Will Sri Lanka ever be known for innovation?

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“It’s just a balloon with icing. We don’t have the f***ing cake yet,” said Mangala Karunaratne – Founder & CEO of Calcey Technologies. I had asked him whether Sri Lanka actually was an innovative nation. While we do have innovative companies, as a nation we can’t pride ourselves on being known for innovation just yet.

In Sri Lanka, remittances play a big role in the economy (Image credits: Sunday Times)
In Sri Lanka, remittances play a bigger role in the economy than we’d like (Image credits: Sunday Times)

So how exactly can truly capitalize on the potential we have to become an innovative nation? At the SLASSCOM Innovation Summit. We found some interesting answers to that question. The first to share an answer was Prof. Soumitra Dutta from Cornell University.

Prof. Soumitra highlighted that a country cannot become an advanced economy where innovation is the norm across industries without leadership from the top. This requires leaders to have the vision to bring innovation to society and execute it.

The importance of leadership to drive innovation

As an example, he shared the origins of Cornel Tech. This is an engineering campus located on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, New York City. The campus was born out of an economic initiative by Michael Bloomberg – then mayor of New York City. The goal of this initiative was to attract another engineering campus to New York City.

In doing so, the hope was to produce entrepreneurial engineers, that would, in turn, create startups and jobs. Of the seven bids that were submitted, Cornel Tech was selected. “This wasn’t just about setting up an incubator. Here the focus was on linking hardcore research with innovation,” describes Prof. Dutta.

Prof. Soumitra Dutta speaking at the SLASSCOM Innovation Summit
Prof. Soumitra Dutta (Image credits: SLASSCOM)

Cornel Tech is expected to incubate 600 companies. Yet, in addition to this, the university has also invited private companies like Microsoft to come and work alongside its faculty.  Furthermore, Cornel Tech professors are also required to spend time teaching middle school student. This is to help the youth pursue a path of innovation.

Cornel Tech is a bold vision. It’s expected to bring $23 billion in economic benefits and $1.4 billion in taxes to New York City. However, despite this bold vision, Prof. Dutta admits, “None of this would’ve been possible without leadership.”

How is Sri Lanka faring in terms of innovation?

Currently, according to the Global Innovation Index, Sri Lanka ranks 90th out of 130 countries. As anyone can tell, that’s not something we can brag about. However, Prof. Dutta highlighted that recent technological developments have helped create a level playing field. Yet, other countries are still climbing the index rapidly.

So how can Sri Lanka actually rise in the Global Innovation Index? Prof. Dutta shared that Sri Lanka needs to do four things to do so.

How to promote innovation in Sri Lanka
How to promote innovation in Sri Lanka

Firstly, the government needs to have a vision for innovation. This vision should then be executed in partnership with the private sector. Secondly, Sri Lanka needs to make some hard choices. These choices should be based on either our strengths or our future aspirations. No country can do everything. So it must decide the goals it wants to achieve and obtain the knowledge to do so.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka needs to develop innovation ecosystems around the country. These ecosystems should be including both key universities and private sector leaders. But for such ecosystems to be vibrant, the ease of doing business must improve drastically. Finally, free access to information and the internet must be a basic right.

Thoughts from the Sri Lankan innovators

Prof. Dutta gave us a vision as to how Sri Lanka could be a more innovative country. Later, we saw experienced Sri Lankan entrepreneurs join him on stage for a panel discussion. During this panel discussion, we were able to learn just where exactly is Sri Lanka in terms of innovation today.

One of the panelists was Dr. Harsha Subasinghe – Founder & CEO of CodeGen. He shared that our ancestors were innovators. They built amazing things that we’ve yet to fully understand. But over the past few centuries, we’ve lost these skills. And today, we are in stagnation.

Innovation | Sri Lanka
It takes six months to get the raw materials just to build one battery of the VEGA

Dr. Harsha elaborated saying, “Anyone can make software today. So we need to move away and focus on areas like mechatronics and algorithms.” But to focus on areas such as mechatronics Sri Lanka needs access to specific materials and technologies.

Yet, the government has made such efforts frustratingly challenging and close to impossible. Dr. Harsha explained this by sharing that to build the batteries for the VEGA supercar, CodeGen has to wait 6 months to get the necessary materials due to government red tape.

Heminda Jayaweera – the co-founder of Venture Frontier Lanka, echoed similar statements. He believed that Sri Lanka should specialize in a particular area of technology. Furthermore, he emphasized the need to promote entrepreneurship beyond Colombo. “But if you wait for the government to provide everything then nothing will happen,” stated Heminda.

If we wait for the government then nothing will ever happen (Image credits: Dharshana Manamendra)
If we wait for the government then nothing will ever happen (Image credits: Dharshana Manamendra)

Another point Heminda highlighted was the need for Sri Lankans to focus more on cooperating rather than competing. This was a point he shared with Dulith Herath – Founder and CEO of Kapruka. Dulith shared that one common mistake he sees young entrepreneurs make in Sri Lanka is worrying about the competition. And returning to the theme of leadership and innovation, Dulith said, “The government should stay away from entrepreneurs.”

Hearing these thoughts from local entrepreneurs, Prof. Dutta reiterated the importance of leadership pursuing innovation. Without such leadership, no country can obtain wealth or prosperity. He went onto say that innovation is driven by desperation or inspiration. Prof. Dutta also agreed with his fellow panelists that innovation requires simplicity for businesses above all else.

Can Sri Lanka actually become innovative?

The answer to that question is yes. It’s true that Sri Lanka is ranked towards the lower end of the innovation index. Yet, we routinely see Sri Lankan tech companies create innovative solutions. And this is actually reflected in the Global Innovation Index, which ranks Sri Lanka at 77 in the Innovation Output Sub-Index.

This shows promising potential for Sri Lanka. And as Prof. Dutta pointed out, it is possible to capitalize on this to become an advanced economy. So the question isn’t “Can Sri Lanka become an innovative country?” Rather the question should be, “When can Sri Lanka become an innovative country?” The answer to which is likely not anytime soon.

Innovation | Sri Lanka
Minister Malik Samarawickrama attending the SLASSCOM Innovation Summit (Image credits: SLASSCOM)

As Dr. Harsha pointed out, anyone that wants to do anything in Sri Lanka has to swim through an ocean of red tape. Yet, there is a silver lining. According to Ruwindhu Peiris – former SLASSCOM chairman, Minister Malik Samarawickrama – Minister of Development Strategies & International Trade, was in attendance and sought Prof. Dutta’s opinion about the government’s national innovation strategy.

But actions speak much louder than words. Waiting for the government to facilitate innovation rather than sending women off to the Middle East, will mean nothing will get done.

To quote Mano Sekaram – former SLASSCOM chairman, “The time has come we as professionals, entrepreneurs to take lead and run this country. We have given our politicians enough time and they have not delivered so far.”

Yet, it’s not like the government is doing nothing.

The 2018 budget has stated that the government would cover 50% of the rent for a period of 2 years for startups in the Hatch Incubator. Furthermore, the EDB has an Rs. 1.5 million loan facility available for startups. Similarly, in 2017 the government offered 200% capital allowances for businesses investing in the Northern Province and 100% for such investments in the Eastern Province.

Likewise, there are other small efforts by the government to encourage businesses and innovation. However, these efforts are fragmented and uncoordinated. They are tactical responses to a problem that requires a strategy. It’s akin to putting a plaster when surgery is required. There is so much more that needs to be done to promote innovation.

Yet, as depressing as it sounds, it’s unlikely that any politician in Sri Lanka would actively do anything to cut the red tape and make it easier for businesses in Sri Lanka to innovate. But unless this change comes, Sri Lanka can never tap into its true potential. And the longer this is delayed, the further we shall be left behind. Meanwhile, the rest of the world marches on as we grumble about being a middle-income nation.

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