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Dubai's University Free Zones Strategy To Power New Wave Of Student-Lead Innovation And Entrepreneurship In The Emirate The strategy is poised to propel the Emirate's startup sector to new heights and play a significant role in the UAE's future growth as a knowledge and innovation economy.

By Megha Merani

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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A new strategy to create economic and creative free zones in universities across Dubai is poised to propel the Emirate's startup sector to new heights, and play a significant role in the UAE's future growth as a knowledge and innovation economy, experts have said.

UAE's national news agency WAM reported early last month that H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, approved a Dubai Free University Zones Strategy to transform public and private universities in the Emirate into free zones that allow students to carry out business and creative activities as an integrated part of their higher education.

Part of the Emirate's 50-Year Charter to ensure a sustained development march that will turn Dubai into the best city in the world, the move is designed to support students with education, research, and funding, and pave way for the universities to graduate not just students, but successful entrepreneurial employers.

"As we approve the strategy to create economic and creative free zones in universities, we set in motion a revolutionary plan that will assist students to realise their dreams in becoming the young successful business leaders of the future," the Crown Prince said.

Following the announcement of the new policy, the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU) is already in talks to join forces with Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting, as part of its plans to launch the first innovation and economic free zone among UAE universities. The university said in a press release that it plans to partner with major international companies like Signify with an aim to change the face of education and promote a culture of entrepreneurship that would drive empowerment in the Arab world.

In an interview, Sajida H. Shroff, CEO of Dubai-based education investment and advisory firm Altamont Group, said she believes the new allowances will provide "a tremendous tailwind to the start-up sector" and will drive innovation "to reach levels that we can only just begin to imagine."

"In the days of early Dubai, economic drivers required investment in gigantic infrastructure such as ports and airports," she explained. "Today's knowledge economy requires levers that will drive early adaptation of academic learnings and education into the workforce. The startup sector is at the forefront of using these learnings to remove inefficiencies from the marketplace. Innovation is driven by fresh young minds looking at old problems in a new way."

The new policies create an environment for students to immediately apply their learnings to practical problems, which will be the "biggest spark to innovation," Shroff added.

Early-stage startups make up nearly 50% of all companies registered in Dubai, with an estimated contribution of more than 47% to the UAE's annual GDP, according to figures from the Dubai Statistics Centre, validating the emirate's appeal as a global hub for entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer, and innovation.

Siama Qadar, Chief Financial Officer at Dubai's Ento Capital Management, added that the initiative encourages students to jump forward with their ideas rather than worry about business setup formalities. "Young adults will be able to freely communicate their ideas knowing they have legality and government support all covered," she explained in an interview.

This, in turn, will lead the startup sector to "flourish with fresh, original ideas" and create a deep digital and service footprint, she said. "New pioneering inventions will lead the market of the UAE. Young adults will be the creation of legacy but also the reason for new future generations to advance in further development at an accelerated pace."

"Nucleus for building the future'

Dr. Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of HBMSU, said in the press statement that the free zone strategy has received a great deal of extensive discussions, receiving widespread praise for the key role played by the university as a "nucleus" for building the future.

An Innovation Center, which is to be positioned as a strategic link between the key elements of HBMSU and the specialized resources of its partners from both the public and private sectors as well as international companies headed by Signify, will conduct applied research and specialized projects to come up with real solutions for the local and international business community.

Following HBMSU's example, Altamont's Shroff advises universities to establish more partnerships with enterprise and industry and create innovation labs wherein industry will bring in problems they face.

"Any successful outputs can be co-owned by the class and university," she said. "And if the industry wants to use them they can be offered back on a royalty basis which will further incentivize an innovation culture for all, thereby driving economic value for industry, rewarding the innovators, and developing leaders that will be positive contributors to society."

Ento's Qadar cautions however that, in addition to industry and free zone partnerships, universities also need to establish well-thought support systems for students that include mentorship and coaching.

"A governance system should also be in place within the free zone and universities – a control and monitoring mechanism to be in favor of the students total well being, so they can manage psychological problems and concerns that will arise with the fast pace new world they have entered into," Qadar said.

Meanwhile, universities also need to help student businesses get the exposure they need to thrive according to Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Retail and Jacky's Business Solutions.

"Many of these businesses need investment – investment not only in the form of money, but mentorship, connections, tools and resources, beta clients… and this is what a university can do best since they have the ability to provide all of this," he said in an interview.

"With the UAE wanting to establish itself as an innovation hub, it is important to have all the tools in place for a startup to succeed. What startups today need is the ability to register a business easily, not have to worry about getting a rent contract because they operate from flexible locations or think about sponsoring 'employees' since they rely on a network of freelancers or contract employees until they're full setup. If this is what the university free zones can offer, then this will definitely help encourage many who want to startup a business to focus their energies on what actually is more valuable to them."

A "gift' for students

The forward-thinking policy also relieves the pressure on entrepreneurial students who have historically had to worry about securing an employment visa to remain in the country immediately after they graduate, Panjabi added.

"The UAE has had a large expatriate population and many of whom have struggled once they graduated to remain in the country because they don't have someone to sponsor their visa," he explained. "What a move like this does is help us retain talent and know-how in the country. The UAE is well positioned to help export ideas but for us to do that, we need to retain the talent in the country."

Panjabi, whose company supplies 3D printing and robotics equipment to the education sector, added that with the rules of product development and manufacturing being re-written across the globe, entrepreneurs in the UAE can tap into and capitalize on the edge they have in terms of the nation's powerful and significant infrastructure.

"We are moving to the Industry 4.0 stage as a region that has been a net importer of products and ideas to a potentially a region that could be a net exporter of design, manufactured products and ideas. We have the advantage of location and logistics that can help us excel which makes this a very exciting period," he said.

Shroff added that students must now recognize and make the most of the opportunities the new policy offers.

"Students must understand that this is a gift from His Highness to make their future," she said. "They should enthusiastically leverage this chance to work throughout their years of study and find practical applications for their theoretical learnings. This coupling will provide them the edge to open the doors to their future when they graduate and enter the workforce."

This article was originally published on Dubai Startup Hub and has been reposted on Entrepreneur Middle East based on a mutual agreement between the websites.

Related: The Middle East's Startup Hub: Making Dubai A Launchpad For Innovation

Megha Merani

Independent Journalist

Megha Merani is an independent journalist based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Her stories have made headlines across a number of publications including Reuters, Associated Press, Entrepreneur Middle EastBloomberg Middle East, Arabian Gulf Business Insight, Arabian Business, and former local daily 7DAYS.

Megha also produces editorial for government platforms including the World Government Summit and World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils. She has been a grant winner of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the government of Norway to report on the online trade in illegal wildlife.

Megha is also an Associate Fellow (AFHEA) at Murdoch University in Dubai and leads its Digital Newsroom course unit. In addition, Megha serves as a United Nations Women mentor to support equal opportunities for women entrepreneurs, and supports various other programs including TIE Women, 60 Day Startups, and the Watt Inc. Business Incubator.


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