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Ideas for growth

by Joy-Ann Gill

Charles Cyrus and Minister for innovation Ronald Jones.

Charles Cyrus and Minister for innovation Ronald Jones.

As innovators prepare to meet the September 30 deadline for the National Innovation Competition, which has a coveted cash prize of $75,000, they must be ever mindful that innovation is more than the creation and transformation of new knowledge into new products, processes or services that meet market needs.

With industries maturing and products becoming obsolete over time, innovative ideas are needed, now more than ever, for the creation of new businesses and employment opportunities worldwide. For Barbados this is no exception.

“The country needs as many innovative ideas as it can get,” said Acting Director of the National Council for Science and Technology, Charles Cyrus, when asked to proffer one reason why such a competition has endured since 2003.

Acknowledging that economies the world over see innovation as the route to economic growth, Cyrus agreed that ultimately the goal of the competition, which promotes the fostering of creativity and recognises excellence in innovation, was really about job creation.

“Contestants are required to submit one idea, which must meet a need in the market place, so clearly the hope is that the initiative would spawn new business activity, as people bring new creations and innovative ideas to the fore.

“It is about using our innovative capacity to get involved in creating businesses – moving from idea to commercial reality – which would ultimately allow the country and the individuals who enter to create more jobs and grow and expand the economy,” he said.

As to whether this objective has been realised over the years, the Acting Head of the NCST pointed out that there had been some “unevenness” where the council has seen some really good project ideas, as well as some “not so good initiatives”.

“We’ve had a number of innovative ideas and some competitors, not necessarily the top awardees, have gone on to establish commercial operations. But, there is some question as to whether the amount of commercial activity which we have seen has been sufficient or at the level which was originally anticipated by the Council,” Cyrus remarked.

Adding that innovation does not occur without entrepreneurship, he said although there were some challenges over the years in converting idea to commercial reality, the council was still looking forward to more enterprises being formed in the future. “While the reverse may happen, the whole thing is a process whereby the two, innovation and entrepreneurship, must go in tandem,” explained the acting director, as he admitted it would increasingly call for more purposeful efforts towards innovation from both the public and private sectors to have more ideas coming forward each year.

Cyrus was, however, quick to point out that “access to finance” was not the only challenge preventing innovators from moving to the next level of “turning idea into business”.

While acknowledging that financial institutions needed to lend more assistance to innovators, as they seek to introduce products and services to the market, he maintained that mentorships and partnerships were invaluable going forward, as well as “sheer determination” and the ability to stay on the path to commercialising the idea. “That is where a person has been down that road before, seen the hurdles and made several strategic moves in their path to success and can now show that young innovator how he/she can do likewise,” Cyrus explained.

When the National Innovation Competition started in 2003, the NCST was not involved. It was under the direction of the Enterprise Growth Fund Ltd. That same year, Winston Cumberbatch, took high honours with Calculink, a board game that develops mathematical skills in a fun atmosphere. Two years later, in 2005, Angela Gabriel, won the competition with her microwaveable dumplings.

In 2007, when the NCST took over the competition, a computer data card entry system, designed to facilitate the smooth purchasing of duty-free items on the island, was the winning innovation. It was the brainchild of Vanavah Edwards.

When the competition was held again in 2010, the husband and wife team of Evariste and Dorothy Nurse emerged with top honours for their invention — the secure door jamb.

Last year’s winner, Shannon Clarke, clinched first place with “CleverGrocer”, an online shopping assistant which provides price comparisons across grocery stores in Barbados. CleverGrocer is free to use by customers and offers paid packages to retailers.

While most persons talk about the lack of finance being a major hurdle to starting a business, this young man, who is training as an electrical engineer at the Barbados Light & Power, said this was not his reality.

Clarke explained: “It has been my experience that the main difficulty that every start-up faces is establishing teams that can complement the skills of the founder and contribute their efforts towards making that business successful.

Unlike Silicon Valley and other business hubs, the entrepreneurial community in Barbados is very young and has a different reality, such that entrepreneurs cannot realistically forego a salary in the expectation of a large payout from ownership of equity in the company.

“Such equity payout is unlikely due to the low-trading stock market in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean. Since I am unable to pay the required salaries right now, I have relied on the volunteered advice and mentorship while also contracting services such as marketing and graphic design.”

This electrical engineer has seen success with his innovation and credits this to persistence and having taken part in BMEX 2013, where he received “amazing” interest, and recorded over 400 sign-ups for CleverGrocer. Agreeing that it was on an upward trajectory, Clarke beamed: “The signups have been continuing steadily ever since! We are looking forward to satisfying initial users and continuing our roll-out within the coming months.”

Meanwhile, the story is different for the first-ever winner of the competition, Winston Cumberbatch. In relating his progress to date with Calculink, which is available in local stores, he said: “Locally, it didn’t get as far as intended, largely because of the intervention of ConquerMaths Caribbean, an online educational tool which is aimed at enhancing mathematical skills of students, and the important need for that programme within our schools.”

He pointed out that along the way he had taken on the role as project coordinator for ConquerMaths in Barbados, and with this came a commitment to seeing success throughout the education system.

“ConquerMaths provides access to over 1,000 interactive lessons that are aimed at students of Mathematics. It is intended to help overcome some of the mathematical challenges which we have at all levels of learning from reception to tertiary level, that is, age four and into adulthood.

“The intention was to license Calculink to an international educational games developer; and, these negations are ongoing. However, given the scope of ConquerMaths and the need to help our students, in this area, this naturally delayed negotiations. Calculink is still on the cards,” Cumberbatch explained.

These are examples of where the competition has taken two winners. However, going forward the National Council on Science and Technology anticipates that more winners, imbued with the spirit of entrepreneurship, will emerge.

“This is based largely on the fact that the NCST has now put in place a contractual agreement that stipulates the need for competitors, especially those who win the Prime Minister’s Award, to demonstrate every intention to commercialise their idea or innovation,” the Council’s Acting Director stressed.

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