Monday 17th July, 2006

Prakash Persad
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Creating technopreneurs

Creativity is to the engine of economic growth what oxygen is to the ignition engine. Without adequate quantities of oxygen the engine would stutter even in the face of a plentiful fuel/energy supply.

The immense challenge facing us today is the fostering of an environment of invention, innovation and commercialisation. The rationale for this is simple and compelling economics. In terms of job creation per dollar, small companies are far more cost effective than mega-sized ones.

While it is recognised that retail businesses do create employment and are therefore necessary, they do not create wealth for the country, for they are a drain on foreign exchange. What must be emphasised is the type of businesses that develop and offer products and services to external markets.

Developed countries have been a dominant force in this regard and this is why they are worried about the rise of China and India.

In the case of the former, Chinese products are now flooding the world markets. They have utilised their cheap labour to the hilt. The latter has used both cheap labour and new technologies to create new business opportunities. Both have utilised their competitive advantages to fast-track their respective economies.

Here, at home, we boast a good but limited supply of energy, and a population with an innate creative disposition. Both must be harnessed for sustainable development to take place such that not only this generation but subsequent ones also will be the beneficiaries of the national patrimony.

There can be no doubt that the proven gas reserves must be exploited. The extent to which this should be done should be the subject of public debate so that the population would not only be properly informed of the industrialisation policy but would also have the opportunity to make inputs in its formulation.

In addition to this, there should be a programme to strengthen the technological depth and expertise in the traditional energy, services and manufacturing sectors and a new one to focus on development of new products and services.

In other words, a deliberate programme to foster the creation and support of a new class of entrepreneurs, called technopreneurs, one that has its roots in the creating, developing and commercialisation of new technologies.

In a recent visit to India, I first came across the word “technopreneuer.” It was in an advertisement through which the state was inviting those so classified to apply for grants.

The focus here at home, through various state agencies, has been and continues to be, in the main, on “traditional entrepreneurs.” This programme must be broadened and deepened to include technopreneurs.

One very positive point in this regard is the new UTT whose mandate is to do just that. One can only hope that the UWI comes to the recognition that it must also engage in similar activities in a meaningful way. Well maybe it might just happen. Nothing gets the feet moving like competition.

For this new programme to be successful the emphasis must not only be on putting in place the requisite legislative and financial infrastructures but also programmes to foster technological invention. This is the more difficult part and requires a much more sustained and focused attention for the output of this programme must result in the population crossing the required “self-belief threshold.”

When it comes to sports and entertainment, we produce world class. There is no lack of belief there and indeed the international community recognises and appreciates these talents.

Compare this with the fact that, at the GCE levels, our students do as well as or better than many other students worldwide who also write these exams, and that in spite of the fact that our engineering graduates excel worldwide in both academia and industry, we are not noted for technological or academic prowess.

As noted by a UWI valedictorian a year or two ago, the society needs to start honouring and appreciating scholars, inventors and technocrats a lot more like we do for sportsmen and entertainers.

Another hurdle to be overcome is the need to encourage, from the primary school level, scientific and technological experimentation. There are a lot of scientific toys and simple labs that can be used in this regard. Students must be encouraged to have a hands-on approach.

If one were to compare the level of sophistication of the final-year projects, and let me confine my discussion to mechanical engineering, of our students and to those of, say, North American universities, the conclusion would be that theirs are superior. This is so not because the students there are better but rather they have better access to technology and generally have more hands-on experience.

This is a deficiency we must correct. By the time our teenagers reach university they should feel comfortable with mechanical, electrical and mechatronics technologies.

Prakash Persad is chairman of Swaha Inc

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