Innovation in the time of COVID-19: How we turned unprecedented challenge into opportunity

Originally published, November 16, 2020 in Arab News

By Dr. Kevin Cullen, KAUST vice president for Innovation & Economic Development

At the beginning of March, when the world got its first glimpse into the COVID-19 abyss, we at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) found ourselves faced with a unique and pressing challenge: how to keep staff and students safe while simultaneously forging ahead with the vital scientific research and innovation needed to help navigate the pandemic?

It was clear from the beginning that the only sensible approach to combating the pandemic was to let science lead the way. With research and technology sitting at the very heart of what we do here at KAUST, we knew that we—and other universities around the world—had a crucial role to play in doing exactly that.

That approach allowed us to bring the combined intellectual resources of our students, researchers, and community innovators to bear in accelerating new technologies to prevent, diagnose, treat and contain the virus. For instance, KAUST Ph.D. students Luisa Javier and Sandra Medina, founders of Wayakit startup, pivoted to adapt their disinfectant product to make air travel safer during the pandemic. The co-founders partnered with Swissport International to provide an innovative disinfectant solution for aircraft and shuttle buses at Saudi airports in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam.

Being a research-based university with an impact mission, we are determined to turn our science into technology through support from our industry partners. I’m proud to say that in the last few months, KAUST was the first university in the Middle East to join the prestigious University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP) alongside some of the world’s leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Oxford and MIT, and the first to join the Stanford-led Open IP Access Framework, through which we’ve made KAUST IP readily available to industry experts and entrepreneurs. Both of these initiatives have enabled us to put our cutting-edge research directly in the hands of the people who needed it and help bring potentially life-saving technologies to market faster than ever before.

Bridging the gap between industry and academia is at the heart of what we do, and during the pandemic we’ve leaned into key external partnerships to stimulate innovation and create real, meaningful impact. At this year’s KAUST Industry Advisory Board, held remotely for the first time, senior figures from companies like Air Products, SaudiVax and Dow shared their experience on how best to operate in these times of turmoil, with the aim of identifying and disseminating best practices to help businesses adapt and thrive.

As we ramped up our research response and worked with industry partners to identify opportunities for collaboration, we also had to grapple with challenges closer to home.

At KAUST, we pride ourselves on the variety and depth of experiential learning opportunities available to the students and innovators who come through our doors. But those experiences were built on a foundation of face-to-face teaching, something that became impossible almost overnight as lockdown measures were enforced across the Kingdom and around the world. The educational paradigm had shifted, and we as an institution needed to adapt fast to virtual course delivery.

While some of the spontaneity and serendipity of interaction between students is inevitably lost, the increased efficiency and flexibility that remote courses offer presented us with some real opportunities, allowing us to bring in heavy-hitting guest speakers like Bob Langer and Randy Komisar, who simply wouldn’t have been able to attend in person under normal circumstances.

Remote learning brings with it a degree of both literal and figurative social distance by default, but it need not be isolating. During Entrepreneurship for All, a program delivered entirely online over Ramadan this year in partnership with UC Berkeley and Cornell, with the aim of teaching students the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, we arranged for participants to receive a virtual Iftar delivered to their homes during one of the sessions. This simple act of sharing food helped bring the group together, humanizing an experience that might otherwise have been impersonal.

As challenging as 2020 has been for all of us as individuals and for KAUST as a center of research, innovation and education, we’ve learned a great deal in the face of adversity—lessons that are applicable across industries and beyond the end of this particular crisis. By embracing new ways of working and learning from the experiences of others, by forging ever closer bonds with our partners, by making the most of the technologies we have available to us, and finding creative ways to stay connected, it’s eminently possible to adapt and thrive during this time, one of the most challenging periods humanity has faced in a generation.

Read more about KAUST’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

KAUST and Industry Partners Step Up to Combat COVID-19
KAUST partner SaudiVax advances treatment for COVID-19
KAUST startup Wayakit partners with Swissport International AG to provide disinfectant solution at Saudi Airports in fight against COVID-19​