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Interview

Dr. Steven Griffiths – Vice-President of Research & Interim Associate Provost, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi

Masdar

Dr. Steven Griffiths, Vice-President of Research and Interim Associate Provost at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Masdar Institute), discusses the institutional strategy of the Institute, its philosophy of ‘directed evolution’, the privilege and associated responsibility of working for an institution so deeply embedded in the national intellectual and industrial landscape, as well as his ambitions for Masdar Institute’s future growth.

Masdar Institute and the broader Masdar initiative is certainly a fascinating story. Can you tell us about the genesis of Masdar Institute?

The entire story began in 2006 when Dr. Sultan Al Jaber spearheaded the establishment of Masdar, also known as the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, Abu Dhabi’s pioneering renewable energy initiative. It comprised business units focused on clean energy development and deployment, a sustainable city and venture capital. These units were to be complemented by Masdar Institute as a graduate-level, research-focused university.

Whilst setting up the Masdar Initiative, Dr. Al Jaber led a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to establish a partnership with what many consider the world’s leading science and engineering university. The vision was for Masdar Institute to be an advanced energy research institution modeled after MIT, embedded in an ecosystem that would provide the resources, infrastructure and capital required to seed and incubate a Silicon Valley type of environment in the UAE.

The product of that visit was the first five-year agreement (2006-2011), with the main objective being to establish the Institute operationally and support the development of the existing research ecosystem. At the start, there was little to no research and development (R&D) happening in the UAE. For instance, concepts like Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) and the innovation lifecycle were not part of the local way of doing business. There was almost no industry-sponsored university research and little to no international presence. It became evident that we had to first construct a platform for dialogue and build up an understanding of R&D as not just a matter of importing and adapting technology, but about building indigenous capacity for developing the next generation of truly revolutionary ideas and products. This was our first hope for Masdar Institute.

Masdar Institute is the world’s first graduate-level research-based university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies. What is its overall institutional strategy?

Following the successful conclusion of the first five-year-agreement, we entered the next major phase of our institutional development, which included a new five-year agreement with MIT. Of paramount importance was emphasis on impactful research and innovation.

While the original intention had been to work on renewables, we ultimately decided to make ‘advanced energy and sustainable technologies’ our raison d’être. We were conscious of the need to strike a judicious balance between having a manageable, locally relevant focus while producing work with broad, meaningful impact. We wanted to position Masdar Institute for global impact while addressing regional challenges.

The two main research areas we have strategically defined are energy and water. Visualize a Venn diagram with energy and water as two circles – in the nexus where they overlap, you have many shared R&D fundamentals and capabilities. We have chosen to build supporting platforms of advanced materials and smart systems (with a particular emphasis on information science), as these are the two cutting-edge areas with the broadest scope and applicability across key national industries, from oil and gas to aerospace.

We then outlined key performance indicators (KPIs) that would define success, with an obvious parameter being the quantity and quality of technical solutions we provide to industry partners. This represents the value we provide to the national economy, whether in terms of direct solutions we provide to companies or the intellectual property (IP) we develop which could be licensed to companies or spun off into start-ups.

How would you differentiate Masdar Institute from the other key institutions in the UAE like the Petroleum Institute?

Ultimately, we seek to position Masdar Institute in the ”discovery science” and “use-inspired fundamentals” research space, which is when basic science is leveraged to tackle challenging and fundamental problems with the aim of generating transformational solutions for applications. It is a very different breed of science relative to basic science or commercial research.

However, we are first and foremost an academic institution, not an applied research institute. In addition to industry contributions, we also care about KPIs like knowledge creation, assessed by the production of quality publications. We also have the responsibility to train the next generation of human capital.

We have witnessed a remarkable maturation of the UAE’s R&D landscape in the past decade. This is most clearly reflected in the amount of sponsored research revenue Masdar Institute currently has: over the past five years, we have attained well in excess of USD 60 million in terms of total research contract value.

Given the rather central nature of MI’s industrial collaboration and limited resources, how do you determine your priorities in terms of industry partnerships?

In line with our institutional strategy, we aim to direct our own funding primarily into energy and water projects. For instance, we are looking at solar energy, notably with our Masdar Solar Hub initiative, which is the region’s first fully-integrated solar research and testing centre. We have also embarked on revolutionary technology initiatives related to energy-efficient buildings, next-generation energy storage and intelligent systems for small, closed networks of energy sources.

However, when it comes to sponsored projects and industrial collaboration, we are very happy to leverage on our research capabilities in information and materials science for projects in other sectors. Masdar’s parent company, the Mubadala Development Company (Mubadala) oversees activities in a vast array of industries, so there are ample partnership opportunities within its portfolio. We have significant involvement in the metals and mining industry and the aerospace industry. We have also developed a microsystems technology academic and research program specifically to develop local capabilities that would support Mubadala’s semiconductor interests. Most recently, we launched a space systems and technology academic concentration in collaboration with Mubadala’s Yahsat subsidiary.

Can you highlight key examples of industrial partnerships you have developed specifically in oil and gas?

In terms of oil and gas, we have naturally worked extensively with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) group of companies as well as the Petroleum Institute (PI).

A major project is the ‘Digital Rock Physics’ (DRP) project, a collaboration between Masdar Institute, the PI, ADNOC and Total. The project seeks to build an extensive library of cores in order to develop a computational model able to produce high-resolution simulations of the carbonate reservoirs here, with the ultimate goal of supporting UAE’s ambition to reach 70 percent Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) rate.

At a strategic level, there is much room for PI and Masdar Institute to collaborate synergistically in the energy space. The excellent materials science and geomechanical capabilities at Masdar Institute complement PI’s expertise in geological sciences and hydrocarbons well. For instance, our imaging capabilities allows us to understand the core structure of materials at the nano and sub-nano scales. We focused on the fine-resolution characterization of core pore networks. PI, in conjunction with Total, oversees aspects of the image processing and modeling work as well as tomography, which is important in bridging the nano and macro scales.

Another great example is our collaboration with Takreer (the Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company), with whom we work on several projects, one being the task of developing next-generation zeolites, which are used as catalysts in oil refining. We look at both process efficiency questions like fluid flow in trickle-bed reactors and system optimization questions like the selection of optimal refined products based on market conditions.

In the increasingly competitive global higher education landscape, how do you ensure that Masdar Institute remains attractive to both professors and students of the highest caliber?

While we must certainly acknowledge the intellectual debt Masdar Institute owes MIT, it is important to understand that we are not trying to replicate MIT here.

Masdar Institute is deeply embedded in the UAE’s sociopolitical ecosystem. The environment here is one of directed evolution: intellectual freedom within a predetermined set of parameters. Academic and research excellence requires somewhat of an intellectual free rein, which is why we have adopted the American model of graduate education. However, we do have a clear strategic mandate and a distinct responsibility to serve the national agenda of sustainable economic and energy development and diversification, so a firm strategic direction is required to enable us to maximize our impact.

This is also an incredible privilege; our integration within the entire ecosystem grants us remarkable influence over the national industrial, innovation and R&D agenda that few other universities possess. Despite our relative youth, we have already managed to develop robust links between academia, industry and government, to the extent that well over 30 percent of research funding now comes from industry and government partners.

Having top quality faculty and students that mesh well with the culture here is integral to our success. This is the wrong institution if academics and students want to focus on basic research. There are tremendous opportunities to tackle some of the most important and exciting problems across major industries, particularly due to our very close association with Mubadala and Masdar. If you are attracted to dynamic, vibrant environments like I am, this is the perfect place for you!

In the past decade, Masdar Institute has accumulated an impressive array of academic credentials, with eight approved US patents and being ranked the top Arab university in terms of research citation impact in the US News and World Report 2015 rankings. What do you envision to be the next milestones for Masdar Institute in the next few years?

We are almost 10 years old now. As outlined, the first five years was spent fostering an R&D environment and accumulating critical mass in terms of faculty, students and overall research environment. The past five years has built on these foundations to generate quality research, and we have seen significant results in terms of both IP generation and publications. We are now developing our strategic plans for 2017-2022.

First and foremost, we want to maintain our steady output in research to consolidate our academic reputation.

Secondly, successful alumni become productive participants in industry and society and in turn inspire the next generation of industry leaders, so I would love to see our first cohorts of alumni gain traction in various industry sectors over the next five years.

We also want to further develop the research and industrial ecosystem here. The next stage is indigenous company creation and technology. I would like to see more ideas and new technology being commercialized to realize their industrial potential. For instance, we are currently pursuing the spin-out of four different research project portfolios, with the hope of developing them as either joint ventures with industrial partners or direct spin-offs. We have also created an innovation accelerator, the Catalyst, with Masdar and British Petroleum (BP). It is clear that there is demand for an entrepreneurial platform where various stakeholders can collaborate and we would like to position Masdar Institute as the leader in R&D and innovation.

Finally, I would also like to encourage more companies to base their R&D operations for the Middle East region here. Singapore is a key model: many major technology companies have established a regional headquarters there and the technology infrastructure is amazing. The UAE is already moving in the right direction, with increasingly more international companies seeing Masdar Institute as one reason to base themselves in Abu Dhabi. Currently, we have over 50 local and international partners working with us here on R&D. In addition to attracting new partners, we would also like to deepen our existing partners’ involvement with us.

This is what I love about working at Masdar Institute: the chance to be a part of a monumental project and to shape UAE’s very promising future development. We have accomplished much in the past decade but we have much more to do – I certainly relish the challenge!

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