The hard truth
If at this stage, you are bristling at how these examples of great inventors seem to be ‘foreign’ and not local Malaysians, I’d like to invite you to have the courage to ask: Why are there so few Malaysians who can rank among the great innovators of our time, among those whose names are instantly recognised all over the world?
I challenge us to ask ourselves: What would we achieve as a nation if we did not let our ego and our pride stand in the way of recognising our shortcomings?
The hard truth is: We have a long way to go to be among the most innovative nations in the world, and we have to do something about it.
In Malaysia, innovation is often hampered by a number of things – lack of funding access, a fragmented ecosystem, limited resources including skilled talent, policies that have yet to catch up to potential, and tedious bureaucracy.
Malaysia has journeyed from being a commodities-based economy and diversifying into high-end manufacturing and services that saw us thrive through the 70’s and 80’s. Since then, however, we have yet to ride the innovation-driven growth wave to transition to a high-income economy.
For example, our research institutes and higher education institutes produce amazing discoveries every year, churning out research papers and inventions in their laboratories and R&D facilities, where they stay stuck, possibly for years, even decades.
Fledgling startups, inventors and scientists enthused with new ideas, struggle to make sense of the various funding and support mechanisms available to them in fragmented chunks. They want to showcase how their proprietary inventions can change our lives, but they have limited knowledge on how to get from the whiteboard to the boardroom.
In the past decade, we have dropped in our rankings on the Global Innovation Index, even though we realise that innovation capacity and skills need to be strengthened in order for us to progress. After all, according to the Malaysia Knowledge Economy Study, every one per cent increase in innovation capacity increases a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita by 0.36 per cent.
For Malaysia, an increase in innovation production could translate to US$1.21 billion (RM5.06 billion) additional to our GDP of US$336 billion, and the 12th Malaysia Plan has outlined innovation as a key enabler in economic growth. The impetus to cultivate innovation is compelling: The world's wealthiest countries based on GDP per capita are also chart toppers on the OECD Better Life Index and the Global Innovation Index.
So what’s stopping us?
MRANTI BRANCH gets to the heart of the problem
In the first of industry discussions, BRANCH, initiated by the newly merged entity, Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI), I spoke with experts who say that Malaysia has incredible potential, but we need tighter collaboration within the innovation ecosystem to support our success.
I heard from Prof Datin Paduka Dr Teo Soo-Hwang, Chief Scientist Officer, Cancer Research Malaysia, who expressed that the critical infrastructure to enable success in commercialisation is just not available yet in Malaysia.
She added that many of the world’s most esteemed education institutions not only have great academic units, but also commercialisation units, expertise and funding that enable them to commercialise their research – something we don’t have.
She pointed out that Cancer Research Malaysia and so many of our research institutes have proven that we can produce cutting-edge research, some of which are ready for commercialisation, but much more support is needed in terms of funding, access, and business expertise.
Another panellist, Prof Dato’ Ir Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor, Vice Chancellor, Universiti Malaya, concurred and said that so many researchers are burdened by the need to wear numerous different ‘hats’ – the professor cannot be the researcher, entrepreneur and venture capitalist at the same time.
More often than not, he said, we are asking professors to be both the researcher and businessman. He highlighted that this often leads to failure – the commercialisation should be supported by experts in the field, so that the professor can focus on research.
The session, which was held in February, was incredibly thought-provoking, and has raised no doubt in my mind that an agency like MRANTI is much needed in order to address their concerns – something Thomas G Tsao, founding partner of venture capital firm Gobi Partners, agrees with. As a venture capital firm, having firm and clear policy towards collaboration, communication and commercialisation is invaluable.
Catalyst, collaborator, connector
In this respect, I cannot stress enough that MRANTI is working to be that connector between the various stakeholders in the ecosystem, functioning as a single platform, or ‘glue’ between the key players in the ecosystem.
We will drive continuous innovation, and be the one-stop research commercialisation agency with the resources to accelerate the commercialisation of innovative ideas and concepts to impact. We connect problem statements with solutions, bridging collaboration between public and private sectors to increase private sector participation, either through market access, investment, advisory or consultation and facilities for testing and prototyping.
MRANTI will also connect researchers to the industry, and in doing so, ramp up the number of research or innovations that can be commercialised. MRANTI will also be working closely with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Information (MOSTI) and the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) with the vision to playing a critical role in bringing together the private and public sectors.
I envision MRANTI to be the catalyst, connector and collaborator that will bring Malaysia into the future of technological innovation and success I know we can be.
Truthfully, MRANTI’s mandate is not a silver bullet; there will be no magic trick involved and there will be a long journey ahead. However, we know the ingredient for success is consistent, persistent and structured engagement among all stakeholders, so that everyone is united in this journey towards commercialisation – and we will strive to get there, together.
Dzuleira Abu Bakar is the CEO of Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI).