Reem Al Marzouqi was a 21 year old architectural engineering undergraduate student at the UAE University (UAEU) when – inspired by the example of American pilot Jessica Cox who flew a plane without arms – she designed a system to allow people with upper torso disabilities to operate a vehicle using the foot-based navigation system.
She is now 24 years, and a final year student who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering in early 2015. But her first invention – a car that can be driven without hands – has perhaps matured less than its inventor.
The first few months were extremely challenging, Reem told bq.
“This was my very first experience with registering ideas and I faced small difficulties at first like I didn’t know where to go or who to ask,” she said, adding that once her university was on board, the process did speed up.
Fortunately the UAE University where Reem is pursuing her degree, recognised the potential of her idea, teamed her up with two students from its College of Mechanical Engineering and assigned a supervisor to oversee the creation of the vehicle, which has a system with three levers – a steering lever, acceleration lever and brake lever – allowing it to be controlled solely with the driver’s feet without the need for a steering wheel.
A patent was filed at the US Patent and Trademark office (USPTO) in February 2012 (issued in November 2013) and in March 2013 a prototype was showcased at Takamul’s UAE Innovations conference. Takamul is a national innovation support program created by Abu Dhabi’s Technology Development Committee.
Shortly after, Reem’s invention was selected to be part of the Zayed National Museum’s opening exhibition in Abu Dhabi, in an event that paid tribute to the significant role the Middle East has played in the history of the world.
The decision to register the invention with the USPTO and not the GCC patent office in Riyadh was guided by the commercial scope of the invention, and made on the recommendation of UAEU’s Intellectual Property Office.
Since then the patent has also been filed in Japan, the European Union and China suggesting that it is a highly lucrative invention.
Role of state and institution
To date, an application has not been filed with the GCC office, despite the country’s determination to establish itself as a knowledge-based economy powered by innovation.
The UAE’s 2021 vision aims to build a nation where “knowledgeable and innovative Emiratis will confidently build a competitive and resilient economy” and its government has invested significantly in education and capacity development. In August 2014, the GCC Patent office launched an electronic filing system for patent applications on its website (www.gccpo.org).
The UAEU is one of the institutions that has aggressively embraced the strategy and focused on educating its faculty, researchers and students on intellectual property protection and copyright issues, said Mohamed Al Hemairy Head of Patents and Intellectual Property at the UAEU. It has filed around 60 inventions for its researchers (faculty members and students) since 2007, and has about 10 new inventions under drafting currently. The UAEU expects between 15 –20 new inventions in 2015.
In total, the UAEU has registered about 120 patent applications at various patent offices across the world. The university also holds annual workshops and seminars to showcase the importance of registering discoveries prior to public disclosure either in newspapers, journals or at research conferences, in order to legitimise an invention and develop it into a commercial product.
As it did for Reem, the UAEU’s Intellectual Property office registers its technologies as patent applications and assists in transferring the invention to the industry for real application/ product development. Three to five years is the standard processing time for application, said Al Hemairy.
“This is the routine action to grant a patent in the USPTO or others. Some patent offices take less and others take longer. Usually for advanced technologies and complicated invention, it takes more time than simple applications,” he explained. “In the case that a patent has been converted into an industrial product or generate a financial revenues, it will be shared equally between the university and the inventors (50% for individuals),” he added, noting that once the application has been filed at USPTO or other jurisdiction, UAEU would register a Patent Cooperation Treaty application [PCT].
This grants the invention an additional 18 months of worldwide protection to develop a proof-of-concept or conduct advance research on the original application. After 30 months the filed application can be registered in selected countries where the technology is most likely available or has a promising market. “This is the most cost-effective strategy for technology transfer from the academia to industry,” he said.
Notwithstanding the support of her university, the rigorous controls that her university imposed on access to their laboratories and equipment, is a major challenge for budding inventors, said Reem, since it obligates aspiring inventors to, first, affiliate themselves to an educational institution and second, partner with the school in their invention. It is a situation that highlights the current lack of national support available to independent researchers.
“I know someone who chose to spread their innovative ideas on social networks because they believe the time and energy spent registering one idea is enough to get another two new ideas!” she said highlighting the inherent frustrations of the patent process.
She succeeded in that last step too but the young inventor’s journey is far from over.
While she developed a vehicle prototype with her foot based system and her university is contacting manufacturers who may be interested in commercialising the invention, the obvious target market – armless drivers – are not a high profile group.
According to the UAEU’s IP office, only one in ten inventions reaches the stage of commercialization or technology transfer. But despite these bleak statistics Al Hemairy believes that the GCC’s inventions have great possibilities.
Although her invention began as a project designed to have a positive social impact, “Reem’s invention has strong potential but is targeting very specialized market, drivers with hand disabilities for instance,” he said.
“A potential market that we are focusing on could be military applications such as tanks and vehicles where drivers will have their both hands free while they drive.”
The prototype also attracted attention after the realisation that it could be used in peace-keeping operations and industrial situations where the driver is required to use their hands for other activities.
Sales of arms and military services in 2013 totalled USD 402 billion, according to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in December 2014, pointing to the lucrativeness of the sector. The SIPRI list is topped by US and Russian companies.
Until GCC governments throw their weight and money behind individual innovators and start up labs – akin to the incubation centres that are mushrooming across the globe for business entrepreneurs – it is likely that the region’s universities will continue to monopolise the development of the innovation sector.