In his remarks at the recent Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2014, the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Suresh Shah made it a point to mention the role of R&D and private sector linkages in gearing Sri Lanka for a post-US$ 4,000 per capita income era. He remarked,
“I urge the private sector to establish strong partnerships with the universities. The universities are an incredible reservoir of knowledge which the private sector must leverage for innovation and R&D.”
I fully agree with him. It’s encouraging that a business leader would come forward and challenge the private sector to collaborate more with universities. It reminded me of a discussion earlier this year, where the GIZ brought together universities, private sector and government agencies for a workshop on ‘Strengthening University-Business Linkages in Sri Lanka’. The lead presentation was delivered by an expert in technology policy, Dr. Chris Green of SQW, a UK-based consultancy. Interestingly, Green (and SQW) were the first to study the success factors of the Cambridge Innovation/Hi-Tech Cluster, which is now a globally recognised model for university-industry collaboration. Following Chris’s presentation, I was asked to share some ideas on what needs to be done to get this going. I shared 3 key ideas, but I will get to that in a minute. First, some context.
It is now widely recognised that universities have a lead role to play in spurring faster and inclusive economic development, especially (like in Sri Lanka’s case at present), the importance of technology and innovation are coming to the fore as the country moves through the middle-income transition. Universities are increasingly having to move beyond their primary role of teaching and basic research, to get involved in the commercialization of knowledge and support innovation in the private sector. This necessarily means that universities need to reorient parts of their operations to work closer and more directly with firms, or clusters of firms in a certain sector. The role of government, then, is to come up with suitable policies and incentives to foster these collaborations, to stimulate both the supply of industry-relevant technologies and also the demand from firms to use these technologies.
The Sri Lankan government appears to have recognised this. There is an increasing policy focus on bringing universities closer to industry. This has come in various forms through Budget proposals of recent years’. One aspect has been fiscal incentives – the government now grants a triple tax deduction to firms that undertake R&D activities in state universities or research institutions, and allows a 50% tax-free status for any income that university researchers derive from such engagements. Another aspect has been new private-public partnership models like the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Centre (SLINTEC). The other aspect has been the setting up of innovation labs/cells/incubators within universities, notably the University of Moratuwa (UoM); the UoM-Dialog Mobile Communications Research Laboratory, the UoM-Zone24/7 Electronic Systems Research Laboratory, and the UoM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator. But, for the most part, it is only the University of Moratuwa that has made any significant progress in this arena. You’d be hard-pressed to find similar examples among other state universities. The challenge, then, is to push this agenda with ALL universities in Sri Lanka. This was the starting point of my comments as the final panelist at the GIZ event.
Here are the 3 key ideas that I shared on the way forward for taking university-business links in Sri Lanka beyond Moratuwa.
1. Understanding “Which universities and for what?”
I recommended that we do a scoping/mapping to see which universities are good at what areas of science/technology/research, based on the infrastructure, facilities, research expertise of each of them. A university like Peradeniya may be best placed to be a hub for agriculture-related technologies (for instance, University of Peradeniya), similar to how Moratuwa is better placed to tackle electronics. Without such a scoping exercise of the existing capacities and capabilities, it will be difficult to push industry to identify opportunities for productive collaboration. I also recommended that university-industry linkages should not be just limited to science and technology (S&T) aspects, as there are some universities in the country that have very limited S&T capabilities but may be very strong on management and business administration. These universities can have useful links with SMEs in provincial areas to offer services to improve their business performance through research on business processes and management.
2. Developing a ‘tool-kit’ for how the linkages would work
I recommended that we developing a ‘tool-kit’ or at the least, a set of best practices, that all universities in Sri Lanka can follow in fostering links with industry. Many universities are not like UoM and are very new to this game. They have very little experience on what to do and what pitfalls to avoid, when working closer with industry in order to work productively with firms but at the same time safeguarding the university’s interests. The lessons learnt from Moratuwa, coupled with guidelines and international best practices that GIZ and SQW can provide, could form the basis for a very powerful, informative, and yet practical tool kit for universities. This could help them refine their patenting processes, their technology licensing or commercialisation units are structured, non-disclosure agreements are written, the understanding between the researcher and the university when the former works on projects with a commercial orientation, etc.
3. Preventing replication and duplication
I argued strongly against creating too many new structures in getting this agenda going. I asked the stakeholders present to think about how we can leverage institutions with existing island wide reach, without creating new structures to facilitate technology transfer. For instance, the ‘Vidatha’ centres are located across the country and very very local reach, the Industrial Development Board (IDB) has centres in every district and have a history of providing technology transfer to local SMEs, and then we also have pivotal universities in every province often with their specialisations. I closed my comments asking the question, “How can we bring all of them together to have a stronger impact?”