A cluster of shipping containers in a city centre is about the last place you’d expect to find salad growing. Yet for the past year, vertical farming startup Madar Farms has been using this site in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, to grow leafy green vegetables using 95 per cent less water than traditional agriculture.
Madar Farms is one of a number of agtech startups benefitting from a package of incentives from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) aimed at spurring the development of innovative solutions for sustainable desert farming. The partnership is part of ADIO’s $545 million Innovation Programme dedicated to supporting companies in high-growth areas.
“Abu Dhabi is pressing ahead with our mission to ‘turn the desert green’,” explained H.E. Dr. Tariq Bin Hendi, Director General of ADIO, in November 2020. “We have created an environment where innovative ideas can flourish and the companies we partnered with earlier this year are already propelling the growth of Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 farms.”
The pandemic has made food supply a critical concern across the entire world, combined with the effects of population growth and climate change, which are stretching the capacity of less efficient traditional farming methods. Abu Dhabi’s pioneering efforts to drive agricultural innovation have been gathering pace and look set to produce cutting-edge solutions addressing food security challenges.
Beyond work supporting the application of novel agricultural technologies, Abu Dhabi is also investing in foundational research and development to tackle this growing problem.
In December, the emirate’s recently created Advanced Technology Research Council [ATRC], responsible for defining Abu Dhabi’s R&D strategy and establishing the emirate and the wider UAE as a desired home for advanced technology talent, announced a four-year competition with a $15 million prize for food security research. Launched through ATRC’s project management arm, ASPIRE, in partnership with the XPRIZE Foundation, the award will support the development of environmentally-friendly protein alternatives with the aim to “feed the next billion”.
Global challenges, local solutions
Food security is far from the only global challenge on the emirate’s R&D menu. In November 2020, the ATRC announced the launch of the Technology Innovation Institute (TII), created to support applied research on the key priorities of quantum research, autonomous robotics, cryptography, advanced materials, digital security, directed energy and secure systems.
“The technologies under development at TII are not randomly selected,” explains the centre’s secretary general Faisal Al Bannai. “This research will complement fields that are of national importance. Quantum technologies and cryptography are crucial for protecting critical infrastructure, for example, while directed energy research has use-cases in healthcare. But beyond this, the technologies and research of TII will have global impact.”
Future research directions will be developed by the ATRC’s ASPIRE pillar, in collaboration with stakeholders from across a diverse range of industry sectors.
“ASPIRE defines the problem, sets milestones, and monitors the progress of the projects,” Al Bannai says. “It will also make impactful decisions related to the selection of research partners and the allocation of funding, to ensure that their R&D priorities align with Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s broader development goals.”
Nurturing next-generation talent
To address these challenges, ATRC’s first initiative is a talent development programme, NexTech, which has begun the recruitment of 125 local researchers, who will work across 31 projects in collaboration with 23 world-leading research centres.
Alongside universities and research institutes from across the US, the UK, Europe and South America, these partners include Abu Dhabi’s own Khalifa University, and Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, the world’s first graduate-level institute focused on artificial intelligence.
“Our aim is to upskill the researchers by allowing them to work across various disciplines in collaboration with world-renowned experts,” Al Bannai says.
Beyond academic collaborators, TII is also working with a number of industry partners, such as hyperloop technology company, Virgin Hyperloop. Such industry collaborations, Al Bannai points out, are essential to ensuring that TII research directly tackles relevant problems and has a smooth path to commercial impact in order to fuel job creation across the UAE.
“By engaging with top global talent, universities and research institutions and industry players, TII connects an intellectual community,” he says. “This reinforces Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s status as a global hub for innovation and contributes to the broader development of the knowledge-based economy.”