Masdar Institute nurtures academic excellence

The Masdar Institute, the clean energy university owned by the Abu Dhabi government, is in talks with MIT to renew its $40 million partnership.

Emirati students of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology after their graduation ceremony. Pawan Singh / The National
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The crown jewel of a US$16 billion development, it attracts oil companies and airlines as business partners, and its state-of-the-art facilities are the envy of competitors.

The Masdar Institute, the Abu Dhabi Government's four-year-old experiment in academia, is one of the cornerstones of the emirate's plan to create a knowledge economy and diversify into clean energy. This summer it graduated its first batch of students, a collection of young scientists recruited from around the world to embark on careers in renewable energy.

So far it has relied on a $40 million (Dh146.9m) partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the ivy-covered science powerhouse in the US, for staff, support and - perhaps most importantly - prestige.

That contract expires in November. MIT and Masdar, the Abu Dhabi clean energy company that owns the Masdar Institute, are negotiating a renewal of the partnership.

Their work together illustrates the business of academia, a world that relies on corporations for funding and invests multibillion-dollar endowments.

Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, the president of the Masdar Institute, even speaks of the university in corporate terms.

"We are a start-up, right?" he says inside the school's offices in Masdar City, the Government's planned carbon-neutral development. "We are growing and we are establishing ourselves, so there is a lot of what we call capital expenditure."

MIT, like its peers Harvard, Georgetown and the Sorbonne, has made a business of exporting its knowledge and name to the Gulf region. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government partners with a Dubai counterpart, Georgetown operates a school in Doha, and the Sorbonne has opened a campus in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Moavenzadeh continues that the partnerships are "a recognition and acceptance of the fact that the universities are becoming the driving force for the development of new industry."

One of his priorities is securing corporate tie-ups. The Masdar Institute already works with: the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations to refine technologies to capture carbon dioxide and sequester it underground; with Boeing and Etihad to manufacture biofuels from saltwater algae; and with Siemens to design power grids to conserve energy. Dr Moavanzadeh, a former MIT professor of systems engineering, is a specialist in bringing MIT's knowledge overseas. He led a unit that helped to establish new schools and research programmes throughout Latin America, the Middle East and parts of East Africa, and whose latest conquest is a new post-graduate school in Singapore.

Now MIT is in talks with the Russian government to establish a university, similar to the Masdar Institute, in the village of Skolkovo. It would anchor a city built specifically to foster innovation with the help of multinational corporations. If that sounds a bit like Masdar City, it is no surprise that Dr Moavanzadeh visited Russia in March and a month later hosted representatives at the Abu Dhabi development.

The city has a name: Innograd.

As for the future of MIT's relationship with Abu Dhabi, Dr Moavanzadeh insists that Masdar does not lean on MIT.

"We are independent of MIT," he says. "Our faculty is our faculty, not their faculty. Our students are our students, not their students. Our degree is our degree, not their degree."

His goal is to catapult the Masdar Institute into the ranks of the world's top 50 universities. That list is drawn from quantitative markers such as the number of publications or patents, the percentage of faculties with doctorates and where students end up after graduation.

Then there is the matter of prestige.

"See, Harvard did not get to Harvard in the first 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 years," Dr Moavenzadeh says. "MIT did not get where it is in the first 50 years. You have to start somewhere. You cannot just say, well, I don't have 50 years to wait for it. 50 years from now, you'll say the same thing."