Egypt’s Innovation-Led Future: In Conversation with Ehab Abdel Rahman, Provost of the American University in Cairo
- AUC is developing developing a culture where research has a real-world impact and has established Egypt’s first-ever technology transfer office to safeguard the intellectual property of our faculty members
- Research at AUC focuses on applied solutions to tackle pressing societal issues like sustainability, energy, and poverty in Egypt and the region.
- AUC is building an ecosystem to support entrepreneurship and innovation, consolidating all elements like the business incubator and prototype lab under one roof by 2026.
- Success stories like Swvl and Paymob originated from AUC’s campus, demonstrating how the university cultivates an entrepreneurial mindset among students.
AfricaLive.net: To begin, let’s focus on identity. As you know, we engage with leaders of higher education institutions from across the continent, and each university has its distinct philosophy, approach, and mission for creating an impact. Could you define the identity or DNA of the American University in Cairo?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: Certainly, the American University in Cairo is a liberal arts institution dedicated to producing well-rounded global citizens, not limited to Egypt, but for the world at large. We emphasize preparing the youth for the ever-evolving jobs of the future, equipping them with critical thinking, creativity, and innovation. These three pillars are deeply embedded in our curriculum to educate our students effectively. To achieve this, a robust research arm within the university is essential, as research is the key to imparting these skills to every student.
AfricaLive.net: Could you elaborate on your university’s identity within the realm of research?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: In comparison to other Egyptian universities, we may be small in terms of student numbers, but our research initiatives are substantial. At AUC, our focus is on applied research that directly impacts our region’s society. While we do conduct basic research, our faculty is primarily committed to taking research concepts and turning them into tangible solutions for societal issues. These issues encompass poverty, sustainability, energy challenges, coastal area degradation, and more. The immediate societal impact of our research is a primary concern for AUC.
AfricaLive.net: You are creating a culture where research is not only conducted but also applied. We are aware smaller universities often face challenges in scaling research projects or achieving commercialization, if that is the goal. Can you shed some light on how you cultivate a culture that ensures your research makes a real-world impact?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: Developing a culture where research has a real-world impact is not something that occurs overnight; it’s a process that takes years of commitment. The key is having a clear goal from the outset and working consistently towards it. Let me take you back to 2007 when the American University in Cairo made a significant move. We established Egypt’s first-ever technology transfer office to safeguard the intellectual property of our faculty members. This office marked a pivotal step in our journey from idea to market. We recognized the need for strong research infrastructure, IP protection, technology commercialization, prototype scaling, and educating inventors on creating businesses around their innovations.
We thought comprehensively about building an ecosystem and becoming a model for other Egyptian universities. We initiated the technology transfer office in 2007, followed by the university-based incubator (V-Lab) in 2013. In 2015, we introduced a process and product development lab to scale up prototypes into marketable products and recently established Eltoukhy Learning Factory for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Our next milestone is to consolidate all elements of entrepreneurship and innovation under one roof. By 2026, we will have a pioneering facility in Egypt, where all aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation will coexist, creating an ecosystem that we hope will benefit the university and Egypt as a whole. It is worth mentioning that Eltoukhy Learning Factory for Innovation and Entrepreneurship serves as an open space for anyone with an idea, providing resources and equipment to build prototypes. It’s a place where you can keep iterating until your idea comes to life.
At AUC, we have a business incubator (the V-Lab) and an entrepreneurship center, encouraging entrepreneurs to connect with one another. Additionally, we recently established the Innovation Hub, inviting companies to our campus on one condition: they collaborate with our faculty and students. This approach ensures that real-world problems find their way into our classrooms, creating a vibrant environment for innovation and societal development.
One source of inspiration was my own background as a farmer.
Egypt’s environment isn’t conducive for banana cultivation. However, our Egyptian farmers have managed to establish an ecosystem for banana growth. Despite the negative aspect of excess water consumption, this had challenged my initial conclusions about the possibility of growing bananas in Egypt.
It led me to ponder how we could replicate a micro-ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation.
In this context, we began to consider the need for creative space to encompass all of the mentioned elements of support for innovation and entrepreneurship. Hence, and as I mentioned, in 2026, AUC will have what I hope to be a very creative space to support our students and faculty as well as the innovators and entrepreneurs in Egypt to take their inventions and ideas from just an idea to market.
Currently, coupled with a very decent research infrastructure, we have all these elements of support for entrepreneurship and innovation within the university, but they are housed in different buildings. Now, our goal is to bring them together under one roof to foster cross-collaboration and a vibrant exchange of ideas. In this unified space, you’ll find people discussing their ideas, business models, the future of their startup companies, and the intricacies of inventions. They collaborate with faculty members and students. This consolidated micro-ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, what I call the “Silicon Valley” of AUC, represents the next step in supporting research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and transforming ideas from concepts to market realities.
AfricaLive.net: It’s a fascinating approach. Many Vice Chancellors and university presidents worldwide aim to integrate entrepreneurship into their campus activities and connect students with industry.
However, accomplishing all this in a coordinated manner is a significant challenge.
For you, creating a physical space where these various stakeholders—business leaders, students, and more—can interact is crucial to making this vision a reality.
Ehab Abdel Rahman: Indeed, we currently have all these essential elements within our university, but they lack communication and synergy.
Therefore, we are in the process of creating a well-designed physical space to encourage them to interact and collaborate continuously.
This space will facilitate the interaction between students, faculty, and companies, considering the busy schedules of both students and faculty. For example, signing an agreement for internships with a company is often impractical because of the commuting challenges in Cairo. During the semester, it is very hard for a student to do an internship along with his or her classes. This is why having a branch or a research arm of the company on our campus, directly engaging with students and faculty, is a far more effective solution. It will also help the company to have the best and the brightest work on solving their research problems.
The physical space is pivotal in bringing all these elements together and allowing faculty and students to work on real-world problems with companies before they even graduate.
AfricaLive.net: What are the flagship projects or areas of research at the university that you believe are vital in addressing the challenges in Egypt and the region?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: Let me introduce two projects at AUC that have a significant impact on society and are ready for commercialization.
The first is the Water-Energy-Food Nexus project.
It focuses on desalinating seawater to make it suitable for agriculture, not for drinking. This water has slightly higher salinity, reducing the energy required for desalination. Subsequently, we use this water to cultivate fish.
Growing fish in this water provides valuable fertilizers from the fish waste. The fish are grown in a way that maximizes meat production per cubic meter and protein yield. This cycle closes with the use of the water for agriculture, creating an efficient and sustainable water desalination system.
In this process, salt generated from desalination is used to cultivate artemia, a small creature that serves as food for shrimp. The shrimp, in turn, are grown using artemia as their feed. This ensures that the salt, a byproduct of the desalination process, is utilized in its entirety, creating a nearly waste-free cycle. The project has already seen the prototype working at AUC for several years, and we are now preparing to commercialize it, establishing a company to implement this technology in Egypt or licensing such an impressive techology . It’s one of our major initiatives, strongly supported, and attracting significant research funding.
It has garnered a lot of research attention, spanning areas such as desalination, the use of solar energy for desalination to reduce energy consumption, fish cultivation, identifying the right fish species and growth conditions, and selecting suitable plants for the treated water that thrive in the Egyptian environment.
The project aims to maximize land productivity with minimal water usage, involving a large research team, and it’s delivering promising results.
Another project we are actively working on is hydrogen production, focusing on minimizing energy usage while maximizing hydrogen production, including green and blue hydrogen. We have a dedicated team for hydrogen production, and this technology will play a significant role in the future.
AfricaLive.net: Very interesting projects, and it seems like there’s a lot happening in Egypt in relation to the circular economy.
Let’s now look at internationalization.
It’s clear that you are focused on addressing local issues with significant global potential. However, I’d like to hear more about the international identity of the university and its relation to the African continent and the Middle East. People often ponder the extent of engagement between institutions in Northern Africa and those in the South. How do you approach internationalization to ensure both local and global impact in your work?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: That’s an excellent question. I believe we can agree that in the ’80s and ’90s, internationalization was a goal that university administrations needed to focus on.
However, in 2023, internationalization is not an optional goal but a fundamental aspect of any university’s administration. Everything about a university is accessible worldwide now, and its reach extends far beyond the borders of the country in which it operates.
AUC has always been an international university from day one when we were established over a century ago. We have consistently had international faculty and students. Our campus has always been a melting pot of ideas from all over the world, creating a rich tapestry of international diversity. This diversity has contributed to our identity as an international university, hosting students and faculty from various countries. It also connects us to numerous nations through the people who are part of our community.
Our faculty members, for example, bring their international experiences and collaborations with other universities to AUC. This has created a culture of internationalization within our university without extensive effort, making it a natural part of our DNA from the beginning.
In terms of impacting the African continent, we view AUC as a gateway to Africa. We have a history of collaboration with African universities, and we offer scholarships to African students to study at AUC. Recently, we secured a $10 million grant to work on climate change issues, specifically focused on Africa. We aim to implement this grant in African countries to enhance their mitigation plans in the face of climate change.
AfricaLive.net: I’m intrigued by your mention of fostering a Silicon Valley mindset on campus. Could you share your approach to cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among your students and the environment in Egypt?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: I’m pleased that you brought up the term “entrepreneurial mindset.” At AUC, we emphasize instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in our students from the moment they step on campus. I used to teach physics, and even then, I told my students that they were not here to graduate and find a job; they were here to learn so they could graduate and create jobs.
This entrepreneurial mindset is not limited to certain majors; we aim to infuse it throughout our curriculum. We educate our faculty on what this mindset entails so that they can encourage our students to embrace it. Learning at AUC goes beyond the classroom; while classroom instruction is vital, a significant portion of learning occurs outside those walls. When you visit our campus, you’ll see that classrooms are always busy, but outside the classroom, numerous activities take place day and night. These activities cover a wide array of topics, with entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities being at the forefront. We believe in fostering an entrepreneurial spirit at AUC.
Let me provide an example of a few companies that originated at AUC. One of them is Swvl, often described as the “Uber for buses.” This company was founded by our graduates and initially began on the AUC campus. They then joined our business incubator, the V-Lab at AUC, which offered financial support without taking equity, as our role as a university is to help startups with promising ideas to grow. This company eventually made it to NASDAQ a few years later, with a valuation of $1.5 billion then.
AfricaLive.net: That’s an incredible success story.
Ehab Abdel Rahman: Absolutely, our aim is to provide the support and environment that allows our students to not only develop their entrepreneurial ideas but also turn them into thriving businesses. We’re proud to witness the impact of these ventures on a global scale.
There are numerous startup companies in Egypt that are now operating very successfully, and many of them had their origins at our campus. The majority of these are incubated businesses coming from our students and alumni, with our students having priority.
Our alumni have been remarkably successful in creating successful startup companies. Another company that I believe will soon be listed on NASDAQ or somewhere else is Paymob, a fintech company. It started in Egypt, at AUC, and has expanded to many countries in Africa and the region. They are performing exceptionally well, and I expect them to become the next unicorn of AUC.
AfricaLive.net: I’d like to ask a final question, which is about your perspective on the future of Egypt. Given your focus on conducting research to solve local challenges, how confident are you in Egypt’s future, particularly especially in addressing its environmental, social, and economic future?
Ehab Abdel Rahman: It’s a complex question.
As someone who works closely with farmers in addition to the academic community, I interact with people across the country and understand the challenges they face on a daily basis.
While Egypt has its share of macro-level challenges, I’m confident in the creativity and resilience of the Egyptian people. Egypt has a rich history of overcoming adversity, and the micro-level creativity I witness from farmers and workers gives me confidence that we can overcome our challenges over time.