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Victory in Geneva – Lost in Colombo!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

I woke up to a call from a good friend and a classmate who was really happy
about his daughter Thivinya – currently a student in a Colombo school (Museaus)
– winning a Gold medal for her invention in a competition in Taiwan (Kaohsiung
International Invention and Design Expo 2017). He has also heard that in addition
to the Gold medal she has won another medal – Best Leading Innovation Award!

She has been a member of the contingent of national award winners from Sri
Lanka who had been supported by the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission (SLIC) to
attend a global competition – 13 in all. As per my friend from the information that
he had, Sri Lanka has won five Gold medals and eight others (six Silvers and two
Bronze). Twenty-six countries had participated in this event.

SLIC, which drives the Sahasak Nimavum event after multiple inventor
competitions across all provinces, supports the local inventors to gain experience
and to pit themselves against global competitors in overseas events. Another
high-end event that SLIC supports is supporting local inventors to participate in
the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva perhaps the most important
for inventors globally.

The usual scenario is that many Sri Lankan participants realise medals and
accolades. These are not easy competitions and inventors truly had to be
outstanding to receive awards. After such events, usually there is a small news
story and at times even felicitation at Katunayake for returning inventors and the
story usually ends there.

Are we to think that inventors’ sole objective is to seek wins and accolades and
the purpose of a nation is to celebrate success and then wait for the next story to
materialise? Whatever the answer may be, Sri Lanka has witnessed this sort of
behaviour many a time and that has been our reality.

The Sri Lanka Inventors Commission had over the past years had significantly
increased their activities in supporting and promoting inventors. Today Sri Lanka
has a National Inventors Day (26 October) and this falls on the birthday of
Deshabandu Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe, one of our famed civil engineers, an inventor
and the first commissioner of SLIC.
In addition to this initiative SLIC has also introduced an identity card for National
Inventors (those who have been awarded patents for their inventions), which
carry certain benefits (see for details) too. Dasis Award is the
most coveted award for a Sri Lankan inventor.

Treasure inventors

Inventors are certainly to be treasured in a society. In United States students at

junior level if they succeed in this type of endeavour, are even given scholarships
to special universities. Going back into history we can see how inventors led the
transformation of many an economy. Inventors of global fame are Thomas Alva
Edison, James Watt, Michael Faraday, Rudolf Diesel, Nikola Tesla, Tim Bernes Lee,
Steve Jobs, Hedy Lamarr, James Dyson, Alexander Graham Bell, etc. You can fill
many a space with such names and with each name there is at least one major
invention that made the world a difference place from the day before!

However, coming to Sri Lanka we are pressed to find names and perhaps the very
absence indicates our position in the global ladder of economies. It was with such
conviction that the late Sri Lankan poet Munidasa Kumaratunga stated that
country’s that does not create new things will not rise. Introducing new things are
a staple for inventors. Today the possibilities for individuals may have given way
to teams but nevertheless the creative spirit of individuals and teams once
unleashed has the power of transformation.

Device to clean up air in hospitals

Another news item that caught my eye recently was the fact that heart surgeries
in the Colombo National Hospital is facing a stoppage due to surgeons opting to
stop surgeries over unacceptable conditions leading to above the normal
fatalities. They attribute this situation to hospital-acquired infections and the
increased risks due to very bad conditions.
Reading this my memory took me back to a couple of our inventors winning in
Geneva in 2015. They have invented a device to clean up the air and this device
had become quite successful after demonstrations in few challenging hospital
Cleaning up air in hospitals would require attacking bugs such as MRSA, which are
highly-resistant strains, which can prove fatal on infection. The process of
cleaning is by way of oxidation using free radicals, which are generated by nano
materials acting with UV light and the inventor had come up with a simple design
based on CFL lamps coated with a specific nanomaterial.
The idea had been excellent and the prototype had passed tests very well. The
local inventor had found India quite receptive to his ideas. In India the product
had been packaged into an appealing design and a company had been launched
with the product endorsed by the Indian Medical Association. The invention has
then entered the market and the society reaps dividends along with the
inventors. Our hospitals are quite oblivious to such developments and this is not
an isolated incident.
Urinal which warns

about extra sugar

Another invention that had received a Gold medal in Geneva at the same time
had been one where the development of a urinal with an ability to inform the
user to warn about the presence of little extra sugar in urine and advising to meet
the doctor. Imagine urinals serving as medical sentinels and the population
benefitting from the knowledge of an impending condition well in advance. This
has developed from a project at University of Peradeniya.

The earlier device also had the built in function of mandatorily forcing the
personnel to sanitise their hands as otherwise the door to the specific operational
space would not open! These are additional inventive nuances introduced and
improve the usefulness many times. Actually these simple combinations really are
quite useful.

The fact is while Edison thrived and his introductions had the transformative
effects, our own gold medals are confined only to be admired as such. Or another
country may realise the benefit as inventors may find internal applications
frustrating and seek solace for their findings elsewhere. The Indian use of the
nano-enabled device for hospitals and other similar uses is a clear example. Our
way out of the problem had been to close up the wards and find ways to pay for
operations in private hospitals. Now can we call that progress?!

Need to address efficiency and innovation

As per SLIC in the last few years Sri Lanka has won around 11 Golds in Geneva.
Our societal knowledge of Geneva is unfortunately not tied to these
achievements and that is quite sad. We broadcast word by word certain other
meetings and then go at each other’s throats following the meeting. Little of our
own inventions brought into the economy can do Sri Lanka a world of good and
we may actually see that this trade deficit is not an issue at all.

After all many a nation has shown the power of innovation whereas we have
continuously ignored this area while constantly seeking salvation through tourists,
FDIs (with full of concessions which at the end of the day may mean not much at
all!). If Sri Lanka addresses efficiency aspects and on top of that innovation, the
resurrection of the Sri Lankan economy is by no means difficult at all!

We are aware of a nanotechnology invention from Sri Lankan scientists that

brought in more than $ 1 million. We are equally aware of a travel app such as
WAZE from Israel, which had yielded more than 3.1 billion dollars to the
development team of a young start-up.

We know that our ICT startups, which are hugely successful, are basing
themselves outside Sri Lanka thus depriving this country of major benefits. The
opportunity space when an idea is converted to an invention is very high when
one is in a proper innovation eco system. Nurture ideation and ensure a fertile
eco-system are two essential ingredients for success.

The invention that had realised Gold in Taiwan has stemmed from an idea
generated when the daughter had observed her mother’s way of cooking –
making use of waste heat from a gas cooker to dry Maldive fish! The interesting
aspect of that invention is that it can really increase our society’s energy
efficiency. It is almost a story of modern day ‘Anagi Uduna’. Hope that these
successes in Taiwan would not get lost in Colombo similarly to those of Geneva.

Turn victories into commercial successes

We cannot afford to have victories in Geneva turning into losses in Colombo.

There is the need for private sector investor interest in pursuing such
developments and turning them into commercial successes.

History always has shown the potential of this approach from early days – an
excellent example is Bolton of Birmingham and James Watt. Yes, all may not find
equally useful though they are inventions. However, patents are granted when
there is the chance of commercial viability.

Our support for inventors should be extended till we realise success and if the
private sector is not up to the task, the State may well have to take the
responsibility. A mechanism is awaited where commercialisation of inventions or
research is identified early and moved forward with vigour.
Posted by Thavam