As the guest speaker for the upcoming Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture, it is truly an honour to have this opportunity to provide some preliminary thoughts around my upcoming guest lecture and visit to Sri Lanka as a 2016 Eisenhower Fellow. When Sunday Times Business Editor Feizal Samath reached out to discuss with me on my [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Innovation Ecosystems: Sri Lanka’s place as an emerging and thriving economic engine for South Asia


Nagesh Rao

As the guest speaker for the upcoming Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture, it is truly an honour to have this opportunity to provide some preliminary thoughts around my upcoming guest lecture and visit to Sri Lanka as a 2016 Eisenhower Fellow. When Sunday Times Business Editor Feizal Samath reached out to discuss with me on my thoughts around the nexus of entrepreneurship, innovation, and developing solutions that better serve humanity, an opportunity arose to go beyond providing standard answers. A chance was given to issue a challenge in the hope of inspiring the next generation of global leaders set to inherit our tiny fragile planet and hopefully encourage them to tackle substantive issues like food-security, climate change, clean water development, and much more.

Right now we are facing interesting times around the world, where the fabric of democracy is being tested, be it the ongoing wars with ISIS to various country’s emergence from isolation to joining the globalised economy to presidential or prime ministerial elections introducing candidates that many at one time would have perceived as an anomaly to the system’s status quo. My home country of America is about to undergo a historical presidential election, where we may finally end up with the first-ever woman President. What’s interesting is that it took our democracy 240 years to reach this major milestone, whereas Sri Lanka was ahead of the curve in having a female leader at the helm, Sirima Bandaranaike, back in the 1960’s, and in fact becoming the first country in modern day history to do so.

The underlying theme here, is that we must be willing to embrace change and accept the notion of risk-taking if we are to move forward in the 21st century.  As the son of immigrant entrepreneurs from South India (Andhra Pradesh), my parents took a risk to move to America and leave what they knew for opportunities unknown. They did not know if they would stay in America or return to India, but they knew that to seek a better life they needed to accept change would be a constant in their life and they would need to try something new and different. This parable is the same for any economic ecosystem looking to reinvent itself and position itself towards a better tomorrow for all.  Now many of you may be wondering what I mean by the use of an ecosystem coupled with the word economic or innovation. Well this is what I mean:

Innovation ecosystem is the term used to describe the large and diverse array of participants and resources that contribute to and are necessary for ongoing innovation in a modern economy. (Source MASS Tech: Like a biological ecosystem, you have a particular cast of characters that interact, engage, and build off each other’s strengths in a supportive and collaborative manner. These unique clusters tend to rally around particular areas of technological growth and interests that are supported through smart alignment of social, intellectual, and financial capital. A good example of a modern day thriving innovation ecosystem is the always-heralded Silicon Valley, and some are facilitated organically through a variety of factors and others occur as government-initiated regions of interest.

The end-goal is the same; a sustainable and viable economic growth and developable system that can evolve and adapt to various trends over time.  Sri Lanka has the ability and prowess to lead in areas like textile manufacturing, nanotechnology, agro-tech, clean energy, and water. My journey as an Eisenhower Fellow seeks to learn more about the great potential that seeks to be unleashed by the Sri Lankan people. As well as serve as a bridge-builder and collaborator through my various endeavours in the US, to help facilitate stronger ties and enable means of cooperative and collaborative means of engagement through our various efforts.  Below are a couple of questions that Feizal posed to me that delve into the heart of this piece further as it might be of interest to the Sri Lankan community:

Being an entrepreneur – how do you see the world evolving in the future: will creativity and innovation spawn a new generation of young, brilliant minds that would develop ideas and products that may not be even be conceivable or heard of currently? Creativity is a crucial ingredient to help spur new innovative technologies and developments. In the US there is a movement to encourage STEM + Arts thinking rather than just standard STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) trained minds. The use of creative thinking helps incite new directions and look at problems from a different lens of interest or utilize a pre-existing solution towards a different problem of interest.  Roomba vacuum cleaners (the little robot vacuum devices) was developed via funding through our US SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) programme by a company called iRobot.

This technology was originally designed for bomb detection but the company used its creative minds to pivot the technology’s military use towards a civilian peaceful service use.  Like the US, Sri Lanka is sitting on a goldmine of talented and ambitiously creative minds of people who dream to make the world a better place. The leadership I have seen via MAS Holdings for textile manufacturing to the ambitious efforts of the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology has been impressive. Embracing smart hardware coupled with smart software is the way of the future, as the “Internet of Everything” becomes a reality as we become more and more interconnected.  How will creatively, innovation and ideas serve the world, serve humanity? Will these areas help in the pursuit of the sciences particularly in the search for medical breakthroughs in controlling infectious and untamed diseases like cancer, HIV, etc?

My answer above bleeds over into answering this question too. So I’ll expound a bit further…the future lies in helping solve problems around environmental security, public health, agro-tech, clean and sustainable energy, space exploration, and human longevity. Areas like social-media apps and fin-tech are nice and they have helped enable technology’s development towards democratisation of ideas and information to ensure access to opportunity is available to all, BUT now is the time to harness the energy and talent pools around us to really tackle problems that plague us all and ensure our legacy as being a bright and positive addition on planet Earth, and in the greater universe out there. I live and breathe science fiction in my spare time (novels, movies, comic books, etc…), but that’s because science fiction is a creative prelude for actual applied science development and renderings.

It’s the medium that helps inspire scientists and engineers to think through what is actually feasible to create and develop extraordinary feats for all to enjoy. I always tell entrepreneurs that they should look to solve a problem for a billion people in mind.  The bright future of Sri Lanka lies in the hands of its wonderfully ingenious and creative minds of the populace. Small and Medium-sized enterprises working with the government, research institutions, and major corporates can serve to enable economic empowerment for all. We call this a UIGDP…University-Industry-Government Development Partnership, or in general terms a public-private partnership that seeks to help all sides cultivate win-win scenarios for technology and economic development that empowers and enables all parties to benefit for the public good. In closing I am excited by the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka and take in the sights, sounds, and opportunities before me to learn more about this great country and the great people who make it shine so beautifully!

(The writer will deliver this year’s Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture on Friday June 24 at the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka (IESL) in Colombo. Mr. Nagesh is the 2016 USA-Eisenhower Fellow, Chief Technologist-US Small Business Administration and Advisor to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Programme, LAUNCH, MAS Holdings, and Village Capital. Views expressed here are personal opinion and doesn’t not necessarily reflect the associated organizations  that he is a part of).

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