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#BIO2017: A Peek at Partnering | Saudi Arabia

June 1, 2017
Breaking Buzz is BIO’s newest blog series that reaches across the globe to bring you an insider’s preview into the hottest international and partnering trends coming to San Diego for the BIO International Convention.

A Peek at Partnering | King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Saudi Arabia is Hotter than You Think

One pass at Wikipedia is enough to understand the global impact King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud had on not only Saudi Arabia, but on the modern world as well. He is a King enshrined in his attempt to create more tolerant religious- and gender-diversity in his region; restructure the country’s judicial procedures, and most purely, to build a knowledge-based economy in Saudi Arabia. The King’s long life, which included granting Saudi women the right to vote and compete in the Olympics, came to an end at age 90 in 2015.

To those of us in biotechnology, however, his most endearing (and enduring) legacy may very well be KAUST: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology that he founded in 2005 with a perpetual endowment of $20 billion. At the inaugural ceremony of KAUST held in 2009, the King revealed the scope of what he called “our dream”:

“Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred, fear dialogue, and pursue destruction. We cannot fight them unless we learn to coexist without conflict - with love instead of hatred and with friendship instead of confrontation. Undoubtedly, scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first line of defense against extremists.”  -- King Abdullah

The research university, perched literally on the shores of the Red Sea, is for graduate and PhD students in science and engineering; both men and women. It is coed in a country otherwise wrapped in traditional views which run counter to Western culture when it comes to gender equality. But KAUST’s current President and President Emeritus of the California Institute of Technology Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau, has expressed pride that 40 percent of KAUST’s students are women and that having a diverse student body is “part of the DNA of KAUST.”

Case in point, the university boasts over 80 nationalities represented in the student body, and 150 international faculty members from the best universities in the world – who also happen to rank first in the world for citations per faculty.

Current research underway reflects the Saudi climate and landscape, including the Red Sea which is considered to be an understudied ecosystem that offers incredible biodiversity and untapped potential for pharmaceutical and biotechnology applications. Other technologies that are being developed inside the school’s cutting-edge laboratories include modifying the environment to produce desalinated water, and the reuse of brackish water.

Dr. Pierre Magistretti, Dean of the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division, has a 360-degree perspective of KAUST’s accelerated evolution as an academic powerhouse. In fact, he is spearheading the effort to develop Saudi Arabia’s first biotechnology hub in collaboration with major stakeholders in the Kingdom. He concedes the goal requires a long-range plan, but is achievable given the ecosystem at KAUST, which has the ability to serve as an “innovation Bridge” for both Saudi Arabia and international partners.

“Partners interested in entering the Saudi market see that the science is here; infrastructure is here; the ecosystem is here,” says Dr. Magistretti, “so, it’s up to us now to implement a bio-innovation strategy to truly tap into the excellent science emerging from our students and faculty. Since there’s no larger or well-attended forum for connecting with biotech and pharmaceutical companies then the BIO International Convention, it’s a logical place to start.”

During the convention Dr. Magistretti and other KAUST faculty will participate in One-on-One Partnering to present translational research in stem cell, regenerative medicine, genome editing, and bio materials to industry partners.  In addition, Noor Dx, a KAUST clinical genomics start-up, will also be represented by the co-founders.  Dr. Dillon Fritz, CEO and co-founder, describes Noor Dx as “a clinical genotyping service and open-innovation discovery platform, dedicated to accelerate the speed of novel genetic discoveries and advance the understanding and management of diseases among patients in Saudi Arabia.”.

King Abdullah’s vision remains steadfast. His successor is King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, a known advocate for transformative economic growth in Saudi Arabia. Under his leadership the country recently introduced Vision 2030, a blueprint for growth that strives to connect three continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa. This, along with KAUST’s campaign to build a biotechnology ecosystem, would indicate that “our dream” is well on its way to awakening.