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Story | Community
4 November 2020

Op-ed: How a customized toolbox can help the innovation ecosystem in Qatar


Image source: wavebreakmedia, via Shutterstock

John Taylor McEntire, Director of Industry Development and Knowledge Transfer, writes about how scientific research becomes a product that benefits society

In 1990, as a recent college graduate, I started in the licensing business while working in Tokyo, Japan. That same year I became involved with my first start-up endeavor. Little did I know that licensing of research results and start-up activity which enliven innovation ecosystems would shape the rest of my career. This has been an exciting ride – one with continual change as markets and ecosystems evolve.

This is the business of technology transfer – referring to the process of conveying results from scientific and technical research to the marketplace so society can benefit through commercially-developed products and services. This activity makes up IDKT’s core function – to handle intellectual property (IP) of research results from Qatar Foundation Research, Development and Innovation entities. Qatar Foundation’s (QF’s) researchers are to report research findings to IDKT for appropriate recordation, review and proper IP protection and commercialization.

John McEntire

Typical of research institutes around the world, when research results are reported to IDKT they are usually at a very early Technology Readiness Level (TRL) – often a 2 or 3. TRL 2 is a concept. TRL 3 is proof of concept. It’s not until the technology is at a TRL 6 or 7 with actual prototypes that companies will show interest. So, there is always a need to raise the TRL towards solving real problems. Then comes the aspect of the meeting market needs. Will the new technology be cheaper, better, stronger, or faster than what is already on the market?

I have worked in the US, Japan, and Qatar in corporate, academic and national laboratory environments, and innovation ecosystems in each place are unique. So, for differently configured toolboxes including enabling policies, procedures and programs are needed to create functional innovation ecosystems.

In order to enhance research results to a higher TRL with tangible marketability, IDKT has created new tools for QF’s toolbox. The Technology Development Fund (TDF) provides QF researchers the opportunity to advance the technological components of the IP from prototype to the ready-for-marketing level within 12 months providing funds up to QAR200,000.

To be eligible, the researcher must have submitted an invention disclosure report with IDKT and be selected to apply for TDF. For instance, researchers from Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), that is part of QF’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), have enhanced their Automated Persona Generator (APG) into valuable IP which became the basis of a new start-up, VoraInsight. Without this maturation tool licensing would have taken longer.

TDF enhances the technology, but other tools are needed to improve market factors. The Innovation Fellowship (IF) allows QF researchers to take time from regular duties to de-risk IP before startup activities, including such efforts as increasing market readiness through partnering, addressing regulatory matters, creating go-to-market plans, or developing demonstration prototypes or presentations.

For example, Qabi Biotech is a start-up in the making led by Noor Majbour, a Researcher at HBKU’s Qatar Biomedical Research Institute. As a recipient of an IF, Dr. Majbour is allowed to spend 40 percent of her time on pre-commercialization activities alongside IDKT’s efforts in protecting the IP as we are working towards the development of a start-up. Noor’s efforts are making good headway through use of this new support tool.

Image source: Peshkova, via Shutterstock

TDF and IF are internally focused activities to prepare IP to appeal to a potential licensee. However, licensees of research results often need assistance to tailor the new technology developed from the research to their specifics needs.

The Entrepreneurial Leave (EL) allows key researchers to assist start-ups add strategic support to their commercial activities by utilizing the lead researcher for certain strategic activities. The EL enables QF researchers to step away from normal duties for a percentage of time to help with transfer of technology and knowledge which may increase the potential for commercialization success.

Dr. Ahmed Ali, Lead for QCRI’s Qatar Arabic Transcription System (QATS) is our current test case of this new tool. QATS was just licensed to new start-up, Kanari AI. The company requested expertise to link the past research work to the company’s future vision. EL allows Dr. Ali to use 20 percent of his time supporting Kanari AI, while still receiving full benefits, as well as 80 percent of his salary from QCRI. The reduction in his salary is compensated for by the company in the form of equity.

This is a win-win situation all around – the licensee receives expertise, the researcher shepherds the technology benefitting through sweat equity, and QF’s IP commercialization is de-risked.

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