Tuesday 25 August 2009

Transforming the Malaysian innovation landscape

IN moving ourselves into a high-income economy, we cannot progress by doing business as usual. As Einstein used to say, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Getting higher income means delivering higher value-add in whatever effort that we do, as a person or as a corporate citizen. The key to this is innovation.

Innovation is simply new ways of doing things which add value. This could be new scientific discovery, new products, work processes or business models, amongst others. If we reflect the journey of human beings through time, innovation has been the key ingredient for our survival. Given that we are now in the knowledge economy, we have little choice but to nurture the culture of innovation in all Malaysians.

When innovation is mentioned, the focus has always been on scientific discovery. However, the innovation landscape is wider than just having big number of scientists in labs, figuring out how to progress with their researches. Ultimately, whatever new findings, discoveries, ideas and other new ways of doing things should be applicable in the real world for us to really benefit from innovation. This is where there is an increasing need to commercialise the smart ideas and discoveries of our scientists and academics.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed before we can see more discoveries made by our academicians, in particular, be commercialised in Malaysia.

First is about the intent of their research itself. Given that the career path of academicians is significantly determined by the number of researches published in academic journals, publication could be the primary driver of the research rather than seeing the results being ultimately applied commercially. As a commercial application is about meeting the needs of the market, research conducted without properly understanding the market may not be easily commercialised.

Second is how the ideas or discoveries should be commercialised. The present approach appears to require the researcher to go through the commercialisation process himself or herself.

This is fine if the person has interest in business. However, there are people who are comfortable to remain as scientists or academicians. Furthermore, running a business is different from doing research in laboratories. If the person is not prepared to take up the challenges as an entrepreneur, forcing a reluctant academician into business would be a sure recipe for disaster.

Third is about access to funding and expertise. While government schemes that provide support for people with knowledge and ideas to embark into business are plentiful, further improvement in this aspect would certainly be welcomed.

Given that new ideas or scientific discoveries would carry huge commercialisation risks, there are not many institutions that have appetite for this. This is where more private equity players and angel investors would be critical as their business models and risk appetites would suit seed financing.

When the founders of Google received their first funding from their venture capitalist, Google had apparently not developed any revenue model for its business! It would be interesting to observe how the newly minted venture capital company Ekuinas play its role in stimulating innovation in the Malaysian business environment.

How would the people with ideas, concepts and discoveries find their angels or potential business partners? This is another part that needs further fine-tuning. One of the ways is to encourage intermediaries to be the matchmaker. We need to have a group of people or enterprises that make profit out of matching ideas and TECHNOLOGY [] with potential investors or companies that have the financial muscle and technical ability to commercialise the ideas and technology.

Corporates, on the other hand, should also welcome and encourage innovation. Given that innovation is driven by knowledge and expertise, they should also be open to accept ideas or technology developed from outside their organisations.

Among the roadblocks of innovation is the "We know everything" attitude where people in organisations feel there is no necessity to look outside for new ideas or technology. Another roadblock is when ideas from outside are not welcomed if they are "not invented here". Such narrow views towards new thinking and ideas would deprive corporates from considering opportunities that could transform them into more competitive enterprises.

Given that there are many individuals and institutions that have the potential to be inventors and commercialise their ideas, a healthy innovation eco-system should be nurtured. This includes providing the platform where researchers, intermediaries, corporate, financiers and developmental agencies could meet and share their issues and develop solutions.

While there are initiatives of this sort in the information technology and biotechnology sectors, such effort could be expended across all sectors. Not-for-profit organisations could also play their role in supporting communities for innovation.

Market-based initiatives and solutions would be the sustainable way to encourage innovation and enhance the number of ideas and technology being commercialised. So, when we hear people demanding the old ways and practices to be retained, we should softly whisper to them the quote from Einstein so that they could be persuaded to start thinking like innovators.

This article was also published in the Financialdaily which could be read here:

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