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Innovation and entrepreneurial development at heart of diversification drive

Article - March 13, 2016

Increased investment in research capacity and SMEs is seeing the country establish itself as a leader in innovation as well as spearheading its goal of economic diversification

Under its strategy to raise its research expenditure to 2.8 per cent of its national budget (approximately £1.1 billion), Qatar is currently investing to build a skills base for a future knowledge economy. That is, an economy driven by innovation and entrepreneurialism, and one that is significantly less dependent on its hydrocarbon reserves.

However, facing this drive are also a number of obstacles. Research and innovation efforts are often held back by a small population, as well as a lack of local capacity and administrative support. According to a UK Foreign & Commonwealth report, to surmount this Qatar has focused on delivering larger “step-change projects through international institutional partnerships and through the strategic use of a well funded international research fund.”

Indeed, the Qatar National Research Fund’s (QNRF) National Priorities Research Programme is seen as a model of best practice for the region. In 2014, $130 million was disbursed on 162 grants focusing on the country’s research priorities: energy and environment, ICT, health, and social science and humanities. In fact, several of these grants were awarded to UK-Qatar collaborations, involving 42 British institutions.

On the domestic front meanwhile, research is being advanced by institutions such as the Qatar Foundation (QF) and Qatar University. QF, for example, is helping to develop the research capacity of Hamad bin Khalifa University. It is also behind the establishment of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) and the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH). Through both its annual forum, which last year took place on 3rd-5th November  in Doha, and a range of ongoing programmes, WISE promotes innovation and aims to build the future of education through collaboration. WISH, on the other hand, is dedicated to capturing and disseminating the best evidence-based ideas and practices in the health industry, and held its second ever summit at the Qatar National Convention Centre in February 2015.

Showing characteristically big ambition for such a small country, it is clear that Qatar not only aspires to become a regional leader in research and development, but a global one too. Going forward, the country looks to continue to nurture a vibrant culture of innovation – a culture that has already begun to flourish and open the door to new organisations who want to facilitate fresh new ideas.

“We offer Qatari SMEs a one-stop-shop for products and services, supporting their growth each step of the way. A vibrant, prosperous and competitive private sector in Qatar begins with their success.”

Abdulaziz Bin Nasser Al-Khalifa, CEO, Qatar Development Bank

“Qatar is on an economic journey, moving away from a reliance on oil and gas towards a sustainable, knowledge-based economy,” explains Aysha Al Mudahka, CEO of the Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC), the country’s newest and largest mixed use incubator.

“If this vision is to become reality, then Qatar must support a strong and diversified private sector, with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs providing the engine room for growth. We are in an exciting time as there are several initiatives encouraging entrepreneurship in Qatar. This is where QBIC comes in, as we support the economic pillar of the Qatar National Vision 2030 through our programmes designed to develop the next companies in Qatar to reach a value of QAR 100 million (£18 million).”

QBIC – a concept cofounded by the Qatar Development Bank (QDB) and the Social Development Centre – is well on its way to achieving this goal through its flagship LeanStartup programme, which runs multiple times throughout the year.

Having received hundreds of applications in the first wave of the programme, LeanStartup has already graduated 22 entrepreneurs, with QBIC recently announcing support for 15 innovative, local LeanStartup projects.

“The LeanStartup programme turns innovative ideas into start-up businesses and our LeanScaleup programme turns existing young businesses into scalable companies,” explains Ms Al Mudahka. “Our first priority is to empower entrepreneurs to start and grow companies in Qatar, but this isn’t done in isolation. QBIC partners with international organisations to exchange knowledge and bring their experience and international best business practices into Qatar. We also encourage our entrepreneurs to go abroad and look at international elements to their business.

“QBIC is the first company in Qatar that is actually investing in start-ups…but we don’t do it alone. We have the support of QDB and the Social Development Centre, and QBIC in turn supports these organisations.”

With the government’s vision of achieving a more diversified economy central to Qatar’s great innovation push, QBIC really couldn’t hope to call on better expertise than those available at parent company Qatar Development Bank (QDB).

Established in 1997 as a 100 per cent government-owned developmental organisation, QDB’s traditional aim has been to develop investments within local industries, thereby accelerating growth and economic diversification in Qatar through support for the local private sector. Between 1997 and 2005, the bank expanded its portfolio, diversifying from its industrial base to include support and guidance for a range of non-industrial sectors identified as key to the development of Qatar, including education, health, tourism, livestock, fisheries, agriculture, and value adding services.

“If this vision is to become reality, then Qatar must support a strong and diversified private sector, with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs providing the engine room for growth.”

Aysha Al Mudahka, CEO, Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC)

“Fast forward to 2014, a year marked by exceptional performance and institutional growth for Qatar Development Bank, and product and service innovation, investment in the customer experience, and continuing to enlist strong partners remain tenets of the bank’s success,” says QDB CEO, Abdulaziz Bin Nasser Al-Khalifa.

Aside from its decision to set up QBIC, the CEO adds that QDB, “now more than ever”, is offering support for national innovation.

“We offer Qatari SMEs and entrepreneurs a one-stop-shop for products and services, supporting their growth each step of the way. Growing a vibrant, prosperous and competitive private sector in Qatar begins with their success,” he says. “As an institution we lived this philosophy in 2014, doubling down on our commitment to enhancing the journey of Qatari SMEs and entrepreneurs. In 2014, 262 SMEs benefitted from QDB’s advisory services, with 200 individual counselling sessions held. We launched landmark strategic initiatives, conducted more market studies and hosted more workshops and trainings for Qatari industries than we ever did in previous years.”

Although there’s a great deal of work to be done toward achieving the Vision 2030 goal of a diversified, knowledge-based economy, as well as becoming a global leader in the fields of research and innovation, through the work of the Qatar Foundation, QDB and its QBIC offshoot, the country is undoubtedly on the right track.

“For us in Qatar the National Vision 2030 is a guiding path that we all aspire to achieve,” says Mr Al-Khalifa.  “It is ultimately about creating value, creating jobs and improving the lives of our friends, families and neighbours. I am proud of the progress we have made so far while the torch of light is showing us the way ahead.”