Photo courtesy of ADIO.

For the last decade, Abu Dhabi has been steadily and effectively building a reputation as a centre of excellence for innovation, with the government’s ambitious aim to diversify its oil-driven economy as part of its 2030 vision. The emirate is thus investing heavily in education, technology and innovation across all fields, in particular, healthcare, pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

In December 2020, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) announced the expansion of its incentive programme to include innovation-focused companies in other high-growth areas in demand, including health services, pharma, medtech and biotech. ADIO’s expanded Innovation Programme provides $545 million of rebates and grants to foreign companies to support their continued growth in Abu Dhabi.

Several key investments made by the Abu Dhabi government in the healthcare system show its further commitment, including a joint venture partnership with Mayo Clinic and Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA), to create a world-class facility: the Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC) –to improve the economic and social goals for the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

According to recent data by business and companies’ researcher Crunchbase, global investment in biotech firms totalled $16.55 billion in the first half of 2020 – a considerable raise from the $13.4 billion for the previous year in the same period. But sustaining healthcare tech hubs requires a blend of local R&D and innovation, a flexible regulatory environment and a highly skilled pool of talent – students, professors, graduates and researchers who will actively explore new frontiers.

The right ingredients for success

Tim McGloughlin is Professor Emeritus of Biomedical Engineering at Limerick University, former Chair of Biomedical Engineering at Khalifa University (KU) and advisory board chair of the Healthcare Engineering Innovation Center at KU.

“The thing with Abu Dhabi, and the UAE generally, is that you have all the pieces required in one place,” he says over a Zoom call. “Firstly, a government keen to invest in the best health infrastructure; secondly, a highly skilled scientific and healthcare talent and finally, the right regulatory environment to encourage safe exploration of health and biotech innovations.”

For McGloughlin, what appealed to him about a role at Khalifa University and inspired him to venture to Abu Dhabi at an advanced stage in his career, was this combination of key requirements for biomedical innovation.

“I was impressed with what I found,” he explains, “Khalifa University is consistently ranked in the top 350 Universities in the Times HE list for ‘best institutions in Asia’ and ‘best younger institutions’. For a young university, that’s quite remarkable. So, I put my hat in the ring and they chose me.

“Khalifa University started primarily as an engineering school and, in line with international trends, included a biomedical engineering degree program. This was during a time when biomedical engineering as a degree in the UAE was unheard of.”

Khalifa University now has a graduate entry MD programme with many of the medical students having completed degrees in biomedical engineering, thus providing these future doctors with a technical and clinical education and a path to a future-proof career.

West meets East to find new solutions

The focus for McGloughlin for now and the future is to marry his vast experience in Ireland, which in 50 years has developed a world-leading position in pharma and medtech, with the Abu Dhabi government’s and university’s goals: to find, implement and provide engineering solutions to clinical problems. And that brilliant intersection is what many of the biomedical engineering students in the UAE are most interested in, says the professor.

The next steps for the country in the areas of health and medtech, he says, as it heads toward its ambitious 2030 goals, is to continue to develop its talent pool and improve private sector jobs in the industry. This vision is why the government has put in place a regulatory body and is offering attractive incentives for biotechs and pharmas hosting clinical trials in Abu Dhabi through the establishment of the Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC) (formerly Abu Dhabi Research and Development Authority (ADRDA)). The new entity was created to aid the growth and development of a holistic and world-class R&D ecosystem in the emirate and to build new partnerships for research funding involving academic institutions and industry.

A new healthtech infrastructure

In addition, for high-growth companies, startup ecosystems in Abu Dhabi like Hub71 and the Department of Health’s AI Lab show that the emirate is building its healthtech infrastructure from the bottom up. The government recognises that startups play an important role in the economy by providing employment opportunities for local graduates as well as ushering in new innovations.

Healthtech startups like US-founded Aumet, a digital platform for medical distributors and manufacturers, has offices in France, Jordan and Hub71. As part of Abu Dhabi’s tech startup ecosystem’s Incentive Programme, Aumet receives 50-100% free housing, office space and health insurance for up to two years for its team of five.

Founder and CEO Yahya Aqel comments: “Coming from California, we see Abu Dhabi as a safe, well-connected and supportive place to do business – a springboard to scale our business operations globally. With the immense support that we are getting from the community, we couldn’t have picked a better place to step up our game than Hub71.”

“If things continue at this pace,” McGloughlin summarises, “then Abu Dhabi is certainly an exciting place to bring your business or to start your education in the biotech and medtech sphere.”