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[COLOMBO] Sri Lanka’s innovators need state recognition and funding to foster an innovation culture, a meeting has heard.

"Our inventors need state recognition, society’s appreciation and funding to commercialise their ideas," Tissa Vitharana, Sri Lanka’s senior minister for science, said at a ceremony to award the country’s innovators last month (17 Oct) in Colombo.

Despite limited government support to build a culture of innovation, Sri Lanka has recorded several successes through individual initiatives, the meeting heard.

For example, to build a prototype of his design for a safer, more efficient coir extraction machin, innovator Dhammika Rathnayake had to sell away his personal possessions.

While Rathnayake has recouped his losses, other Sri Lankan innovators have generally failed to find the funding needed to develop and commercialise their prototypes.

Rathnayake was one of six contenders for the 'Ray Award' for innovations by Sri Lankans, launched this year and named for the engineer, aviator and innovator Ray Wijewardene. 

The prize went to Indresri Karunathilaka for his 'waveless' boat design. He hopes to use the prize money to launch a fleet of eco-friendly passenger boats that can ply on Sri Lanka's ecologically fragile waterways.

"Most of the inventors here developed on their own," said Shantha Lenadora, whose pneumatic retractor limits tissue damage in abdominal surgeries. The device bagged a gold medal at the 40th international exhibition of inventions in Geneva, in 2011.

Lenadora told SciDev.Net that he felt hamstrung by a lack of marketing skills and funds to pay for expensive patents to tap the US and other big markets.

Malik Ranasinghe, chairman of the Ray Wijewardene Trust, said inventors need centres where they can "incubate" ideas, develop them into working prototypes and chalk out smart business plans.

"The only organisation that is legally entitled to set up incubators in the government sector is the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission (SLIC)," said Ranasinghe. "They are not really playing that role."

"I didn't have any support from the government or third party in building prototype of my coir extractor," said Rathnayake at the award function. "I sold my vehicle, my land and even my wife's jewellery."

Commercial banks, Ranasinghe said, were disinclined to support "risky ventures". The Ray award  carries prize money worth 1 million Sri Lankan rupees (US$7,680), besides offering technical advice and guidance from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka.

Deepal Sooriyaarachchi, SLIC chairman, told SciDev.Net that his organisation was narrowing its role to one of playing catalyst. In September SLIC mounted the first ever national exhibition for inventors.  SLIC's new website facilitates funders and innovators to team up and also helps corporations present their technical problems to innovators so that solutions can be developed.