x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Masdar student creating a better robot jockey

The Masdar Institute's iInnovation Centre aims to develop start-up businesses.

Dr Bruce Ferguson, head of the innovation Centre at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
Dr Bruce Ferguson, head of the innovation Centre at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National

Saeed Nofeli hopes that his entrepreneurial project will help to upgrade the UAE’s robot camel jockey system.

Mr Nofeli, 31, who graduated from Zayed University with a degree in IT in security and networks, has been working with the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology for the eight months.

“I came up with the idea to develop the existing system for camel racing,” said Mr Nofeli, an Emirati who received a scholarship from Masdar. “Some of the current problems I’m trying to tackle have to do with the communication and the robotic system as a whole.”

He is one of many students working at the institute’s innovation Centre, which aims to develop start-up businesses.

“We have 90 faculty and more than 450 graduate students working at least half the time on research and the other half on studies and teaching,” said Dr Bruce Ferguson, the head of the centre. “That produces an enormous amount of knowledge, so the question is how do we take that knowledge and produce products and services.”

The centre’s objective is to convert knowledge into something useful.

“That’s an interesting challenge,” Dr Ferguson said. “MIT, which is our collaborative university, just found that it’s very difficult to licence that technology. Big companies say it’s too risky, they don’t know all the technical risks, they don’t know who their customers will be, so MIT has found that the best approach is to try to start creating start-up companies.”

Technology start-ups are considered very high-risk but if they survive, large companies will buy them. “That’s how technology makes its way into the commercial marketplace,” Dr Ferguson said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Created last July, the centre also aims to develop learning for its students and get them thinking like entrepreneurs.

“In many countries, it’s not a natural way to think,” he said. “But we’re trying to create start-ups in the areas of sustainability, renewable energy, solar power and water.”

So far, two start-ups have been set up by students: a device that measures power efficiently and costs about a tenth of what current devices cost, and a social networking application that allows travellers to get advice cheaply.

“We have another five grants that may result in start-ups,” Dr Ferguson said. “They include how to make nano-materials more efficiently, which are used in batteries, solar panels and almost any sort of electronic gear, and another for automotive platforms that will connect to the web.

“We’re still at a small-numbers phase and it’ll take time to build up, but one of the concerns is that Masdar is a small university compared with thousands of major research institutions so the critical mass is an issue and we need to find ways to address that by doing something creative.”

Rafael Harutyunyan, from Armenia, has been developing an amateur concierge service for the past year and a half.

“We provide a person who is on the phone and can answer your question when you’re abroad and don’t know the language,” he said. “It’s currently being tested in eight countries, including the UAE, and I hope to launch it in summer.

“I was always interested in having my own company and I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me.”

Dr Ferguson hopes the centre will motivate more Emiratis to become entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship is a great way to develop leaders and managers because an entrepreneur has to think about strategy, marketing and finance,” he said. “The industry is improving rapidly in the UAE and we want entrepreneurs and start ups here because this will create great jobs and industry.

“If you’re a young Emirati engineer and you have a good job in the Government, why would you take a job in entrepreneurship where 70 per cent fail?

“But many of our students are interested.”

Grants range from US$10,000 (Dh 36,730) to almost $200,000.


* This article has been amended since it was first published.