Alfaisal UniversityBiotechnology Incubator boosts Saudi health innovation

Biotechnology Incubator boosts Saudi health innovation

Biotechnology Incubator boosts Saudi health innovation

Riyadh is positioned to become the Silicon Valley of biotechnology, spurred by the innovative work of the Alfaisal Biotechnology Incubator

Biotechnology is going to change the world, and Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia is ready to contribute its skills and innovations to this transformation, says Noor Alsaadoun, director of the Alfaisal Biotechnology Incubator.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “Biotechnology is changing medicine and living organisms and biological samples are being used to create new products that can be applied in healthcare.”

As part of its Vision 2030, the Saudi government is looking to diversify its economy and pivot from being a consumer of technology to a developer of it. It has turned its attention to innovation, particularly in healthcare. In fact, the Royal Commission for Riyadh City is developing the Riyadh Biotech City next to the university campus.

“We want to be the gateway into the hub of biotechnology,” says Alsaadoun, who returned to Saudi Arabia last year after 13 years in Canada. From her office on the Alfaisal University campus, she can see the site of the Riyadh Biotech City. “We’re in the prime location, we want to be able to offer talent and have an incubator nearby that can even bring companies in to the hub.”

Biotechnology uses biology to develop new products, methods and organisms to improve human health and society. From more effective medical products to pollution management techniques and new methods of food production, biotechnology promises to revolutionise several fields and create new industries. But it is often difficult for universities to bridge the gap between research and market-ready products.

“We want to find ways and solutions that can give back to the economy, that can give back to our healthcare system and build a more sustainable Saudi Arabia,” says Alsaadoun.

“Commercialising technology is one of the major objectives of the biotech incubator. It is my dream to create an environment for innovation in health through building an inclusive holistic ecosystem.”

However, a cornerstone of a successful biotechnology ecosystem is having trained people available, and the university is looking to create this talent pool. It has launched a biotechnology master’s degree and is currently accepting applications for candidates to begin in September. “We need more expertise and we need more projects and joint programmes from Saudi and around the world.”

The incubator, which launched this year, already has physical premises with six laboratories, and collaborations with government and business.

“We have nanotechnology, we have an omics lab, a human genome lab and an animal testing laboratory,” she says. “Omics is a field of life sciences which focuses on tapping into large data sets to understand biology and, ultimately, life. It includes subjects such as proteomics, genomics and metabolomics.”

The incubator is also gearing up to host a biotechnology hackathon for the Middle East and North African region to recruit talent and generate ideas that can be commercialised.

At biotechnology hackathons, participants work together to develop innovative computational solutions to medical or biological problems. “If we host it here at Alfaisal University, it will be a very good boost for the incubator,” Alsaadoun says.

There is also a great deal of expertise and knowledge waiting to be exploited within the university. Alsaadoun mentions Edreese Alsharaeh, professor of chemistry at the university, who has more than 20 patents. “We’re helping him study the market, see which products would benefit the economy and be sustainable in the market, and which patents to push forward to commercialise,” she says.

The university, with its strong science and medical expertise, is a hub of interesting research that could be exploited and turned into products.

Pioneering projects

Currently, the incubator is supporting research projects such as a cement made of bone and a portable disease-detection PCR test for animals in remote regions.

The incubator is already working with government ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, and is planning to engage with more, Alsaadoun says. Such entities want to be “included in our incubator because they’re excited to find ways to improve food production, the environment and water quality”.

Incubators, such as the biotechnology one at Alfaisal University, offer government departments resources and expertise that they may not have in-house. “Many government ministries are looking for ecosystems and incubators,” Alsaadoun says.

“Considering the challenges arising from restricted access to vital resources, research facilities and laboratories, it becomes imperative to rely on academic institutions as their primary avenue for commercialising products and pioneering solutions.” Alfaisal University has been positioning itself to respond to such demands, she says.

Businesses are also interested in collaborating with the incubator, including large companies such as Aramco, the Saudi Arabian public petroleum and natural gas company. A vital partner is the university’s recently launched Center for Health Innovation, which aims to pull together stakeholders in the Saudi healthcare space to drive innovation in medicine and healthcare products.

Since the biotechnology ecosystem is still nascent in Saudi Arabia, Alsaadoun and colleagues are tapping into international networks to grow Alfaisal University’s expertise.

“Saudi is in the initial phase of building this ecosystem,” she says. “We can recruit international external expertise to assist with resources and pushing forward our incubator to become more productive and sustainable.”

With this in mind, Alsaadoun is reaching out to incubators and innovators in other countries. “We’ve been meeting with embassies [in Riyadh] and we’re going to companies” to engage with them about the biotechnology incubator and involve them in its future plans.

Alsaadoun says the biotechnology incubator and the Center for Health Innovation have received strong support from the university’s management. Alfaisal University has a long history of excellence in medical research and teaching, and is eager to graduate innovative scientists and doctors, and create products to further the country’s progress towards Vision 2030.

“To create an ecosystem, you need all the ingredients in one place. It’s not an easy process, but we are ready,” she says. “We’ve established our labs, we have our postgraduate programme, we are recruiting and we’re already connected with government and private entities.”

In the future, Alsaadoun believes that the Silicon Valley of biotechnology will be in Riyadh. “It’s going to be right here,” she says.

Find out more about the Alfaisal Biotechnology Incubator.

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