The Budget 2014 proposes new initiatives to support commercialisation of inventions. An important initiative that the Ministry of Research and Technology is believed to be contemplating is to set up a technology park in Sri Lanka (in addition to the Nano-Technology Park, Homagama) with a focus on commercialising inventions in a wide range of fields through new venture creation. This would be a welcome idea from the viewpoint of many: researchers, businessmen/entrepreneurs, and consumers.
There are science parks, university research parks, science and technology parks, and simply, technology parks in many countries around the world. While the emphasis of these arrangements on research, development, and business start-ups vary among the models used in these countries, they all share in common the objective of supporting commercialisation of inventions. What is desirable for Sri Lanka is a technology park with an emphasis on development of inventions and their commercialsation.
Scientific and technological progress is an essential part of the process of modern economic development in any country. Inventions such as petrol engines, computers and nuclear power have changed and improved our quality of life dramatically. Scientists continue to ask questions, develop theories, carry out experiments and make new discoveries. Hardly a week passes without news of an important advance in one or other branch of science. However, all these take place in advanced economies. Inventions taking place locally, if any, stop short of commercialisation and that is the problem to be addressed by new institutional and policy initiatives.
What scientists discover does not necessarily reach practical applications that benefit the common man. In between inventions and their subsequent practical applications, there are a number of stages of development that constitute the transformation. This process is known as innovation. In essence, these stages are:
The Technology Park of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur is a fully fledged promotion zone with engineering workshops, laboratories and incubators. Incubators there provide office space, storage facilities, secretarial and communication facilities to inventors who start new business with little funding
(a) Conversion of invention into a product idea perhaps with applied research
(b) Development of the technological apparatus required for product development into usable and reproducible form
(c) Introduction of the product to a market, and
(d) Developing business in competitive markets.
The process of commercialisation of inventions in developed economies is strongly built into their competitive market system. Inventions are promoted deliberately by governments, universities and private firms and they are demanded for commercial use in business. In developing countries such as Sri Lanka, this process is weak and fragmented due to many reasons including dependence on developed countries for new products, linkage of research and development (R&D) activity with the developed world rather than local realities, poor funding of R&D, policy and institutional inadequacies, and lack of financial and managerial support for new ventures.
Inventors are not necessarily the investors. Inventor-investor match is to be forged by a number of other players including those who provide technical development (laboratories may be involved), business advisors, financiers or venture capitalists, institutions giving government assistance (such as tax relief, subsidies, export credit/insurance), and so on. The history of entrepreneurial development is full of stories of missing links among these variables. Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone (patented in 1876) and realised his dream of producing the ‘speaking telegraph’, had to depend on the financial assistance of his father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard to set up a workshop to further develop the multi-telegraph and telephone system.
Very often, technological development requires skills the inventor does not possess. Bell did not have the required knowledge of electrical engineering but the vacuum was filled by Thomas Watson who joined Bell's workshop. Watson had working experience at an electrical shop in Boston. The original design had a dual-purpose transmitter-receiver for two-way conversations. Getting wider acceptance for this was a battle, and even his father-in-law thought like the many others that this might remain a scientific toy or novelty. In fact the giant telegraph companies feared competition from the telephone and encouraged false rumours about its bad effects.
A technology park is a physical place that provides for R&D and incubation facilities for inventors who plan to launch a new business. This writer and a group of PhD/MBA candidates who study at the Graduate School of Management, Colombo 05, for degrees from Open University Malaysia recently visited the Technology Park of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. It is a fully fledged promotion zone with engineering workshops, laboratories and incubators. Incubators there provide office space, storage facilities, secretarial and communication facilities to inventors who start a new business with little funding. They also provide technical assistance, business and marketing advice, and more importantly connections to financiers.
Organising these multiple needs to the satisfaction of the new business venture is no easy task. It requires not only knowledge, skill and experience but also commitment and dedication to ensuring the business success of small companies. Therefore, investment in these structures and institutions must be designed with due care and coordination among key institutions in R&D, government policy, finance, and corporate community.
There are hundreds of inventors in this country at various levels of sophistication. At the school level alone, there are hundreds of smart children whose creative works are recognised annually by various institutions such as the Institute of Engineers, Sri Lanka. A technology park can become the catalyst in business development, supporting research and development on the one hand, and employment creation and supplying more goods to markets on the other.