American University of Beirut

Excellence Beyond the Classroom Walls: MSFEA Supports Local and Regional SMEs through R&D Initiative 

​Over the past 12 months, and as part of its R&D Semaan-endowed program, MSFEA has provided almost $200k worth of research and development support for enterprises in Lebanon to enhance their competitiveness and sustainability during the crisis. Over twenty companies have benefitted from this initiative, from INDEVCO manufacturing to El Mir brewing. 

The story: 

We often see the brightest of stars in the darkest of nights. Amid the financial crisis that has taken Lebanon by storm, MSFEA has been a twinkling force of change that has pivoted and refocused several of its programs towards a broader collective impact. 

In 2020, MSFEA soft-launched a program to support the competitiveness and sustainability of local and regional small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by granting them access to MSFEA’s 100 PhD students, advanced prototyping, and analytical labs.  

Today, and through The Institute at MSFEA, MSFEA is serving more than 20 SMEs in Lebanon, ranging from pharmaceuticals to consumer products to information technology sectors. This has been a conscious effort by the MSFEA leadership to innovatively tailor funds from the Semaan endowment to meet the most pressing intellectual and societal needs.   ​

“We recognize that as a university we have a strong stake in the health of the companies that employ our students and serve our society
,” says MSFEA Dean Alan Shihadeh. “MSFEA’s mission is to help bring about a more livable, viable, and equitable world. Lebanon and the region face daunting and unfortunately rapidly growing challenges in these domains and do so mostly without the fortune of having highly functional governments that can effectively direct industrial policy and national research and investment strategies towards making better societies. In Lebanon at least, a bright spot has been an innovative private sector, particularly in tech,” Dean Shihadeh continues. 

This effort is thus part of MSFEA’s broader strategy to contribute to the vitality of Lebanon and the region. A strategy, as Dean Shihadeh describes it, “that includes new business creation through entrepreneurship programs; innovation through applied research programs; research focused on solving local waste, housing, transportation, and pollution problems; and professional education programs for local and regional employers including businesses and governments.”  

The R&D partnership with the industry is in fact part of MSFEA’s outreach initiative through which MSFEA aims to develop mutually beneficial relationships with industry partners. Human resource training and development and open learning are the two other programs in this multifaceted collaboration with the industry. 

“One of the main initiatives that we started with upon receiving the Semaan endowment in 2018 was building partnerships with industry. This was initially part of the outreach strategic initiative, but it is now branching out into more novel forms through The Institute at MSFEA,” says Dima Matar, the coordinator for strategic initiatives at MSFEA. 

MSFEA’s strategic initiatives aim to achieve MSFEA’s mission academically and beyond. “They aim to transform the way students think in order to graduate students who are critical thinkers and who have a moral compass that allows them to ethically and objectively assess the work that they are doing,” says Matar. 

The strategic initiatives thus focus on key academic and practical elements for engineering students, such as research, integrated design, entrepreneurship, communication, and outreach. Those initiatives, however, do not work in silos and are all interlinked. As Matar explains: “R&D, for example, is also linked to the research initiative, which involves buying state-of-the-art equipment that is otherwise unavailable as well as supporting faculty with the time and funds to do research. It is also linked to the integrated design initiative where we train faculty and students to use a human-centered approach to define a problem before deciding on a solution. R&D is also linked to the entrepreneurship initiative that supports students, faculty, and staff who have promising ideas for startups. Additionally, it is linked to the communication initiative that trains and supports students to communicate effectively about technical knowledge.”  

Through those strategic initiatives, MSFEA has rebranded itself from an ivory tower educational institution that merely teaches students to an industry partner that contributes to a harmonious ecosystem in which research and practice coexist. 

This mentality of centering education and university initiatives around community wellbeing is in fact the driving force for MSFEA’s R&D program. The program’s director, Professor Riad Chedid explains how the essence of this program is to engage MSFEA students and faculty in tackling local challenges. After all, engineers are problem solvers, and the problems that engineers try to solve do not exist in a vacuum, but they in fact stem from the most pressing challenges that affect the people and societies around them. 

Professor Chedid acknowledges that this is not a new role for MSFEA: “We offer world-class educational programs that prepare students for the engineering, architecture, and design professions. Rooted in the liberal education model, our programs also prepare students to be engaged citizens and leaders, entrepreneurs, and researchers who deploy their skills with ingenuity, integrity, and a sense of responsibility towards future generations” 

The program thus seeks to demonstrate that MSFEA’s intellectual resources can substantially and rapidly improve the sustainability and competitiveness of local and regional industries. “We want them to see the value of partnering with MSFEA and enriching our programs. We seek to infuse our research and student experiences with greater real-world content from our local and regional context,” adds Professor Chedid. 

The program starts with MSFEA faculty locating a need in one sector or company to which they reach out and propose an R&D partnership. 

The suggested project is ideally one that would benefit the company either through helping it survive the current economic crisis or enhancing its competitiveness and sustainable growth.  According to Professor Chedid, “faculty members submit proposals that detail the projects identified, along with intended outcomes. Applications are then reviewed by the Project Evaluation Committee and ranked using certain criteria. Once approved, a voucher of $10,000 is commissioned to help address the critical industry challenge addressed, and the R&D work starts.” 

Each project must involve MSFEA students, undergraduates, and/or graduates, in some capacity. Students would be supervised by the faculty, as they are for any other project. 

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, MSFEA offered INDEVCO’s Sanita brand R&D support to re-purpose one of its diaper lines into an EU-rated surgical mask line. With the help of MSFEA faculty and students and MSFEA research spaces, the project went from a concept to the marketplace in less than nine weeks. Today, those masks are Lebanon’s go-to mask. 

So many more success stories are waiting to be told. Professor Chedid indicated that the program will host an industrial forum in the spring to showcase the different projects that are currently being supported. Another future goal for the program is to create a consortium with industry partners who can themselves suggest research ideas to MSFEA faculty, and results would be shared with everyone on the consortium. 

“Our faculty produce transformative knowledge and technology through internationally-recognized research and design, and they seek to leverage the special contexts of Lebanon and the region to define highly novel and relevant research programs. We impact policy and practice by directly engaging industry, government, and the public at large,” emphasizes Professor Chedid. 

The result is a budding partnership between research and practice that nourishes and strengthens one another. 

As Dean Shihadeh puts it: “Companies like Murex, Houmal Technology Park, INDEVCO, and Band Industries, as well as companies in the E&C sector like Dar Al Handasah and Khatib & Alami are pockets of vitality that provide meaningful careers and avenues for creative engagement of the world. Not to mention the hundreds of startups housed in Beirut Digital District.  With this program, MSFEA is positioning itself as an R&D provider, a talent mill, and an up-skilling center for companies in Lebanon and the region that are seeking to become more competitive and sustainable.” 

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