The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Driving innovation and creativity

Sri Lanka Inventor's Commission (SLIC)

Throughout my career I consciously took part in various national engagements in numerous capacities. I realized what little one can do when you are not actually in the system of government machinery. Hence when I was offered the opportunity to lead the Sri Lanka Inventor’s Commission (SLIC) I thought why not, since it would give me an opportunity to drive a part of a national agenda. The SLIC was established in 1979 by an Act of Parliament by the visionary Minister Lalith Athulathmudali with the objective of promoting inventiveness of the nation. Since its inception the SLIC has been under the Ministry of Trade and Commerce though currently it is under the purview of the Ministry of Technology and Research. It is interesting to note that when Sri Lanka formed the SLIC in 1979, in Japan a similar body was already in place. Now it is known as the Japan Institute for Invention and Innovation –possibly the reason why Japan has progressed so much in the area of innovation. It is by innovations that Japan conquered the world market.

It is a well-established fact that the countries that are high on Intellectual Property Rights contribute to the economic performance of nations. A good indication to this is the number of resident patents granted in a country. According to the 2010 report of the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), “Income group data show patent activity to be more concentrated than GDP. The share of high income economies in total patent applications (74.1 %) is 15.4 per cent than their Gross Domestic Production (GDP) share (58.7%). Resident applications accounted for 57.4 per cent of the total number in high income countries. In contrast, only a fifth of all applications in low income economies were resident applications”. If we contrast this information with the numbers of Sri Lanka there had been less than 200 applications and only 45 patents have been granted. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily for the applications of the same year.

The mere granting of a patent does not guarantee economic success. The patent will have to be converted into a product that can be marketed. An invention is a unique or novel device, method, composition or process. It may also be an improvement upon a machine or product, or alternate means of achieving a process. An invention that is not derived from an existing model or idea, or that achieves a completely unique function or result, may be a radical breakthrough. Such a work is novel and not obvious to others skilled in the same field. Some inventions can be patented. Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments, and society.

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of better and, as a result, novel ideas or methods, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: “to change”) rather than doing the same thing better.

Inventors and processors
Inventors are like artists in many ways. They observe the world around them with a fresh set of eyes. They question what we the ordinary people take for granted. A young inventor from Vishaka Vidyalaya said how she went on to invent a new type of a stove when she found she could not use the fan in the kitchen when the mother was cooking. They do not accept ‘No’ for an answer. Having observed the world they ask why something cannot be done simpler, faster, better, cheaper, and easier. Their response is the issue of a definition. In this definition lies the answer. For instance look at the picture below:  One can define their problem as not having access to water. If the problem is defined that way the answer would be bringing water to them such as a community water project. But if one defines the problem as ‘carrying’ the answer can be different. The invention Q Drum was an alternative solution to carrying. Pulling is easier than carrying since one has to work only against surface resistance not gravity.

Another solution is the Hippodrum which comes with a metal handle. The second step of the inventor is to come up with a technical intervention. This is where his or her solution is finalised to a working concept. Simplicity of the complexity of the invention depends a lot on the level of scientific and technological knowledge one has.  This stage still can be in the inventors mind or on paper. The next step is developing a prototype, apply for patents and go into commercialization. Since the number that get successfully commercialized are less than 10%, in order to be successful the number of cases must be increased. We can see three factors that can influence this process.
As per the records available with the SLIC more inventions have come from those who have education lower than the degree. This may be due to the lower number of students with science education, lower emphasis for practical aspects in the education system, lower emphasis in developing concepts in to prototypes in universities. These may be the reasons as to why a majority of our local inventions are in the domain of low-end of technology. Economic reasons also contribute to the inventive process. During economic difficulties and restrictions too people tend to invent solutions. This tends to be more from necessity. We saw a very large number of local inventions during the closed economic period in the ’70s. Some of those inventions such as paddy husk stoves became very popular. On the other hand when the economic conditions improve and when people use more sophisticated products inventions tend to move in that direction ie – high-end techno solutions and herbal products.

The attitude of society plays a vital role in promoting inventions. In places like the USA investing in ideas are very common. They are called angel inventors. This is the biggest boom to investors. When investing in ideas is not common inventors need to rely on debt equity, which is not the most desirable root since the success rate is very low.

Recognition given to inventors, respecting the intellectually property rights are also social attitudes that contribute to the development of an innovative culture. There are a lot of talented young students who have a flair for inventions but the attitude of parents towards them prevents these children developing their skills further. If a society wants to benefit from the creative brains of inventors a collective appreciative attitude towards inventors is a must.

Role of SLIC
Earlier the SLIC had been trying to promote inventions by doing many programmes. This I realize is not possible given the limited resources the commission has. On the other hand there are a large number of government agencies that help inventors in some form or the other. These are limited by the scope and reach. Furthermore excessive patronage by government institutes tends to develop a mentality of state dependence to promote inventions. I believe the Government should create a conducive environment for inventors to invent and to make them commercial successes. The current work programme of the commission is developed with this approach.  In this regard the very professional attitude of Ms Pavithra Wanniarachchi as the minister in charge is very useful. She has allowed the commission to function absolutely with no political interference. The Commission has set out a 10-point corporate plan with the aim of promoting inventions thus leading in to an increase of local patent applications.

Key strategies

1. Reposition Presidential Awards aligning them to national development goals.
2. “Sahasak Nimewum” National Exhibition and inventions month to create a widespread innovative culture.
3. Revitalize school level programmes leveraging the power of the electronic media.
4.  Facilitate greater access to funds and to private sector for inventors.
5.  Empower inventors through provision of knowledge and access to expertise.
6.  Web strategy as a key enabler.
7.  International recognition for our inventors.
8.  Update the Act to reflect the needs of the staff.

The Commission has set an ambitious target of getting a1000 inventions for a national level exhibition. The vision of the commission is for this to be an international event within next three to four years. In order to direct the creative energies of inventors in areas of national importance seven areas of significance are being promoted. They are: Making the disable independent; Energy; Food; Environment; Human Safety; Teaching Aids; and Import substitutions. The local business enterprises who have commercialized their inventions are also invited to showcase their products and services at this exhibition.

Private sector and Inventors
We see a number of areas where businesses can benefit from inventors. Considering that inventors are inquisitive, creative, work with passion and determination, practical employers will certainly stand to gain recruiting those who have invented things as students.

Sponsor inventors
A cursory glance through web sites and annual reports of many a corporate shows the word ‘Innovation’. But in reality this is more a buzz word than an actual practice. Companies like to invent but lack the inventive skills across the board. Usually  new product idea meetings are nothing but routine meetings where people come in with hardly any preparations. But for inventors coming up new ideas is their life. Companies can gain so much if they start adopting inventors who are working in areas of strategic importance. Some of these persons do not need large amounts of money to perfect their prototypes. Companies can as a part of their CSR activities sponsor one or two inventors.
Of course they can even invest in such ventures if there is a strategic fit. Even if an inventor is not working in an area of direct strategic fit to the line of business of the company, inventors are a good source of ideas on how to do things differently. Having interacted with many inventors during the last few months I find a general mistrust among them to deal with companies. In order to facilitate this, the SLIC website has published a specimen Non-Disclosure Agreement that can be executed prior to engaging in discussions with a business establishment by an inventor.

Through the national symposium and the SLIM programme, the SLIC educated the inventors of the different models and options available to partner with companies. Business can either form a Joint Venture with an inventor using the latter’s Intellectual Property as part of equity, agree to produce and market for an agreed royalty, distribute the product produced by an inventor, purchase the IP outright by paying a premium are such broad models available.

Inventors as problem solvers
As mentioned earlier one of the core competences of inventors is their ability to observe and come up with technical interventions to problems. We feel this is a very useful aspect for businesses. The SLIC website is geared to bring together the companies with technical problems and inventors with matching technical capabilities. The company can publish the problem briefly without disclosing the company. The back end of the website will match the technical area of the problem and inventors with corresponding technical capabilities. The inventors will then contact the company directly, and depending on the suitability the company can engage the most suitable inventor. This we believe  is a very strong partnership in the local context.

The website is a strategic tool of the commission. Some of the key features of the website are given below.
- “The buyer seller mart”- This is an attempt to expose the inventors to the world of business, where companies will be invited to post their technological problems to be solved by inventors. This will also be the place for the Sri Lankan Diaspora to find potential inventors to invest in business ventures.

- School inventors clubs will be provided with a separate web space to maintain a log of new ideas and students work, showcase their inventions and to collaborate.

- Website will be the main gateway for collaborating with inventors and they will be provided with the latest knowledge. Among them the key will be:

   a) An easy to understand step by step guide on obtaining patents and a FAQ on patents. This will be available as an easy-to-read e-book in E/S/T.

   b) A sample non-disclosure agreement to be used by inventors when they enter into negotiations with third parties.

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