Established in 2015, American University of Sharjah Enterprises (AUSE) is tasked with developing a sustainable financial future for the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Hussain Al Mahmoudi, CEO of AUSE, explains the initiatives that are bringing together academia, government and entrepreneurial talent to create a regional knowledge-driven business hub where innovators can develop an idea and turn it into a commercial reality, thanks to the wealth of resources at their disposal
How has your past experience at the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce helped you envision AUSE’s mission?
AUSE’s mission and vision are driven by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, and his own vision for education in the region. This is a vision that he had a long time ago, when he took the lead in positioning Sharjah as the regional capital of education, with a focus on innovation. AUSE supports the triple-helix collaboration of industry, government and academia, which join hands in advancing opportunities and taking advantage of challenges. This is where my past experience contributes to the project.
What is your strategy to bring revenue to the university?
AUSE does four things. One is the development of the technology and innovation park (SRTIP), which is a 20-million-square-foot plot of land within a free zone. We also have more land around Sharjah that we develop for different purposes, and this real estate development is the second thing that we do. Thirdly, this city has more than 17 academic institutions, so it’s a city of education, and it is part of our plan to embark on the development of more education and knowledge institutions. These could be vocational schools, universities or management centers. And our fourth focus, which is very exciting, is enterprise creation. At the university, we come across a lot of technology and new ideas for startups, and it is our hope to create new enterprises that will nurture emergent technologies, whether in AI or what have you. We believe that through these four focuses, we can generate revenue for the university.
What are the opportunities for startups in Sharjah, and how can AUS help with that?
AUS has over 47,000 students and 2,000 PhDs. We believe that innovation and entrepreneurship begin on the back of strong educational institutions. If you look at Silicon Valley, Stanford played a big role in that. We are convinced that having strong academia is a pre-requisite for innovation and entrepreneurship. We have launched the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, and the goal is to develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem within the educational sphere. This started a year and a half ago and we are very keen on developing it.
Why would Sharjah be the ideal springboard for Chinese startups to launch their products in the rest of the GCC and Middle East?
For one thing, new technologies require an ecosystem that can understand and react and work with them. And Sharjah has the intellectuals who understand. Say you have a company that works with blockchain or 3D printing, and you put it in a place that has no knowledge workers – that’s not going to work. You need a supportive environment, and we have the talent that can cater to those startups. Secondly, there is the issue of cost. I can confidently say that we are 40 to 50 percent cheaper than our two bigger sisters, and for a startup this is key. And in terms of geography, Sharjah is well positioned. Between Sharjah and Dubai, you are talking about six million people, which is a very good number to play with. And Sharjah has a very unique relationship with China. I set up an Arab-China Technology Transfer Centre with the aim of using Sharjah as a platform for Chinese technologies to enter the market.
How is the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTIP) expected to benefit AUS?
It will be an extension to what AUS is doing. The government of Sharjah mandated that AUS should become the top research university across the Middle East, and to complete this ecosystem you need different things. We are working very hard to achieve this transformation and we have launched four PhD programs on cutting-edge issues like smart cities and bioengineering. We are also creating a platform to help commercialize any innovations that may emerge, so we are setting up technology transfer offices. The SRTIP will be a platform to help ideas take a commercial shape, thereby completing the circle. As an entrepreneur, you will be able not only to develop your idea but also to implement it.
The SRTIP combines academia, government representatives and the private sector. How do they all work together to benefit future enterprises at Sharjah?
The innovation ecosystem thrives on intelligent players in society working together to address challenges, so it’s very important to have this triple-helix approach. We bring private sector links and also government links wherever possible, especially if you are focusing on emerging technologies. That gives you a competitive advantage: if you can produce a model that is efficient and effective, it will differentiate you from the others.
What about fundraising, which is crucial to startups? Why would Chinese investors be interested in a Sharjah-based startup?
The Arab world and the Middle East represent an emerging market with a very young population. It is also a very rich market and one that is changing drastically as we speak. We at Sharjah have a platform for people to use in order to penetrate this dynamic market. We have more than 100 nationalities represented in our student body here, including China, and they bring a lot of value. And we already have two major partnerships with Chinese organizations. I believe we can bring value propositions to Chinese organizations because we have something that not many others in this region can offer: a university city that is truly unique. Fully 50 percent of the UAE’s higher education students are here; we are the biggest university, with over 45,000 students in one place. If you add to that our commitment to advance technology, and our allocation of one billion dollars over the next five years to achieve this transformation, we are talking about significant resources being tapped. And on top of that, if you can also mobilize government institutions and legislation to help support your initiative, then you have a very powerful formula.
So AUSE can help Chinese companies looking to enter the market?
We can help companies in an effective way to introduce their businesses here. The United Arab Emirates is embarking on a big innovation drive – you can see it with energy, transport and logistics. We are a global organization and the whole objective of the Arab-China Technology Transfer Centre is to facilitate that.
AUSE supports several projects such as the high-rise tower in the Mamzar area and developing learning communities. How can Chinese institutions and individuals get involved as investors in those projects?
We engage with China on different levels; to begin with, our research officer in charge of the funds is Chinese. Another level is students. The third level is companies, and the fourth is government.
In 2016, you said that you were pessimistic about the capacity for R&D in the Arab world, but that the UAE was different. Do you feel the situation has changed?
I think we are getting a lot done here at Sharjah. The government has invested a significant amount of money, we are hiring the best people around the world to help us, we are also hiring local talent, and we are forging partnerships in different parts of the world.