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25 October 2012

Second ISTIC-TWAS Entrepreneurship Awards

Following a workshop in Penang, Malaysia, TWAS and ISTIC announce the three winners of the 'ISTIC-TWAS' Entrepreneurship Awards' for innovations in science and technology from developing countries.

TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, based in Trieste, Italy, and the International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC), based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have announced the recipients of the second round of 'ISTIC-TWAS Entrepreneurship Awards'.

From the initial submissions, the authors of 21 case studies from 16 developing countries were invited to a workshop in Penang, Malaysia (20-21 October 2012), to present their work to a jury panel comprising: Dato' Ir. Lee Yee Cheong, Chair, ISTIC; Prof. Datin Paduka Dr. Khatijah Binti Mohamed Yusoff, Deputy Secretary-General, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), Malaysia (who also presented the awards to the winners); Peter McGrath, TWAS; and Sonia Ortega, programme director at the US National Science Foundation.

The following three initiatives were selected as the winners:

ISTIC winner Naher 2012First place (USD5,000 award): Umme Aminum Naher from Bangladesh (photo, right), for her work carried out at the Universiti Putra Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  

Naher, a soil microbiologist, has isolated a group of nitrogen-fixing and phosphate-solubilizing bacteria (species of Bacillus andBurkholderia) and combined these with a relatively cheap carrier material made up of peat and composted waste from the local palm-oil industry. The activity of these bacteria adds two vital nutrients to the soil: nitrogen (by fixing atmospheric nitrogen) and phosphate (by transforming it from insoluble forms commonly found in soil or added as cheap rock phosphate fertilizer) into a form that is readily available for uptake by plants. “The secret,” explains Naher, “is that these bacteria are indigenous and are able to survive in the tropical soils of Malaysia, unlike micro-organisms brought in from outside.”

When testing her product in field trials, optimal results were achieved with just ½ to ¼ of the usual inputs of chemical fertilizers. Not only that, but yields of wetland rice were increased by more than 30% compared to plots that received conventional fertilizer; yields of maize increased by 10-15%; and yields of okra and aubergine (brinjal) by 40%.

“So far,” says Naher, “we have made 200kg of the biofertilizer and used this in the field trials. We have also applied for a patent and, once that is granted, we hope to start scaling up the production. I hope that winning this award will help highlight our innovation and perhaps assist us in finding a suitable business partner that can help us with commercialization. There is certainly already a lot of interest from local farmers.”

ISTIC 2012 second SoltermannSecond place (USD3,000 award): Arnaldo Soltermann a chemist from the Universidad Nacional De Rio Cuarto, Argentina, for his project that is deriving useful products from agricultural wastes.

Using waste from oilseeds such as sunflower and soybean, which are widely grown in Argentina, Soltermann and his colleagues have developed processes to extract high-value products such as vitamin E, phospholipids, saponins, useful for making liquid soap and other surfactants that have the advantage of being biodegradable, and ‘Hummus’, an agrochemical additive that boosts plant growth.

“We can isolate vitamin E up to a concentration of 30% or more,” explains Soltermann. “This is useful as an intermediate for other industrial uses, or as an additive for animal feed. We have also applied for a patent for this process.”

Soltermann has now established a 9-person spin-off company, INITIA, that acts as a workers cooperative to develop and fully commercialize these products. “Cooperatives are often regarded as enterprises for subsistence,” says Soltermann, “but I hope we can help to break that conception. They can be good for the South. Indeed, there are many people with PhDs in Argentina who do not have jobs. Such cooperatives can help them develop their ideas.”

And with regard to INITIA: “We have built a pilot production plant,” says Soltermann, “but we need to redesign it to solve some problems. We expect to have our first major production in less than a year.”

ISTIC 2012 third DongThird place (USD2,000 award): Xianzhi Dong, Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, for the development of a natural-product based formulation that can aid weight loss. The health food, or dietary supplement, which has been proven safe and effective by the Chinese regulatory authorities, is now being manufactured by Zhongke Shunhui Biotechnology Co., Ltd., with output expected to reach 50 tonnes per year by 2014 – enough for 70,000 users. Also in 2019, the group behind the product (including the Guangdong Dongguan Goods and Materials Group Corporation – the GGM Group) expect that it will receive approval from the US and European regulatory authorities, so opening up a potentially enormous market.

"I have been impressed with the diversity of the 21 case studies we have heard," said TWAS programme officer, Peter McGrath, a member of the jury panel. "They have shown that science in the developing world is vibrant – from biotechnology to agriculture, and from ICTs to medical devices. In the end, it was difficult to choose three winners, but these three were selected, among other reasons, on the basis of the fact that they have products based on sound science that are either being or are very close to being marketed. All three examples also have the potential of having a great impact, perhaps not only in the developing world, whether it is boosting crop yields, building a ‘green economy’ from a waste product, or tackling an emerging life-style disease such as obesity.”

On congratulating the winners, Lee Yee Cheong gave some sound advice to all the participants. “Don’t give up,” he said. “When you are asking for funding and are refused – try again. And if you are refused again – try once more. If you have a good idea, eventually it will receive funding. Often developing-world researchers also tend to think on the ‘small’ side,” he added. “You need to be bold. Remember, the competition is strong and there are costs you may not have thought of with regards to packaging, marketing, support staff, etc. You need to take these into account when developing your business plan and presenting it to funding agencies. They will respect that – and then if you get half the amount you ask for, you are in good shape. Think big!”

All the case studies presented during the workshop will now be edited for publication in a book that will be disseminated to government ministries, research institutions, academies of science, nongovernmental organizations and to the private sector throughout the South. The case studies will also be placed on the internet for free download.

"Through this project," added Lee Yee Cheong, "we aim to demonstrate not only that good science is being carried out in developing countries, but also that that science is relevant to the sustainable development of those countries – and that it can show significant returns on the investment in research and development made either by governments, the private sector or other donors."

Prior to the 2-day workshop during which the 21 participants presented their own case studies, they also had the opportunity to attend a 5-day entrepreneurship course run by experts from USAINS, the business development office of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. “Another aspect is that these developing-world researchers have been able to learn how to develop their business skills and to discuss common issues concerning business development with one another – a good example of sharing knowledge between South countries,” says ISTIC director, Samsuddin Tugiman.

Both TWAS and ISTIC operate under the auspices of UNESCO.

For additional information:
Peter McGrath, TWAS programmes
Phone: +39 040 2240 571, Fax: +39 040 2240 7571
eMail: mcgrath[at]twas.org
Web: www.twas.org

Samsudin Tugiman, ISTIC
Phone: +603 2698 4572
eMail: samsudin[at]istic-unesco.org
Web: www.istic-unesco.org

Participants and jury

Participants and jury members of the second ISTIC-TWAS workshop on innovations in science and technology in developing countries, Penang, Malaysia, 20-21 October 2012.

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