The need for innovation in the UAE’s life science sector

Marwan Abdulaziz, Executive Director, Dubai Science Park

To achieve the UAE’s goal of becoming one of the most innovative countries on earth, we must ensure a constant drive for innovation and improvement is continued throughout all industry sectors. This week is Innovation Week, a chance for us to celebrate the country’s most creative ideas from the public and private sector, as well as a chance to reflect on how each industry is driving their own innovation agenda for the benefit of the wider economy.

The UAE’s life science sector is filled with opportunities for innovation. According to a report by BMI, the life science sector is expected to reach AED 69.37bn (USD18.90bn) by 2019, representing 37% growth from 2014 (AED50.79bn/USD13.83bn). This marked increase is partly due to the patent cliff that has provided the opportunity for mass production of generic pharmaceuticals as the branded patents expire. It has also been driven by the surge in population the UAE continues to enjoy as more and more skilled workers turn to the country for work opportunities.

These are encouraging signs of a growing sector, but to become a genuine life science hub, the UAE needs to carve its own path in the industry, by encouraging local manufacturers to produce required drugs here instead of the population relying on imports. This is already happening. For example, next year local pharmaceutical distributor, Al Ittihad Drug Store will open Pharmax, a $20 million facility to manufacture generic pharmaceuticals for the residents of the UAE at Dubai Science Park. This is a significant endorsement of the facilities at the Park and also, of Dubai as a centre of life science.

The Innovation Strategy encourages industry leaders to look externally at how their industry operates in other markets. The Economist Intelligence Unit in collaboration with Dubai Science Park recently published a report titled ‘Innovation in life sciences: An emerging markets perspective’, detailing successful international strategies for innovation in the life science industry and concludes with recommendations that emerging markets, such as the UAE, can undertake to facilitate their own development. For example, according to the report, one of the biggest challenges for achieving innovation in emerging markets is the low rate of international R&D collaboration. Strategic partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and contract outsourcing are growing in popularity in the region, but tend to involve the lower end of the R&D value chain. Therefore the UAE, and beyond, must work to encourage partnerships at every level of the sector. Secondly, a lack of publicly funded research in emerging markets in general is constraining innovation. Therefore when considering our own research ambitions, the UAE could seek to replicate the innovation benefits than can spin out of publicly-funded basic research, as demonstrated the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

By studying how world-class industry specialists operate, organisations based in the region can choose the elements of the foundations of success seen elsewhere and apply them at home. In our industry, we could choose to consider India, Brazil and China. Similar to the UAE, each are emerging markets and centres of excellence for life science products and services. They each benefit from large domestic markets, as we do and have built their industries by focusing on leveraging assets such as location and business confidence to build their medical sector.

I believe that Dubai, and the UAE have the tools to become a global center of innovation for the life science sector through a unique blend of positive attributes such as close proximity to significant markets such as KSA and LEVANT, as well as the ability to attract talent from the global life science industry. These elements are core to the UAE’s offering as a business hub, and are ahead of its peers in MENA, but in order to achieve this ambitious goal, we must action the lessons learnt from how the industry operates in other locations whilst driving our own innovation strategy to create a unique approach to the life science sector that eventually becomes world class.