Connecting to untapped resources

Friday, 12 July 2013 04:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Day three of the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2013 explores the ways in which closer partnerships can be forged between universities and the private sector By Cassandra Mascarenhas The capacities in Sri Lankan universities to do research can be made more productive by encouraging the private sector to source the inputs of universities in their product and market research and direct the university staff and students to do research that is relevant to solving real life issues. This session looked at methods to forge a closer partnership between the universities and the private sector. SLINTEC Chief of Research and Technology Prof. Gehan Amaratunga highlighted the importance of Sri Lanka innovating through nanotechnology and shared examples of how public private partnerships that have been forged so far have produced highly positive results, paving the way for more such collaborations to be built up. Sri Lanka’s economic output was valued at US$ 55 billion in 2012 and growth in the output value of economic activity is now at the core of development. He observed that what is needed now is to have more people achieving the same output per person in order to create more value. “This has been the main avenue of growth since the end of the war when 20 to 25% of the population entered the mainstream economy. There has also been rapid growth in agriculture, fisheries and services. However, this cannot be sustained because the reserve pool of lower output population gets exhausted,” he said. Exploring the possibilities that nanotechnology can offer Sri Lanka, Amaratunga stated that in 2006, the Government set a policy priority, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, to take advantage of the new opportunities created by nanotechnology to add value to products manufactured and minerals extracted in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology was formed in 2008 as part of this initiative. “Nanotechnology underpins the future of multiple sectors. It’s a field that is still being defined which is why we should invest in it – we should future-proof ourselves by investing in it today,” he stressed. SLINTEC is a private company formed through a public-private partnership between the Government and five leading private sector companies. He pointed out that two of these five companies, MAS and Brandix, are competitors, yet chose to invest in this together, understanding the importance of such an investment. He shared two examples of technology based value additions to products that were previously exported in its raw form. The first product is TiO2 – conversion of ilmenite sand for the paint industry. Adding value to ilmenite was discussed as far back as 1972, however nothing was done about it until SLINTEC created a process to add value to the product. “The challenge is to be globally competitive with our high energy costs, so we need to be clever and innovative to achieve the same products that other countries but with lower energy costs. We at SLINTEC are trying and attempting to do this,” he emphasised. The second product is smart textiles and garments. “The revolution in textiles is taking place as we speak – the passive shirt is going to become ‘smart,’ a shirt which can interact with your surroundings, open up or close up pores depending on temperature, react to external stimulation, store or release energy, connect via electronics and release nutrients.” This is done by attaching nano-particles to the fabric in order to achieve these things. He pointed out that the proportion of technical textiles in the future is going to grow dramatically which is why Brandix and MAS have chosen to invest in nanotechnology – to have innovative products in order to compete in the global market. “Sri Lanka has to develop smart textiles to be competitive. We have the brains, it just needs to be connected to the industrial sector and be focused.” Currently, the possibility of self-cleaning textiles is being explored, which leads to the preservation of water and energy, and saves time. The secret is being jealously guarded, he added, in case it is copied and patents are currently being sought out for the innovation. The companies are also working on creating garments that manage moisture, as are a number of branded companies worldwide. “The textile industry is important to us in terms of exports and if we want to stay in this game, we need to generate IP and new ideas built around this concept. Standing around and waiting on something like the GSP+ is not going to help us in the future. With 20 million people, it will be very difficult to grow without investment in the export sector. When these technologies are successfully scaled, higher value products can be realised. You can’t stand still – you need to keep investing in the research base and keep innovating continuously,” Amaratunga stated. Pix by Upul Abayasekara