Sunday January 29, 2012
Moving ideas out of garages
By RASHVINJEET S.BEDI
For some Malaysians, coming up with new ideas and inventions is not a problem. It's getting them to market that's the problem.
WHAT are the odds of Malaysia having or producing its own Steve Jobs?
“Two in a billion,” according to Nazrin Hassan, CEO of the Cradle Fund, an agency under the Finance Ministry that offers funding to entrepreneurs, researchers or innovators to either develop their ideas into prototypes/proof-of-concepts or to attain commercialisation.
But that does not mean Malaysia lacks enterprising or innovative individuals like Jobs, who was recognised worldwide as a businessman and inventor. And chances are these Malaysians might be developing their ideas in the confines of their garages.
To Bugs Tan, inventing comes naturally as he is forever thinking of ways to solve mechanical problems. So far, his inventions have included a gadget that reduces dust on fan blades and another to generate fresh, cool air outdoors.
The dust-busting Fanfurtais (as it is known) is now being sold in a popular supermarket for RM9.90 each.
Tan says he also developed an award-winning litewalk grating system for use on the platforms of oil rigs - and he did not even go to college or university.
He worked with his father's company, which dealt with agricultural engines, he says. “That was my university, so to speak, and I also read a lot.”
“Innovation comes from the need to solve a daily problem,” says Dr Raslan Ahmad, CEO of Yayasan Innovasi Malaysia (YIM) or the Malaysia Innovation Foundation.
“The source of innovation can come from anywhere,” he adds.
A government-initiated foundation operating since February 2010, YIM has been entrusted with the task of developing and promoting creative skills in the field of science and technology in academia, industry and society, and to nurture and support scientific innovation at grassroots level, particularly among youths, women and non-governmental organisations.
Through its Jejak Innovasi (Innovation Walk) programme - three were held last year, one each in Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak - YIM has come across many Malaysians who have garages as their labs. Some of these garage-based “inventors” have come up with various devices and contraptions to solve daily problems.
One such innovation, a multi-user truck powered by a 150cc Vespa engine, was discovered in Ayer Hitam. The truck can be used in peat soil and is able to lift vehicles stuck in mud and to transport agricultural fruits such as palm oil.
This was just one of 41 inventions discovered during the YIM Innovation Walk.
“Many (inventors) don't even have scientific background and knowledge. They just rely on logic to solve problems,” says Dr Raslan.
At a polytechnic in Merlimau, students have built a prototype fire nozzle - a long rod with holes that allow water to be sprayed in all directions - to put out underground fires.
“People think that research and development can only happen in high-level labs. But even Bill Gates worked from his garage before,” Dr Raslan points out.
He adds that most of the innovations discovered in Sabah and Sarawak were linked to agriculture.
This year, YIM has planned for another seven Jejak Innovasi events around the country.
Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong of the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS) points out that the creator of the pen drive Phua Kein Seng is a Malaysian.
Besides Phua, there are many other Malaysian inventors who have made it big but their achievements might not be publicised, adds Dr Ong.
For example, Datuk Dr Chan Kok Ewe, the CEO of Island Hospital in Penang, has done ground-breaking research on cobra venom and Dr Choo Yuen May has contributed to the palm oil industry, Dr Ong highlights.
“Many Malaysians don't know about them, unfortunately,” he says, adding that we should not copy others if we want to be successful.
Dr Ong also cites the growth of the annual Invention Innovation and Technology Exhibition (ITEX) as evidence of Malaysians' inventiveness. First held in 1979 with just 50 exhibitors, it is becoming more competitive every year, he says.
Last year, there were 720 exhibitors and they are aiming for 1,000 exhibitors this year, he adds.
He also says that five years ago, three teenage girls came up with the idea of a food cover that can kill germs with ultra violet light. An American investor signed up with them.
Nazrin feels these Malaysian inventions and inventors remain unrecognised because “we always use Silicon Valley as a reference”.
“It's like saying that if you don't play golf like Tiger Woods, then you are not good in golf. But even if you have a single handicap, you are good.”
Malaysian companies such as biotech firm Holista Caltech and digital research firm Pulse Group, he observes, have done well internationally.
“The companies might not be of the magnitude of those in the Silicon Valley yet but they are successful and serve international markets such as the United States, Oman, Bahrain and Brazil,” he adds.
Cradle gives funds of up to RM150,000 to develop ideas into a prototype, or RM500,000 for those with a technology-based product with great commercial potential. It also provides business know-how to aspiring innovators.
From 2010, they have granted 457 companies funds to develop their prototypes and another 52 companies to commercialise their products.
One of the ideas they picked up for commercialisation is a technology developed by a Malaysian company to reverse rubber waste to its virgin compound.
“It's a world-class technology,” declares Nazrin.
But being an inventor in Malaysia comes with many challenges, something that many of our home-grown innovators can readily attest to.
One common grouse is the lack of an “ecosystem” for inventors.
“If we don't support innovation, we will never be able to produce our own Steve Jobs,” Tan says.
“We also need a conducive environment.”
Nazrin agrees, saying: “In the US, if a 19-year-old develops a software (program), he can go to a venture capitalist who will provide guidance.”
He explains that the environment there is more forgiving and failure is not considered to be the end.
“If you have failed several times, you are considered to be more of a success than someone who has never failed,” he says, adding that an innovator or inventor would also need advice on business strategies and introductions to potential clients and patrons.
Another problem, says Dr Raslan, is that most Malaysians tend to relate formal innovation to science and technology, while the non-technical innovations are often overlooked.
“We will end up as followers if we follow this narrow path,” he opines.
But the most problematic of all is the lack of funding to turn the new inventions into commercial products.
Nazrin believes many Malaysians are still unwilling to invest in start-ups because of the perceived risk, pointing out that the rich can still invest in property.
Arul Jothy, managing director of technology development and licensing company NGLTECH, agrees, saying the real challenge is commercialisation and market acceptance, which require a lot of resources, including financing.
“Without proper funding, even the best ideas won't see the light of day,” he says.
He says his company has come up with five proprietary technologies at various stages of patenting.
Mainly applicable for the upstream oil and gas industry, these technologies could improve the recovery of crude from oil and gas developments, reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions as well as improve economics of developments, including marginal fields, Arul explains.
They developed their first proprietary system about seven years ago but could not commercialise it due to lack of funds. An application for financing with MOSTI two years ago was unsuccessful.
“We had to self-finance our development and commercialisation efforts. It was a real struggle and we were on the verge of giving up. Only recently, we managed to implement two of our technologies for an overseas project which is now operating very satisfactorily. Another two systems are being implemented and we were recently awarded pioneer status by MIDA.”
Arul believes there is always a perception that home grown ideas are inferior to those developed overseas.
“It has been an uphill task to implement the technologies both due to poor market perception of Malaysian-developed technologies and lack of financing,” he laments.
In a blog posting, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad wrote that “Malaysian businesses and people generally do not believe local products are any good and would reject them outright simply because they are Malaysian inventions.”
Tan says he is having a difficult time getting funding for machines to mass produce his litewalk grating system, which has received recognition in the form of awards from the Asia Invention Association and Cyber International Genius Inventor Competition.
Using the same material as in conventional steel grating, his system is lighter by 35%, stronger by 12% and, more importantly, cheaper, he says.
For now, he is depending on a friend to make his product piece by piece.
Tan suggests that the Government offer tax incentives to companies who support inventors.
“The ideas are there but I can't find industrial players who are interested.”