Linking NRBs for driving innovation

Rokonuzzaman     | Published: March 01, 2019 22:37:48 | Updated: March 02, 2019 21:27:17

Over the decades, Bangladesh like many other developing countries lost her top graduates to advanced countries like the USA, Canada and Australia. Those graduates pursued further education and developed careers in high-tech industries of those countries. There appears to be an untapped opportunity in leveraging intellectual capital, experience and professional networks of those non-residents in accelerating economic progress of Bangladesh, particularly at a time when there is urgency in accelerating economic growth out of technology and innovation. Although Taiwan and China made significant progress by leveraging non-resident bright brains, which were once drained to advanced countries, Bangladesh's progress is very limited.  Finding an appropriate way of linking them appears to be a challenge.   

At the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), there is no denying that Bangladesh is under massive job loss threat, particularly in the labour-intensive ready-made garments (RMG) industry. But the technology stack driving 4IR also opens an opportunity to integrate innovation in virtually all sectors, starting from farming to manufacturing. Moreover, the 4IR technology stack also opens high-end job opportunity of Bangladeshi graduates across the world. Expertise of non-resident Bangladeshis pertaining to 4IR such as virtual and augmented realities, simulation and digital twins, advanced sensors, artificial machine intelligence, cyber security, data analytics, robotics, satellite & drones, and remote sensing, acquired through professional engagement in diverse areas of advanced countries like Space programmes, Aerospace, Industrial Automation, and building as well as maintaining advanced digital infrastructure could be leveraged. The challenge is to capitalise them in a mutually rewarding way to infuse innovation to make Bangladesh's existing wealth creation sectors more competitive and also to open new areas, so that Bangladesh succeeds in creating high-income jobs for a growing number of graduates.

To unlock this potential, indeed the government has a role to play, like investing in research and development (R&D) to engage non-resident high-calibre Bangladeshis for opening innovation growth windows. The challenge is to translate this investment into a profitable return.  Despite significant innovation opportunities, the path of taking innovative ideas around 4IR technology to market at a profit is quite daunting and long, requiring even decades and huge risk capital. Used cases demonstrating ideas around some of the 4IR innovation potentials are around us. Bangladesh's undergraduate students have even shown notable performances in robotics and computer programming, particularly in some international competitions. Similarly, government's A2i iLab made demonstrations, and A2i also funded some high potential ideas; but virtually none of them has grown as a profitable innovation business in the competitive market. The next challenge is to diffuse them, so that wealth is created through consumption. In doing so, we need to create the pulling effect of the market, by creating a willingness to pay by target customers in generating profitable revenue. To take demonstrated innovation cases to that level, competition is vital in creating intellectual assets and adding them to products and processes to produce them, consequently creating both consumer and producer surpluses, without requiring subsidy. To address this challenge, we need risk capital and high calibre R&D assistance.  It appears that the integration of Non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) would add immense value in turning 4IR innovation ideas into profitable wealth creation opportunities.

NRBs are high calibre, often untapped, assets of Bangladesh residing in advanced economies. They are rich in intellectual assets, experience, network and also financial capital. Bangladesh badly needs them to migrate to an innovation economy, opening the endless frontier of growth by turning mental capacity of graduating students into wealth. The challenge is to create a pathway to engage NRBs in a mutually beneficial way so that we enter into a virtuous cycle of wealth creation and sharing.

Often there has been dissatisfaction about the competence of Bangladeshi graduates in emerging technologies like 4IR technology stack. It's quite natural though, despite the expansion of education, Bangladesh has not succeeded yet in developing world-class research-based higher educational institutions. To address this limitation, NRBs may lead to set up a high-end graduate school to produce world-class graduate students with M.Sc and Ph.D degrees in the technology stack of 4IR. It's proven that quality education through private funding is now a viable option. Examples are all around us. Along with the production of high-calibre researchers, NRBs may proceed to set up world-class research and development laboratories like MIT Media Lab or Robotic Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Research in those laboratories will unlock new knowledge frontiers to support innovation for improving the competitiveness of Bangladesh's diverse wealth creations sectors, starting from farming, manufacturing to healthcare. To take that knowledge to market, the next step would be to proceed to start-up incubation. To nurture those start-ups into profitable ventures, the focus should be on venture capital (VC) fund formation, and advisory and networking services. 

The question could be about the feasibility of investment to be made in R&D, start-up incubation, and VC financing into a profitable return, particularly within the context of Bangladesh. Recent success stories in the technology space are quite encouraging though. For example, mobile financial service innovation has succeeded in making bKash a billion dollar company. Meagre  $200 million investment has created Grameen Phone--a technology service success story with $7b market cap and $400 million annual profit. This whole package consisting of 1. Graduate School, 2. R&D lab, 3. Start-up Incubation, 4. VC fund and 5. Advisory and Networking could be designed as a profitable investment opportunity. The core objective would be to open the pathway of creating and blending local innovation competence with the prevailing climatic and low-cost labour advantage to open an endless frontier of wealth creation and economic prosperity. For example, Bangladesh has already emerged as a success story in fresh water fish production by leveraging low-cost labour and favourable climate.  The 4IR innovation in fish farming such as more optimal feeding through machine intelligence could increase feed to meat conversion ratio and lower environmental degradation-reducing cost and increasing quality simultaneously. Continued progression of integration of 4IR innovation to labour and climatic advantage has the potential of making Bangladesh's fresh water fish production competitive in global market. The exploitation of the global demand of an additional $150 billion fresh water fish by 2050 through 4IR innovations could be an immense opportunity of expanding export and creating high paying innovation jobs. And there are many other such examples. Moreover, such successes will lead to accumulation of high-end productive 4IR competence to expand the economy into high-value-added productive activities. 

The leveraging of NRBs' high-end intellectual, managerial and financial capacities in driving innovation-led economic growth by strengthening labour and climatic advantage, increasing investment in education and R&D, facilitating start-up incubation and VC financing could lead to a new model of growth. It's time to add our thoughts and ideas in creating an innovation window to channel NRBs' resources in creating a new horizon of success, both for them and the country.

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D is academic and researcher on technology,

 innovation and policy.


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