The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened on September 23 2009, after an intensive period of building and academic development.
“It was a dream to build a university that is leading in terms of science and technology and research, at the shores of the Red Sea,” said Hattan Ahmed (Entrepreneurship Director at KAUST) during his keynote at #LEAP22.
“And at the same time we wanted to hit the ground running – after inauguration we wanted to kick off with an academic curriculum, recruiting top tier faculty members and getting students on board from all over the globe.”
But it’s what has happened since the university opened that’s really interesting. Because it stands out as an example of the impact that inspiring and supportive education can have on tech entrepreneurship.
Are entrepreneurs born or made?
The ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ is a mythical quality, revered across industries. One of the most successful entrepreneurs of the modern world, Jeff Bezos, famously said “You don’t choose your passions, your passions choose you.”
But the idea that an entrepreneur is just born that way is simplistic, to say the least. It comes back to the age old nature/nurture debate – but the reality is that opportunity, exposure to ideas, and education (which enables the implementation of ideas), all contribute to whether or not an individual is going to become a tech innovator.
A 2021 study published in the journal Administrative Sciences looked at the relationship between education and motivation when it comes to technological entrepreneurship. By analysing the origin stories of 500 enterprises in the Esfahan Scientific and Industrial Town (in Iran), the study found that motivation to be entrepreneurial was central to the development of tech business ideas. And that business and tech education needs to be rooted in an inspiring, motivating approach, in order to drive entrepreneurial endeavours.
In other words, an entrepreneur can be created, given the right conditions. And that’s exactly what KAUST is striving to do.
The university is focused on six key areas of research and teaching: water, food, energy, environment, digital, and health tech. And in those areas, new faculty and student innovations are already beginning to change lives.
What’s coming out of KAUST?
Innovative enterprises already born from the university include Red Sea Farms – a project that’s providing a sustainable solution for greenhouses to maintain temperature using salt water, and even use salt water for irrigation. At the time of #LEAP22, the enterprise was providing the Riyadh market with five tonnes of cherry tomatoes every week.
Then there’s Cura
Ahmed acknowledged that the COVID-19 was hard on industries, but he shared a positive perspective: “What happened in 2020 and over the last 18 months, it was really prime time for entrepreneurship and innovation. And we believe in the impact and also the opportunity that was there, and we have seen remarkable founders who have stood up to the challenge. They saw those cracks happening in different industries and they just responded to it, to capture those opportunities.”
So KAUST has also been working on its digital education offerings in order to expand its reach and inspire more entrepreneurs. A digital, interactive, and engaging course – encapsulating some of the best of the university’s curriculum – launched in 2021, with a second run at the start of 2022.
The course initially had a target of 10,000 learners, and surpassed this (and then some) with 71,000 learners subscribed to the first run. Of those participants, 43% were female, and 55% were aged 24 – 40. A majority (80%) were from Saudi Arabia. And the additional 20% of learners hailed from 78 different countries around the world.
This ambitious rolling out of digital tech education typifies our vision of the future at LEAP. It’s about bringing people in, giving them the experiences and knowledge and resources to come up with world-changing ideas, and to go on and implement those ideas in impactful ways. And by doing it online, KAUST is using tech itself to further the potential of entrepreneurship in the MENA region (and beyond).
American oceanographer and activist Edith Widder wrote in her memoir, “Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring.”
The potential of future tech is as deep and unknown as the darkest ocean. So let’s keep encouraging people, from all social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, to explore technological possibilities with curiosity and creativity.