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Shaping the Future

Forbes Middleeast
Shaping the Future
Tony F. Chan, president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, talks about automation, innovation and how universities of science and technology have an important role to play in preparing economies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Automation, robotic technologies and more are set to radically change the way we work over the coming decades—how do you prepare students for success in an uncertain future?

Universities are charged with preparing students for the labor markets of the future. At KAUST, we try to ensure that students have both a firm grounding in research, as well as innovation. On the research side of the equation, our students have access to some of the top scientists in the world. These are people who not only excel at their discipline, but who connect our students with top institutions around the world. On the innovation side, our students are strongly encouraged to take their ideas and look for market potential in them. We have a robust set of trainings they can go through, and if they have something with real market potential, we’re not afraid to fund them and give them support.

  • Give us some more specifics on the kinds of programs and funding. And what types of tech are coming out of KAUST?

Starting in 2020, every student will be required to have an enrichment experience in innovation as part of their degree. We are also creating a minor program in entrepreneurship. We host hackathons such as JUNCTIONxKAUST, co-hosted with NEOM, where hundreds of developers, designers, programmers and entrepreneurs from around Saudi Arabia come together to design next-generation technologies in food, water and energy for implementation in Saudi Arabia. We have startup accelerator programs such as TAQADAM where startups develop their concepts and eventually compete for seed funding. We also connect students with mentors who can help them hone their business plans. In terms of startups, we have everything from UAV based imaging to quantum dots, remote sensing and solar cleaning.

  • You’ve become an advocate for UST’s (universities of science and technology) - why are they a thing apart and what do they have to offer in your estimation?

I am biased of course, but I think universities of science and technology are uniquely suited to helping nations accomplish their goals, while helping the world tackle challenges. We’ve all seen the statistics on the number of people we will need to feed in 2050, or the amount of water, or energy we will need, and one important way to do address these challenges will be through universities where research and innovation are marching great ideas out into the market where they can have a positive impact. At KAUST we want to help the Kingdom reach important goals in a sustainable way. We just signed an MoU with the Red Sea Development Company, which wanted to safeguard the natural beauty of the Kingdom’s coastal habitats, while giving visitors an unparalleled experience. We’re providing access to our extensive knowledge about the Red Sea, as well as technical capabilities in environmental assessment, climate modeling and more. Through spinouts and startups, we’re developing hydroponic agriculture to help the Kingdom improve its food security, and develop cheap, low energy water desalination methods. We, as a research-first university, can contribute in uniquely powerful ways to help accomplish important things. I strongly believe this to be true the world over—whether we are talking about UST’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Clear Water Bay, Hong Kong or Manchester, U.K.

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