Unprecedented global health crisis prompts decisive action across all levels of leadership in Qatar Foundation Research, Development and Innovation

The unprecedented socio-economic impact of COVID-19 worldwide has required governments and the private and public sectors to adopt policies and dispense stimulus measures to protect people’s health and the economy. At the onset of the pandemic, Qatar has implemented social distancing and widespread testing to mitigate the pandemic’s health and economic impact.

Similarly, Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) – part of Qatar Foundation Research, Development and Innovation (QF RDI) and premier hub for applied research, technology innovation, incubation, and entrepreneurship – quickly responded by working around the clock to develop solutions to challenges presented by the pandemic.

Nearly nine months into the global crisis, QSTP’s dedicated efforts have proved crucial in combating the socio-economic impact of the virus on the country.

Yosouf Abdulrahman Al Salehi

Yosouf Al Salehi, QSTP Executive Director

“At Qatar Foundation, we are determined to play our part in the global fight against COVID-19,” said QSTP Executive Director Yosouf Al-Salehi. “Technology and innovation are at the forefront of this global battle against the pandemic, and QSTP has been a byword for tech innovation that addresses the needs of Qatar and global society since its establishment over ten years ago. As COVID-19 continues to affect our world, we are actively addressing the challenges it has created.”

The Foundation’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Qatar was just as swift. Several precautionary measures were implemented in early March to safeguard the health and wellbeing of its staff and the rest of the QF community. These included the closure of all QF schools and partner universities, while classes at Hamad Bin Khalifa University were suspended from 10 March. All business travels by QF staff were also put on hold.

In addition, all upcoming QF events were called off with immediate effect. This applied to non-essential QF internal gatherings, meetings, and workshops. QF was one of the earliest organizations to enable remote working, which took effect on 15 March. Meanwhile, QF extended support to its small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) retail tenants across Education City by waiving rental payments for six months, while any QF employee who tested positive for COVID-19 was granted a Long Leave of Absence with Pay for the duration of their illness and recovery.

QSTP’s own response to the pandemic has also been decisive and robust, with many changes made to what were once normal business practices. Beginning with practical measures to protect the health of its staff, QSTP sanitized its premises and installed hand sanitizers in front of passenger lifts while limiting the conveyors’ passengers to two; put up health tips and reminder signages, and closed restaurants, coffee shops and food serving vendors, including vending machines, at all QSTP buildings. The institution also cancelled all events or held them virtually, reduced security team personnel, scheduled maintenance after work hours, and enabled remote working while monitoring daily staff required to come to laboratories and offices.

Since then, QSTP conducted all meetings and interactions online via Microsoft Teams or telephone calls, engaging staff through regular meetings, as well as QSTP stakeholders, including partner companies, startups, and funding awardees to ensure that they continue to be fully supported. In the meantime, all application processes for QSTP Free Zone and innovation and funding programs continued, fast-tracking applications relevant to solving the challenges presented by COVID-19. QSTP also completed the licensing of eight new entities in the Free Zone.

Overriding its normal daily business proceedings has been necessary for QSTP to remain open throughout the global crisis and sustain the various technology development and business-critical processes underway in various labs and offices of QSTP’s diverse partners, which comprises international corporations, startups and incubates. Close to nine months into the pandemic, QSTP’s seamless transition to a digital working environment from March proved to be a success.

Concurrently, QSTP ensured that the companies under its roof are protected from the economic impact of the pandemic. It exempted 14 startups, local SMEs, and all retail and F&B outlets from rent and service charge for six months, and worked with the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour & Social Affairs, General Tax Authority and General Authority of Customs to ensure all their services remain available for QSTP members even during the closure of services to the public.

To oversee and ensure effective implementation of the measures set up to ease the pandemic’s impact, QSTP formed a Board comprising locally and internationally well-known experts in the complex and competitive field of innovation, which included Dr. Richard O’Kennedy, the QF Vice President for RDI; Mr. Abdulla Al Misnad, the Deputy CEO of Qatar Free Zones Authority; Ms. Reem Al Mansouri, Assistant Undersecretary of Digital Society Development at the Ministry of Transport & Communications; Mr. Mohammed Hassan Al Malki, Assistant Undersecretary for Industry Affairs at the Ministry of Commerce & Industry; Mr. Pekka Soini, North European Invest Executive Chairman; Dr. Ahmed Elmagarmid, Executive Director of Qatar Computing Research Institute; Ms. Aysha Al-Mudahka, QF CEO Office Director of Strategic Initiatives & Partnership Development; Dr. Salvino Salvaggio, Senior Director, Implementation & RDI Office Management at QF RDI, and Mr. Yosouf Al-Salehi, Executive Director of QSTP.

In other responses, QSTP shifted its programs to virtual models in order to continue startup deployment and acceleration of technology development, particularly solutions to present and pressing challenges. It launched a call for local and international tech start-ups and entrepreneurs to submit their innovative ideas and schemes that aim to resolve or alleviate issues related to COVID-19. QSTP welcomed business solutions relating, but not limited to, e-health, education, and supply chain optimization in response to the current COVID-19 crisis, accepting applications for the Park’s four key programs – Incubation Center, XLR8, Product Development Fund (PDF), and Tech Venture Fund (TVF).

During the pandemic, QSTP’s Incubation has successfully incorporated five startups with three more in process, XLR8 optimized its content and tools to ensure the program value and experience remain world class, conducting workshops, mentoring sessions and demo days online, and PDF approved three new applications providing solutions related to COVID-19 problem by providing data & services digitally, while TVF saw portfolio businesses that are well-positioned to deliver products and services that can mitigate the impact of Covid-19 such as Ember Medical, which provide virtual clinic through a telehealth platform; Obrizum which developed an AI-driven platform targeting the future of digital learning, and Rayyan whose research tool was used to complete hundreds of Covid-19 related systematic reviews.

Additionally, QSTP has played a key role in ensuring accurate and up-to-date information about the pandemic in context of QSTP and its business was disseminated, through its PR and media efforts. This has included various thought articles online and in print, along with vital messages on social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This sustained and trustworthy presence in the media has proved to be very useful, in the face of several false, inaccurate, and misleading pieces of information about COVID-19 being published since the outbreak of the pandemic.

QSTP also launched its redesigned official website in July, featuring a user-friendly and responsive layout with informative content to provide an engaging browsing experience. The website presents a broader view of how QSTP nurtures Qatar’s innovation community by providing game-changing tech ventures and entrepreneurs with incubation, funding, training, mentorship, and connectivity to regional and global tech innovation ecosystems, contributing to the national drive of economic diversification and sustainability.

Added Mr. Al-Salehi: “There is still some way to go, and the virus is still to be overcome. However, I believe that Qatar has taken decisive steps on the long road to recovery, and everyone at QSTP will be playing their part to help ensure that road is as smooth as possible. We passionately believe in the power of technology development and innovation, and we are always ready to support schemes and projects that will be beneficial to people and our societies, both in Qatar and further afield. This is especially the case in these challenging times in which we are now living, as we all seek solutions to the challenges COVID-19 has brought to our world. As always, though, QSTP stands ready and capable to address all challenges that come our way.”