Masdar is ‘where the action is’, says new president Moavenzadeh

ABU DHABI // It may be a little early to call it MIT East, but Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, who has just taken over as president of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), is optimistic that the institute will become the premier energy-research university in the Middle East.

Dr Moavenzadeh, who spent 39 years as director of technology and development at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, said he took the MIST job because Abu Dhabi is committed to building a top-tier school and an energy-efficient emirate.

“I want to be where the action is,” he said.

Corporate partnerships will be vital for the school’s success, Dr Moavenzadeh said. The involvement of Emiratis also is essential.

MIST has launched an outreach programme to increase the number of talented local faculty and is sponsoring Emiratis to take PhDs overseas so they can return as researchers and teachers.

Masdar is a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and MIT. It has 90 students and just completed its first academic year.

Partnerships with corporations will enable the institute to flourish, Dr Moavenzadeh said. He cited collaborations with companies such as Etihad Airways and the Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC) that will extend to other multinational corporations. These will fuel the institute’s budget.

“Many multinational corporations want to work with us,” he said.

“We already have applications for five patents from faculty members and that’s before we’ve even graduated our first class. Budgets here will increase as we develop as a major research centre and have the increased participation of corporations.”

Already, ATIC has a multi-million dollar contract with the institute to build laboratories and facilities that do not now exist in the region.

Prof Rory Hume, provost at UAE University, said such collaborations were key to the development of research and industry. They also will help the country attract new industries.

“It’s worked elsewhere and it should work here,” he said.

The Masdar Initiative, which includes an investment arm in addition to the creation of Masdar City and MIST, is part of the Abu Dhabi Government’s plans to reduce reliance on oil and promote alternative fuels.

Masdar City is to eventually have a population of 50,000 people with 1,500 businesses – many working in the alternative energy field and using discoveries developed by MIST – but there will be no waste and no cars.

An expert on Gulf environmental issues, Mari Luomi, from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said that MIST has an important role in helping the UAE become a knowledge-based economy.

“The courses it offers are engineering, a traditionally attractive area for Arabs and Gulf nationals, so I’d see the challenges as the education system producing competitive nationals.”

All students have their tuition and living costs paid, making it an attractive opportunity for those with the credentials.

She said that the pre-Masters course the institute offers is a bridge to help students thrive in MIST’s demanding programmes.

Hélène Pelosse, Interim Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), said that creating a culture of research and development will take time but that MIST is poised to develop energy leaders and critical thinkers in science and technology.

“The institute will need the close support of industry, government and academic institutions if genuine value is to be realised from the research conducted,” she said. “There is huge potential to inspire and engage untapped human capital in the region.”

To some, it may seem a large step for Dr Moavenzadeh to move to Abu Dhabi after a long and illustrious career in academia.

“I’m here not because there is a problem here, but I’m here because there’s excitement here.”

He said it may take 10 to 15 years for Masdar to have a significant impact. But he’s impressed by Abu Dhabi’s determination.

“I’ve been to many countries over the years and there are many great plans but they are all on paper.

“Here, things are actually being done. All the way from the Crown Prince to the students, the question is more often how fast can we move and how large can we get.”