Since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Abu Dhabi in late January, Masdar City, the low-carbon, sustainable community built around renewable energy champion Masdar has taken on a new role – supporting the UAE’s response to the pandemic.
The UAE chose the 600-hectare stretch of sustainable architecture and energy efficient planning to house a high-volume COVID-19 testing centre, the first of its kind outside China, with the capacity to diagnose thousands of tests per day.
But the secure test facility – built at record pace in just two weeks - is not the only activity at Masdar City related to the pandemic. Other start-ups are producing technologies to help diagnose and treat the virus, and recruiters are starting to anticipate that more businesses of this nature will move to Masdar City as healthcare and biotech work takes on new urgency.
Not far from the COVID-19 test centre, the bio-technology maker Mondialab is making plans to start producing a wireless screening device called The Resolute which can provide health authorities with a preliminary indication of a patient’s exposure to COVID-19 and other ailments in 10 minutes.
Nearby at The Catalyst, a start-up business accelerator run by Masdar and BP, a tech firm called Volts is working on a new generation of portable battery systems that store and distribute electricity from solar cells and wind turbines, which can be used to power remote field hospitals treating COVID-19 cases.
To Yousef Baselaib, Masdar’s executive director of sustainable real estate, the contributions of these and other tenants such as Madar Farms, an organic grower of specialty herbs and spices that helps guarantee the UAE food supply, are evidence of Masdar City’s growing relevance as a biotech hub.
Honeywell, one of the key strategic tenants in Masdar City, has joined hands with Mubadala Investment Company to produce N95 face masks locally as part of its drive to support the UAE’s manufacturing base and fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The new production line with Strata, Mubadala’s wholly owned aerospace manufacturing subsidiary, has now commenced operations and will produce about 90,000 masks a day and have an annual output capacity of more than 30 million masks.
“We are extremely grateful for the contributions our Masdar City tenants are making to support the UAE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Baselaib. “Masdar City was originally created as a template for urban sustainable development. Now, as the location of important COVID-19 work, Masdar City is again showing its relevance as an incubator of tomorrow’s most urgent solutions.”
When the crisis hit, the UAE searched for a place to locate a major testing centre where thousands of COVID-19 tests could be processed each day. They settled on Masdar City, which after 12 years of growth now houses more than 700 businesses and 6,000 full- and part-time residents.
In just 14 days in March, G42, an artificial intelligence company based at Abu Dhabi Global Market, and BGI, a global leader in human genomics, transformed a vacant commercial building at Masdar City into a high-throughput COVID-19 testing laboratory.
The two companies in December announced a partnership with the Abu Dhabi Department of Health to map and analyse the large-scale genomic data of UAE citizens to improve health care and well-being.
G42 runs one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, Artemis, which can analyse massive amounts of genomic data. The testing centre at Masdar City conducts polymerise chain reaction (PCR) tests to identify SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The diagnostic kits were developed by BGI and have been approved for use in China, the USA, Europe and by the World Health Organisation.
The facility, which operates at Biosafety Level 3, a high security level, is the first COVID testing centre of its kind in the world outside of China. Ashish Koshy, the chief executive of G42 Healthcare, said the opening of the lab, which uses the most advanced detection technologies, represented a turning point in UAE's efficient preventive fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Masdar City offered many attractions to house the centre, he said. “Masdar City is a rapidly expanding urban context in which universities, research centres and prestigious companies have established operations, making it one of the leading technological and scientific hubs of the UAE," said Koshy. The centre’s “strategic location in Masdar City simplifies logistical operations and accessibility due to proximity to the country's main highway.”
Not far away within Masdar City, European entrepreneur and long-time Abu Dhabi resident Allan Gaertke and a handful of co-workers at Mondialab are planning to produce The Resolute handheld screening device, along with medical screening kits for COVID-19, on the grounds of Masdar City.
By analysing a drop of blood on a medical testing strip, Gaertke said his device can quickly determine whether a person has come into contact with the COVID-19 virus – and should be referred for a full PCR test. The preliminary screening is designed to give health agencies and governments the ability to triage and direct treatment to those people at greatest risk.
At The Catalyst accelerator run by Masdar and BP, officials are equally optimistic about Masdar City’s future as a hub for biotech innovation. One reason is Volts, a smart battery maker whose products have been ordered by more than 20 organizations, in some cases to power remote field hospitals.
The founders of Volts moved to Masdar City in March from St. Petersburg, Russia. The company, started by electrical engineer Alexander Kiyanitsa and his partners, is busy at work on a second generation of Volts smart batteries, which will offer enhanced efficiency and longer battery life.
Cinar Kurra, the chief executive officer of The Catalyst, said the sudden relevance of companies such as Volts is nudging the start-up hub to focus more on healthcare and biotech businesses.
“Before the crisis, we were thinking we should recruit health techs, bio techs,” Kurra said. “But now, we are actively looking at this sector very closely.”
In the post-COVID era, Kurra said many tech start-ups will be focused on delivering solutions and products in a world that is suddenly proximity sensitive. While not all will ultimately succeed, they will bolster Masdar City’s profile as a source of sustainable solutions to a world in crisis.