noor platform, which is the most powerful Arabic-language tool of its type. The generative large language model Falcon LLM, which launched in March 2023, has been commended by international testing bodies for demonstrating greater functionality and cost efficiency than ChatGPT.
Entities that can bridge the gap between academic research and industrial output have already been established and remain key contributors to Abu Dhabi’s RDI ecosystem. The Advanced Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC) was established in 2012 through a partnership between Khalifa University and Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s private investment vehicle. ARIC has launched various projects and specialist departments, one of which is the Aerospace Research and Innovation Centre that opened in late 2016. The centre aims to enhance the production processes of the Mubadala-owned aerospace structures manufacturer Strata, which has partnerships with Boeing and Airbus. That venture has led to significant advances in manufacturing and the implementation of advanced robotics throughout these processes.
Significant developments have taken place elsewhere to bridge the gap between the emirate’s research and industrial output. With RDI difficult to quantify in monetary terms, private investors are wary about placing money into early ecosystem development. The onus falls on public and semi-public entities to drive partnership creation, ecosystem development and funding initiatives.
One partnership announced in November 2021 is between US defence industry manufacturer Lockheed Martin and Khalifa University, who are working together to use AI to verify measurements in order to speed up inspection processes. ADQ, an Abu Dhabi-based investment and holding company, announced in June 2022 that it was investing Dh100m ($27.2m) in the launch and implementation of Growth Lab, a platform that brings together RDI specialists from across its portfolio of companies to foster cross-sector collaboration. ADQ was established in 2018 to drive growth in the sectors that have been targeted by the government to boost economic diversification, so the synergies between this development and ATRC’s goals are clear.
A fertile environment for start-ups is essential for a strong RDI ecosystem. Growth Lab focuses in part on funding partnerships with start-ups and scale-ups. In August 2021 the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) announced a partnership with international start-up development platform Plug and Play, and multiple local and international players to establish the Industry 4.0 open innovation platform to attract tech start-ups to Abu Dhabi, encourage knowledge exchange and improve collaboration with various stakeholders. In November 2022 ADIO forged a partnership with Israeli financial technology investment firm Liquidity Group to establish a research and development centre at the Abu Dhabi Global Market free zone.
In December 2022 the TII and the California Institute of Technology announced a three-year partnership agreement to collaborate on priority areas of research. An important part of the agreement is the exchange of researchers to boost knowledge sharing, while undertaking interdisciplinary projects. These collaborative efforts are expected to result in advances in the fields of quantum algorithms, neural networks, high-speed drones and cell therapies. In addition, the deal includes the training and upskilling of young researchers in US and UAE master’s and PhD programmes.
Other research institutions – such as Paris-Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi University and UAE University – have entered international research partnerships, with the focus of them being on areas that include, but are not limited to, blockchain technologies, aeronautics, 3D printing, health care and ground-water sensors. Coupled with the emirate’s growing reputation as a leader in research and development, these collaborations demonstrate that the efforts being undertaken by the government to boost local RDI are reaping rewards.