From blue sky to deep tech: building bridges for impact

From Blue Sky to Deep Tech: Building Bridges for Impact

Written by Sean Flanigan, Director of Technology Commercialization at KAUST

Here at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), we have no shortage of brilliant minds and groundbreaking research. You would think that those of us working at KAUST Innovation would have no trouble translating that research into products on the market. We do a pretty good job of it — over 100 IP deals since 2019 paint the picture — but, to be of value to our stakeholders, we had to create a novel strategy for success and then execute that plan relentlessly. It wasn’t enough to be the “Technology Transfer” department; we had to become the Technology Development arm of the University, working with professors to turn their discoveries into investment-ready deep tech.

In Saudi Arabia, we have certain advantages, but in some areas, we are playing catch up (although doing so very quickly). To successfully develop deep tech in the desert, we needed to create new programs and opportunities tailored to our situation: being a resource-intensive country but one without a track record of founding and nurturing deep tech startups.

Along with training entrepreneurs and securing foundational IP, our most significant initiative was the launch of the Impact Focused Grants program by KAUST President Tony Chan in 2019. This program has attracted over 200 applicants seeking funding in just over two years and has proven that there was, and is, significant demand for research translation funding in the Kingdom.

One might ask: If there was so much demand, why didn’t this funding come about organically? As it turns out, the adage that “Universities are ‘big R, little D, and Industry is ‘little R and big D'” holds equally true here in the MENA region. There is a tremendous amount of basic research being done in a wide variety of disciplines. Still, most of that work is focused on publication instead of developing technologies and selling products aimed at solving everyday problems. As a result, grant funding was unavailable to allow these research projects to reach their commercialization potential.

In biotech research, this funding gap has come to be known as “The Valley of Death,” and it applies even more to deep tech startups. The Impact Focused Grants are an essential part of our unique solution to bridging the deep tech funding gap at KAUST and beyond.

The Valley of Death is where research projects go to die

The path through the Valley of Death looks like this: As a professor, you get funding to do research, write a paper and publish the findings. But the funding doesn’t cover the development of a proof of concept or prototype, so projects come to an end. Without the funding, you move on to another grant for basic research — and the cycle continues. Professors might know there’s product and market potential, but the results are too underdeveloped (financially risky) to attract investors. Hence the “Valley of Death.”

Without funding to continue, they end up standing on one side of the valley with no clear path to reach that product or market potential. Across the valley are investors who, by their very nature, are not going to make investments in technology without a good chance of seeing a return on that investment. So, the potential to become a successful deep tech startup is stalled. The only way to cross the funding valley is to sufficiently de-risk the technology to the point that it can attract early-stage investment. The goal of every KAUST Innovation Research Translation Grant is to quickly de-risk your research to create a technology and deep-tech startup or technology ready to be licensed to a local company.

Research Translation Grants are more than money

KAUST Innovation stands out because we run our program differently than traditional university grants. We invest in developing the technologies to allow more products and services to come to the market in Saudi Arabia than would otherwise. To us, that is Impact. For the grant recipients — the professors who did the research — we increase the likelihood that they can partner with an existing company or create their own startup.

Our Technology Transfer Office (TTO) teams up with the grant recipients to actively project manage the grant to achieve maximum success. Often, the research team will not have gone through a product development cycle. Hence, our dedicated professionals partner up to work on everything from the big concepts to the smallest details to ensure the grant delivers on its potential. You could call our team “Deep Tech Sherpas,” as they do much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes while the research team tackles the critical technical tasks. This unique partnership increases the likelihood of achieving the anticipated outcomes from the grant — for example, completing a working prototype capable of demonstrating to investors.

KAUST bridges

We do this because we understand that it takes a strong, multi-faceted team to develop a technology-based company. We don’t expect a world-class researcher to be a world-class, early-stage CEO. Our team of experienced professionals has gone through the process dozens, if not hundreds, of times, while the research team might only do it a handful of times over their entire career. The TTO lends its collective knowledge and experience to augment the technical skills of brilliant researchers. By working together, we realize our shared objective of achieving Impact. In a very real sense, the bridge that overcomes the Valley of Death is the funded collaboration between the research team and the TTO.

Deep tech Impact is an adventure, not a KPI

Each journey is unique. For some, the pathway to market is well defined and clear; for others, there are many obstacles and challenges, but either way, the result is worth the effort. In just over two years since starting the research translation grants, we’ve awarded almost 70 Impact Focused Grants totaling over $65 million in funding and, in doing so, started brilliant researchers on their adventure toward developing deep tech in Saudi Arabia. No other investment program in the MENA region has as many concurrent technology development projects underway as KAUST Innovation.

It’s a universal truth that even the most world-changing research may have a hard time getting across the Valley of Death and most will not be successful without support (and maybe a little luck). Knowing this, KAUST Innovation has created programs, places and experiences to support those researchers and students who strive to bring their research to life. Our bespoke model draws on the very best expertise from around the world while recognizing that KAUST, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, are unique, so merely replicating practices from abroad will not achieve the likelihood of success KAUST Innovation expects.

Take, for example, KAUST startup Iyris: This company had a bench-scale demonstration of transparent solar panels for coating office windows to capture the energy of the Sun. Before reaching commercialization or working with KAUST Innovation, Iyris’s research on solar energy and optics technology was not at a scale ready for investors or customers. But, through the Research Translation Grant, it reached a viable prototype and demonstrated sufficiently to attract the attention of another local firm that bought the company.

Another project currently in development is our Maritechture™ coral restoration and rejuvenation technology. When this technology was awarded a Research Translation Grant in 2019, there was a clear consensus that it was important to work, but its path to deployment was unclear. Through funding and working with the TTO, the technology was developed to a point where a partnership with NEOM became possible. This project will help researchers across the globe learn more about the effects of climate change on coral and provide ways to repopulate coral reefs.

If you’re a KAUST researcher and want to start your deep tech adventure, contact the Technology Transfer Office team, and let’s explore how we can work together. If you’re an investor or business looking to enhance your competitive advantage through deep tech, our Deployment team can help you access a portfolio of primed technologies. The key thing to remember is that making a remarkable Impact requires a great team, so let’s get to work.

To learn more, get in touch with KAUST Technology Transfer Office.