My Visit to Doha, Qatar as an EIR
Wed, May 3, 2017
I was invited to attend an inaugural event in Doha called the Research to Startup Program (RTSP) by the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). The event was about looking at opportunities for the potential commercialization of technology developed at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) alongside a peer group of entrepreneurs and amazing mentors from all over the world.
I had never been to the Middle East, as least for anything other than being in transit. It was definitely an experience. I pride myself on knowing a lot about geography - but I was definitely in the dark about Qatar.
To those of you who are footie fans, Qatar will be hosting the World Cup in 2022. Because of that, Qatar is building out their infrastructure at a frenzied pace. Construction is everywhere. Everything is new - but occupancy is extremely low. There is no public transport but I’m told that is planned so you’ll need Uber or Careem to get around for now.
In the week we were there a round-about had been torn down and traffic lights had been put up due to increased accidents due to problems with folks navigating them.
Even in better known areas like Souq Waqif, the cross walks had just been installed and were not yet operational so you had to tread carefully across the street.
What I found most amusing was firing up Google Maps or Uber. Roads were completely missing and distance estimates would shift for Uber frequently from 1min to 15 and eventually to 7min in short order. I definitely recommend using Waze over there. I’ve never had a hard time getting a sense of direction about where I am in a city, but after a week there I was still disoriented not really knowing north from south. You’d also think the cost of petrol would be extremely cheap, but it turned out to be about $2 per gallon.
Having lived in both the UK and the US, some of the malls in Qatar have a combination of shops and eateries you’d only expect to see in one or the other. Yet in Qatar, I saw both sitting side by side. Not having been back to the UK in a while, it was oddly comforting to see a Boots chemist there.
The week itself was extremely busy with a lot of information packed into each day. The technologies on display were impressive. The Qatar Foundation has spared no expense on the amenities and I’m sure the researchers are extremely well taken care of. Most of the researchers we met were from abroad but I’m sure that will slowly even out as more and more people hear about QSTP and take advantage of their facilities. Over the course of the week we also got to see additional research that was in the pipeline but not quite ready for commercialization.
Presentations on the last day of the program
The Mentors, EIRs and QSTP
The evenings were equally packed with various events around the city. Having grown up in Canada, one aspect that is still odd to me is that industry events with well dressed delegates typically involve wine and beverages which - as one would expect in a Muslim country - are absent. So at these events one would see champagne flutes filed with freshly pressed juice. The watermelon and kiwi in particular were great and extremely refreshing. The food everywhere was fantastic - I ate too much!
One aspect I wish to highlight was their deep level of commitment to research. There is a genuine recognition that their natural resources will eventually run out and they need to begin the move towards a knowledge based economy - an initiative they readily admit should have started 50 years ago. But few countries possess their resources and ability to make a significant change: By decree, they are committing a not insignificant amount of their GDP to research and infrastructure.
I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Maher Hakim prior to visiting Doha and was struck not only by his vision for moving Qatar and the wider Arab world towards a knowledge based economy, but also his pragmatic approach to achieving it. There are many attempts abroad to recreate Silicon Valley. Indeed there is a sense of urgency and among some, an impatience to just “get there”. Dr. Hakim recognizes that this won’t happen overnight but over a 25-50 year time frame. I came away with a sense of hope that the foundation he is laying can set the stage for an Arab renaissance. It’s fundamentally about imparting an ethos and culture of sharing freely, innovating together and ‘paying it forward’.
Having spent ten years in the UK, I couldn’t possibly not touch upon mentioning the weather which, predictably, was rather hot. I hesitate to imagine how much hotter the weather would have been like had we arrived a few weeks later. Thankfully every area we visited had air conditioning. The best times to be outside - when not rushing towards an air conditioned bus - was between 5-6am and after 10pm.
During our time there we were hosted at Hamad Bin Khalifa University which is located in an area appropriately called Education City. The campus itself is exquisitely manicured with an incredible student centre.
On our final evening we went to Souq Waqif and walked around the area. We saw the Falcons at the shops and a member of our group even purchased a carpet.
Do you have something to say to me?
The last day was an opportunity to see the sites around Qatar including ‘Dune Bashing’ which was amazing. We also had a chance to take camel rides and visit their beaches which are spectacular.
A few of us stopped to get our bearings in relation to other gulf states Professional drivers in souped up 4x4s drive you around the dunes I think his name was Phil The beaches are exquisite. You can rent beach tents for the day or night
Overall the week was wonderful, our hosts were extremely gracious and conversations with both the EIRs and mentors was thought provoking.
I’ve made friends I’ll have for a lifetime.
As an aside, there’s nothing like a 15 hour plane ride with an arbitrary laptop ban to help you compose your thoughts for a blog post. If you do happen to be travelling to the US from that region, plan on arriving at your gate early as they have to pack your laptop at the gate. If you have a transfer when you land in the US you should also add some extra time to get your laptop.