x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The universal thinker

Tariq Ali will have to take on a number of other roles to put the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology high on the world academic map.

Tariq Ali is a man who can talk for hours about what happened in the first few seconds after the universe was born. He says he now faces an even more daunting task. Dr Ali must take highly technical research about renewable energy that only scientists understand and find ways for it to be turned into technologies that reach everyday people around the world. "My job is to create a connection between blue-sky thinking and how it is going to be taken up in the marketplace," says Dr Ali, 45, the new vice president of research and industry relations at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST).

"This is the start of something that will make a major impact in the region and the world. And that's why I signed up for it." Dr Ali speaks in a way that conjures visions of neurons firing: a rapid connection of different fields of thought into an instant distillation. Those skills will come in handy at the institute where his mission is nothing less than to help transform the Abu Dhabi economy from one based on the harvesting of petrochemicals to one powered by knowledge.

Masdar, outfitted with high-speed personal people movers, arrays of solar panels and sustainable architecture, is the project's nerve centre, a possible birthplace of the intellectual property and technology that could reduce the world's reliance on oil and gas. And, of course, Masdar's creators want to make money as well. "The institute is the nucleus of the whole initiative," says Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar.

"If you look at successful clusters like Silicon Valley, the critical success came from its proximity and link-and-joint activities with universities surrounding it." Masdar, also known as the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, is spending billions of dirhams on building Masdar City, implementing alternative energy solutions in the region and making Abu Dhabi a "global hub of renewable energy". The city will be an "open laboratory" for the scientists of MIST to see their technologies in action, Dr Ali says.

MIST, which is in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, has already started gearing up for its first class of postgraduate students in September. So far, 25 students have arrived and are working as research assistants alongside 20 professors with specialities in everything from thin-film solar panels to smart-power grids to efficient building materials. Dr Ali will play the role of conductor, supervising, cajoling and supporting the professors' research, while also connecting their projects with businesses and investment companies which might be interested in selling their breakthroughs.

"You have to make it easy for a researcher to do his work and then step aside and let somebody else file the patents, evaluate it and secure funding," he says. "Let the academic be the CTO, the chief technology officer, and we'll find the venture capitalists prepared to put money in at a very early stage." Dr Ali was born in Newcastle in the north of England, the eldest son of parents who emigrated from a rural area near Lahore in Pakistan.

His father worked in factories and eventually became a bus driver. His mother sewed clothing and raised five children. "It was not a privileged background," he says. "We were one of what felt like maybe six Asian families in the whole city, so it was challenging." His school, then called Blakelaw Comprehensive, was listed by the British government as the "worst failing school in the country", but Dr Ali found mentors in a few teachers who nurtured his education.

While still in secondary school, he furtively attended astrophysics lectures at the nearby Newcastle University. Eventually, he was accepted to the University College London to study astronomy as an undergraduate. "Even when I was about seven or eight, I knew I wanted to be an astronomer," he says. "It's just about the scope and scale of the cosmos and the universe and our role in it. There are these really beautiful, simple rules that the whole universe seems to follow."

He went to Imperial College in London and the Royal Observatory at Edinburgh University for his postgraduate work. And he stayed on at Imperial for several years studying quantum well solar cells and semiconductor physics during a time of breakthroughs in the fields. It was then that he began getting involved with Scientists for Global Responsibility, where he eventually became vice chairman. The group tackles issues such as genetic engineering, nuclear winter and environmental change.

That was when, Dr Ali says, he became fascinated with the way that energy - and low-carbon technology - seemed to be the issue behind all of the world's major problems. "It is the underlying thread behind provision of clean water, health care and climate change," he said. He also began to realise the importance of what he calls "the interplay between science, policy and economics". His work caught the attention in 1998 of Lord Ronald Oxburgh, the rector of Imperial and later chairman of Royal Dutch Shell. He wanted Dr Ali to head a new Energy and Environment Office and help hone the university's interdisciplinary research strategy which is targeting health care, energy and the environment.

"We had great scientists and hundreds of ideas, but we needed to close the loop by bringing in government and industry resources to put them into action," Dr Ali says. "At Masdar, we are taking a similar approach." The post at Imperial opened him up to opportunities across the world, namely as a renewable energy consultant to everyone from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, to the UK chief scientific adviser, to five subsequent energy ministers. His résumé is full of memberships of climate-change committees and charities.

Over the years, Dr Ali has excelled at taking highly technical innovations and making them economically viable. He has brought together those focused only on pure science with those who seek to make money on the results of research. "There is no easy path to take the research and development to market," says David Vincent, the director of projects at the Carbon Trust in London. "Tariq knows how to navigate these stepping stones."

Indeed, in the suits by Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez that he favours, and sleek eyeglass frames, Dr Ali looks more like a Silicon Valley financier than the stereotypical dishevelled egghead. "You have to dress accordingly when you are meeting with CEOs, professors and having dinner at the House of Lords," he quips. Sartorial finesse aside, Dr Ali's goal is to "create generational changes" in the way we think about these issues. It is not about a new, slightly better device or system, but a concept that can change scientists' whole approach to certain problems.

To get there, the institute will not have departments but "programmes" that will make it easier to collaborate across subjects. Staff will also step out of the "ivory tower" and investigate subjects that study the way energy demand is managed though public policy, economics and information systems. In the week since his arrival, Dr Ali has been meeting the Masdar team and professors. Soon, he will be travelling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet the institute's partners at MIT.

He wants to raise the Masdar banner in front of the world's top research universities and leading business leaders as he works to hire "the best brains in the world" to come to Abu Dhabi. "We've got the resources, the vision from the Abu Dhabi Government to allow us to do it and the partnerships in place to really accelerate the development of these new technologies." @Email:bhope@thenational.ae