What happened to our thinkers? Has Sri Lankan Academia failed?

by Tyron Devotta

Today, we are all in search of answers to the question ‘what went wrong?’  How did Sri Lanka come to this state?  And all too easily our fingers point at the government and politicians.  According to most, they are the “bane of our existence,” but then, are we putting too much in their slot?  Have we given them the steering wheel to drive the thinking of our country, when it's not really their business to do that. If not, whose business is it, and then the all important question, what has happened to our thinkers, our academia? Did they also fall short? 

In an interview given at the recently held Internet Day 2022, organised by the digital chapter of FITIS, Professor Udantha Abeyratne said something startling on the subject of ‘Building an ecosystem for innovation and research commercialisation.’ In his observation, Sri Lanka’s innovation-commercialisation eco system is elementary at best, and a contributory problem is the weak academic awareness of the commercialisation processes.  “Academia lacks a clear grasp of what is needed to create a culture of commercialisation in universities. Sri Lanka is not alone here though. Academics run the university system. How many in our university senior management circles have research commercialization experience? How many understand the time and effort needed to commercialise research outputs? What are the incentives for a regular academic to commercialise? For instance, current promotion criteria do not sufficiently recognise or reward commercialisation. We have failed to celebrate innovation and commercialisation as a potent national development pathway. Every stratum of the society, not just universities must join in the creation and commercialisation of intellectual property.”

He says there is a big difference between research and commercialisation but most often, what it involves is a mystery to academics and a subject that is difficult to explain to them.  “Research commercialisation is moving intellectual property to the wider commercial world with the target of making a profit. So we have to know what intellectual property is and then know why the commercial market and making profits are the main elements there.”

Professor Udantha Abeyratne studied at St. Thomas’ College, Matale and now lives in Queensland, Australia.  Currently he is an honorary associate professor at the University of Queensland and is well known for his research programs, covering the areas of: pattern recognition, machine learning, respiratory sound analysis, diagnosing sleep disorders, digital signal processing and scalable medical instruments. 

According to the professor, intellectual property is the creation of the human mind which can be protected, has to be novel and then have some commercial value i.e. things like patents, source codes, trademarks etc. “Research commercialisation is important because in any country and every country, even in Sri Lanka, governments invest money in universities to train people and to do research and development. Through this research and development exercises, sometimes great ideas are created, and intellectual property accumulated. But unless we make use of that intellectual property i.e. commercialise, it will either go to waste or somebody else might take it and commercialise”

Therefore, while intellectual property, if used by someone, may have meaning in terms of it benefiting human kind, the country, university and the people who invested the energy to do it will not benefit.  That is why the owners of intellectual property must commercialise, says Professor Udantha.  “Commercialisation is the way to energise the country, economy and of course make a profit, and simply create a big ecosystem where more people can be trained and more money can be reinvested in research and development and so on.  So, in order to benefit from commercialisation, we have to educate people, academics and the rest of the country about what is involved and how it must be done.”

The Professor admits that commercialisation is not easy and cannot be done only by academics, but others with different specialties need to be involved. Business and finance, what is patenting, limited processes surrounding manufacturability, and serviceability are areas that need to be grasped and properly understood.  “Then we have to figure out the market or market segments, what device we’re trying to sell and more importantly, what are the competitive advantages of our device compared to competitors who may already be there. How do we capture market share? What are our business models and value propositions? We have to understand all this, because only then, can we effectively direct translational research and drive or closely support commercialisation processes.”

Although academics are ready to commercialise at the university, the commercialisation process requires knowledge and understanding.  What the academic or engineer might consider a nice product at the initial stage, that would be immediately sellable, can change substantially during the commercialisation process as they gain more knowledge and expertise and the confidence to go back to the drawing board to perfect it.  That commercialisation process is the gap that exists and our academics need to be educated on that.

Another factor, he points to is that while there are various organisations and incubator programmes supporting innovation within universities, nobody actually owns the commercialisation process.  Although Sri Lankan academics are aware of the various programmes that go on at different universities and there is some effort to connect the dots in supporting commercialisation, most even amongst the seniors lack the knowledge necessary to sustain the effort.  Therefore, a solution to this might be to centralise, i.e. set up an organisation or entity which can help academics from end to end.  The organisation can be owned by and available to all universities, higher education institutions and research organisations in Sri Lanka, and they can have a stake in the outcomes, probably even a part of the profits.  This is a system that has worked well in Australia and Sri Lanka can follow the example, the Professor says.

Sri Lankan innovators also need to think big, “rather than coming up with a prototype or process and expecting somebody else to pick it up for commercialisation they have to find out how novel the innovation is, its competitive advantages on a global scale and not be shy of targeting it for the global capitalisation market. That way, they can get a lot of support, because there are people, organisations who are ready to invest.  These investors don’t necessarily have to be Sri Lankan, they can be people from outside, who are on the lookout for ideas that will make money. Knowing your competitive advantage is understanding the reason why somebody would take an innovation from Sri Lanka in its entirety, why it is being done in Sri Lanka, and if there is a real advantage in doing it in Sri Lanka i.e. whether it’s the location or the resources.  It doesn’t even have to be in Sri Lanka, somebody can licence the technology and set up a company that’s partly local and partly in another country. There are many ways for innovation and commercialisation to happen in Sri Lanka.”

Professor Udantha’s views on how we have failed by not connecting the dots in commercialising our innovations, is a reflection of our current system breakdown, and how much we differ from countries where we can clearly see progress.   We look up to those countries and wonder why we cannot achieve the same success.  At the bottom of it all we have to ask ourselves, are we a nation of dropouts or more importantly, does the system itself encourage us to be that — to the extent where we stay in our little corner, doing what we think is alright and hoping for the best? 

(Tyron Devotta has worked as a journalist in print, radio and television. He is currently a Public Relations specialist and an influencer for policy change.)