“I met with a Jordanian minister a few years ago and he told me that he wanted the country to have 10,000 PhDs in the next few years, and I thought, ‘that’s a great metric to have, but what are you going to do with those PhDs?”
Indeed, a great metric, but where will they go, what will they do, and more importantly, how will they generate income for the economy?
Posing these questions was Muyessar Taqi Eddine, a marketing and branding consultant from the US, and a founding board member of TechWadi, the US-based networking organisation building bridges between the MENA region and Silicon Valley. Addressing a gathering of the Arab Expatriate Scientists and Technology Initiative, hosted by Qatar Foundation Research & Development, she explored the question of how the region could best move towards a global Arab innovation ecosystem.
Held last week in Doha, as part of the Foundation’s Annual Research Conference (ARC) the gathering discussed the issue of how the MENA region could better establish an entrepreneurial mindset, especially when it comes to the field of science. Great scientists and tech minds are born in the region, how can the region keep them and maintain them?
A common departure
Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford - these are just a few of the American colleges that littered the resumes of scientists and entrepreneurs attending last week’s conference. The fact that the MENA region suffers from brain drain is nothing new.
Research from the Egyptian Society for Migration Studies said that in 1976, 23 percent of engineers, 50 percent of doctors, and 15 percent of all Arabs with university degrees emigrated to the West. Later, between 1998 and 2000, more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated to Europe.
Statistics published by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2013, based on data from the Arab Labor Organization, estimated that 100,000 scientists, engineers and experts emigrate annually from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. They went on to say that of those people, 70 percent do not return home. Notably, 54 percent of Arab students who travel abroad to study also do not return home.
Belgacem Haba left Algeria for the States as a student. Since waving goodbye to Algeria, he has gone on to hold over 600 patents, worldwide and in the US, worked for IBM, cofounded SiliconPipe Inc. (a high-speed interconnect startup in Silicon Valley), and served as the president of Tessera (an electronics solutions company) for many years.
“I didn’t see electricity until I was 12,” he said. “And then I saw the light.” A pun yes, but a serious one. For Haba this moment was the start of something new, and he hasn’t stopped since. Yet, all of these successes have taken place outside of the Arab region.
Alongside him, other panelists, like cofounder of Quanergy Systems Inc. Louay Eldada, ended up spending years in the US establishing their business acumen and making an impact, and were keen to stress the attractiveness of resources available in the US. But this has meant a lack of innovative capability returning to benefit the MENA region.
Not an attractive option
Many agreed at the forum that the Middle East is still several years behind when it comes to home-grown talent staying put and making advances in the field of science-based startups.
One visiting investor told Wamda that, while they are investing in startups in the region, they are actively encouraging their own children to seek a life abroad.
Commonly noted amongst various delegates that Wamda spoke to was the statement of “when universities and institutions around the world are offering security and resources that are not available in the region, there is going to be a departure from MENA”.
Things look promising, however. Short presentations by researchers at the Annual Research Conference were evidence of potential startups brewing in Qatar and beyond.
From Morocco, LTDR (language technology and disabilities research) are working on assistive technology products for the blind and deaf, and have created a ‘facial action coding system’ - a virtual reality dictionary. The end result being translating Arabic sign language hand gestures to English text and speech.
Some do return
Khaled Ismail came back to the region, twice. After working all over the world he said that one will get used to having access to world-class facilities and talent. “I tried to return to Egypt in 1990 but it was a shock to see no intellectual challenge,” he said. It was a vacation in Cairo in 1997 that a friend cornered him and convinced him to stick around and help with his ceramic manufacturing businesses.
He has since founded an angel investment fund, Kiangel, focused on investing in early-stage startups in the region. Since their launch in 2011, they have invested in 11 Egyptian companies.
When it comes to advising those looking abroad, he noted, “I say study abroad but don’t come back immediately,” he said. “Make a dent in the work you’re doing and if you feel you can do something on your return, then do it.”
Issa Batarseh, a professor in electrical engineering and computer science, left Jordan for the US after graduating college. Six years ago, he found himself back in Jordan at the Princess Sumaya University for Technology.
“I wanted my kids to be in the US,” he told Wamda. “So it was a case of family first, then for professional reasons.” And why? For the academic, who has himself commercialized two companies, the establishing of oneself with a company was what he called a lottery process. “You need six digits to be aligned [for lottery success] not just five,” he said.
For Batarseh now, their is a noted difference in Jordanian youth, compared to when he left. He saw students as more mature, aggressive and aware than he had been, however there is still a lack of innovation and creativity. Batarseh is now back in the US at the University of Central Florida - but he doesn’t rule out a return to Jordan.
Incentivizing to build locally
There are an increasing number of reasons for young academics and entrepreneurs to stick around in the region.
When talking about the approach of the Qatar Science & Technology Park and their accelerator program, director Haya Al Ghanim said that a lack of deep understanding of a market or industry has often led to startups not getting off the ground - something that they are there now to curate.
For their accelerator program their focus now is to help startups build their teams, mix ages and backgrounds, and match them with the resources needed to build their products. While their first cohort saw only 38 applicants, their third and latest received 160 applicants.
She also stressed the great need for the Arab diaspora to engage with local ecosystems, that governments needed to facilitate policy changes, and for there to be a strong involvement from corporations who could be potential backers or customers.
A key part of her advice is the call for a continued culture change. Taqi Eddin said that despite the new opportunities that are being created in the region, entrepreneurs going to Silicon Valley need to realize they have been big fishes in little ponds. With Silicon Valley having a global draw for startups, expectations not being managed properly will create a sense of disillusionment and they need to be prepared for this.
Ultimately, the need for commercialization to come out of research is a key part of building a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in MENA. Echoing Taqi Eddin’s comment about what to do with 10,000 PhDs, Eldada said: “unless there is impact and commercial success, then that PhD is worthless”.