ASTANA – At Kazakhstan’s Technology Commercialisation Centre (TCC), Lead Expert Erik Azulay and a team of managers, scientists and other experts are working to marry those old, uneasy bedfellows, science and business. Through focused training sessions, a nationwide technology audit to assess the current state of applied science, a thorough review of existing intellectual property legislation and a grant programme, the team is “trying to, little by little, change the culture of innovation and commercialisation,” he said.
Kazakhstan has other science commercialisation programmes, and Azulay’s team has actually joined a project funded by Kazakhstan and the World Bank that was initiated in 2008. This three-year programme is different, he says. The programme, operated by CRDF Global, focuses narrowly on applied science with a specific commercial point.
“Many of the programmes we’ve seen before – not only in Kazakhstan, but many places around the world – they fund the science, they get the grant, they work for two years, they have something interesting – but it’s not ready for market use and nobody’s ready to fund that last gap to get it from the prototype to actual industrial use,” Azulay told The Astana Times in an interview at the TCC’s offices in Astana. “So all those technologies, all those innovations sit somewhere on a shelf, like orphan technologies – they’re never actually brought into the market.”
The grant programme is intended to nudge viable technologies toward the market. The TCC will disperse some 32 grants over two years in two categories: proof of concept, a smaller grant up to $150,000 for early stage work; and industrial prototype, a grant of $500,000 for a longer period of time that supports bringing innovation to the real-world field testing stage.
The grants are open to projects in the energy, raw materials processing, life sciences, information and communications technology and intellectual potential fields. So far, Azulay says, the most interesting Kazakh innovation seems to be happening in the fields of energy and life sciences.
But these innovations must have real world applications, and the key subtext of the TCC’s work is in getting scientists to innovate in the direction of business. In Kazakhstan and around the world, there is a gulf between academia – the home of much innovation – and business, he says. “For us – the TCC, the managers, the people that work with innovation – a lot of it is kind of working as an interpreter between those two worlds, knowing what business wants, knowing what the scientists want and trying to get them together and to [learn to] talk to each other.”
Training sessions address some of these communication gaps. Scientists and innovators are trained in how to present their work from a business point of view, focusing on results rather than specifications. The programme also holds training on intellectual property laws and processes, hoping that as fears of having ideas stolen ease, institutions will be more willing to share innovations and better protected when they do. The organisation is engaged in a massive review of existing intellectual property law, which will result in a packet of suggestions for the government. The basic laws exist, Azulay said, but they are often misunderstand and often lack crucial details.
While teaching scientists how to think about their work from a commercial point of view, the organisation is also working to create networks to connect these two sceptical partners. The TCC works with foreign and domestic businesses in Kazakhstan to get them to connect with technological partners here.
“There’s not a large amount of trust between the local Kazakh business community or the foreign business community in science and innovation in Kazakhstan,” Azulay said. “You see that a lot in developing countries – people think, ‘Why should I bother with this? I’ll just go and buy my equipment from Germany, because it works, I know it, there’s guarantees, there’s no questions.’”
So the TCC is trying to make it as easy as possible for businesses to try new domestic technology and offer feedback. “We’ll fund it, we’ll attach the management, we’ll make sure the intellectual property is secure, we’ll get it ready for field trial,” Azulay said. “All we want from you [businesses] is your input. And if it gets to a certain stage … then you’ll consider it for putting in your factory for field trials. And then if it works in field trials, you know, in actual, real-world conditions, then you consider licensing. So for businesses, it’s a no-lose situation.”
These are the small steps in motivating businesses to work with domestic applied science. For technology transfer and commercialisation to work, “we have to build those bridges,” Azulay said.
The TCC is also hoping to build bridges internationally, bringing in venture capitalists to review projects that could have international potential. In the end of June, a group will be coming to visit projects in Astana and Almaty, looking not for production-ready technology, but “diamonds in the rough,” Azulay said.
He uses the old analogy of teaching a man to fish versus giving him a fish to describe their work. They’re trying to do both, he says. The grants, the business connections – these are the fish, the relatively immediate gratification. But advising on laws, providing training for researchers hoping to woo financiers, creating pathways between government, science and business, is what is hoped will lay the ground for a thriving applied science sector after the programme wraps up.
That programmes like this one exist at all is a good sign for Kazakhstan, Azulay says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the government is actually making the effort … to make this diversification in their economy happen. That’s a good thing.” Extraction may still be king, he says, but recognising the long-term need for a balanced economy puts Kazakhstan ahead of some other resource-rich nations, he said. “We’ve seen other countries where [diversification] is still not a priority, where they figure, ‘Oh, well, whether it’s coal, gas or oil, we’re getting all that money’ – and it’s being siphoned off for corruption and to other areas, and the sciences and innovation, supporting that scientific education base, is a very low priority. And here we see that’s changing. … We’re seeing funding increasing for science and for education and to me that’s very promising.”