Space to dream and a place to deliver

It is a view that brings out a question to the mind – a tall structure reaching to the sky from quite a green surrounding, when you come down to Mahenwatta, Pitipana at Homagama.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open the Nanotechnology andScience Park (NSP) along with the Nanotechnology Centre of Excellence (NCE) at Pitipana, Homagama on 21 October 2013, it was a watershed event. The declaration was a culmination of a series of events and activities that had span over almost eight years from some insightful thinking to forceful action buttressed with committed inputs.
It was the President himself who submitted the original Cabinet memorandum which resulted in a National Nanotechnology Initiative way back in 2005. Then the Government pledged around Rs. 5 billion from State funds to realise Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC). Though this pledge in its entirety is yet to happen, significant investments have come over the years, thus enabling the momentum to be kept.

Space to dream
Dhara Wijayatilake, Secretary to Ministry and Technology and Research, in her welcome remarks during the opening ceremony of the Science Park stated that this indeed is ‘space to dream’. How true.
The structure is picture perfect and the interior is a haven for researchers – definitely a dream for many perhaps till that day! At this stage there is no other similar setup in Sri Lanka to supportresearch and development and this investment made primarily by the Government cannot be rivalled either.
This is an investment by the Government which is very much different to those visible these days. This significant contribution by the State and the efforts by the private sector in ensuring on budget, on time project management have resulted in an iconic scientific establishment.
The park management and the management of SLINTEC are by the private sector in accordance with the articles of association and related efficiencies established from the first day onwards continue. The Public Private Partnership (PPP) upon which SLINTEC had been built and operated can be identified to be a unique mechanism that had been enshrined into the SLINTEC board of management and its way of work.


Nanotechnology journey
Prof. Tissa Vitarana, the lead pioneer for the NNI, recently writing about the National Nanotechnology Initiative to a Sunday paper and its beginning wrote the following: “Sri Lanka’s nanotechnology journey has been an arduous one, with many twists and turns, and many people helped to take the process forward, while some even obstructed. I shall make mention of a few key players to whom the whole country is indebted. After I became the Minister of Science and Technology in 2004, I discussed with Prof. Sirimali Fernando, the new Chairperson of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the need for developing our capability in advanced technologies.
“We thought first of biotechnology, which had just taken off in Sri Lanka. But she drew my attention to nanotechnology which was an emerging technology in which we could be a leader as few countries had tapped it and only 17 countries had national nanotechnology programs at that time. We had expertise among Sri Lankans here and abroad, and as it was cross-cutting it would help our progress in other high tech areas too. With the help of the National Science Foundation, a Task Force was set up. With the Board of the NSF, taking the observations of the Nanotech Taskforce, a National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was drafted.”
This was the beginning in a nutshell as per the Senior Minister and hope the story in its entirety would be written one day as we pay too much of lip service to quite old Harvard review papers at times in our multitude of MBA classes.
Well, when we did not have stories to tell, there is nothing much one can do except use those of others, but today the situation is different.

Public-Private Partnership
The enthusiasm and the passion of the original team led to the President submitting the National Nanotechnology Initiative as a Cabinet paper on and his original commitment and the farsightedness in trusting in a new and an emerging area was indeed quite commendable. The times were not easy times either in those days.
The process culminated in a Public-Private Partnership which was considered as one of the best examples of this nature by a visiting World Bank Consultant Dr. R. Mashelkar in his World Bank publication. The PPP became a reality with a vocal rejoinder by Brandix’s Ashroff Omar when the gauntlet for private sector commitment was thrown up by the Treasury.
The PPP juggernaut marched on from 2008 and the first nanotechnology lab was established at the basement of MAS’s Silueta factory at Biyagama EPZ thanks to an excellent ‘going beyond’ gesture by Mahesh Amalean of MAS.

 

New way forward
Nanotechnology is all about the power of the small and atoms and their manipulations are at the heart of the nano revolution. If some of the small atoms had destiny written on them, the Sri Lankan Nanotechnology Initiative is indeed an example of some atoms aligning to create a new way forward for Sri Lanka.
It is to the credit of political establishment that though portfolios changed and others moved in, the establishment of the Nanotechnology and Science Park continued unabated – the momentum did not die nor did the direction waver. The presence of a PPP would have helped in some way, yet this political correctness needs to be acknowledged.
The journey is not only about developing real estate but real scientific advances with commercial significance and there were many who questioned the internal abilities in that direction. SLINTEC passed a milestone on 15 March 2013 when the first intellectual property sale generated through local research took place. It was a sale to an Indian company and the value of US$ 3.1 million was an eye-opener.
As I wrote in a DFT column at the time, while the event was an opening event of a strategic agreement between an Indian company and SLINTEC, the event did unfold a closing argument – can research yield something of significance and an opening to climb up internationally with nanotechnology in a local setting?
The sceptics were not only in planning and the Treasury but were out there in the scientific establishment too – fortunately not too many. It was this question that was answered quite emphatically on that day. This particular project has made some interesting strides since then and the IP is today protected across all continents in 17 countries and that stems from the potential value of this product innovation.
The innovation is on nitrogen management and we have being slow in reaping benefits of this innovation though we have bestowed accolades. Sri Lanka should understand the value of IP and its potential to the economy and the new Science Park will facilitate this process too.

 

SLINTEC at Homagama
SLINTEC at Homagama – iconic yes! However, it has to be a place that delivers too. The team within has to have the mission clear. Team SLINTEC perhaps is unique for a Sri Lankan institution with the best ratio of science to admin manpower. With an unparalleled investment, the return has to be shown which can come only via innovation.
SLINTEC working in frontier areas has the potential to position at least some of our industries in a class of their own, if the research to economic input mandate is well understood. The new park is not another place to do research and spend time and only results will be counted. Research papers yes, but more important are products!
Teams with passion have changed many a landscape. Be it the team US that responded to place a man on moon upon a political challenge to ‘Hot teams’ at IDEO – one of the world’s top design houses who did the mouse for Steve Jobs and many, many more, it has been teams that did matter at the end. Passion and purpose had been the drivers.

 

Passion and purpose

In Sri Lankan science, passion with purpose has been lacking. We have carried out research. The developments are not seen that much. The establishment had rarely challenged science; nor has it really asked for delivery though complaints about lack of delivery have been heard. Teams perhaps did not gel as purpose had not been mooted.
The Science Park is different. Investment had been direct. The purpose has been made quite clear. It is up to the team within. They have plenty of space to dream and a well-equipped place to deliver. I dare say that the State should not consider that their work is over. Much more needs to be done and together these need to be achieved. As for the performance now from the team SLINTEC, the nation awaits.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI.

(Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]