Abiodun Gbenga-Ilori, director of the Innovation and Technology Management Office (ITMO) and project lead of Innovation to Market (I2M) at the University of Lagos, shared with Charles Ogwo in this interview what Nigeria must do to maximise the fourth industrial revolution. Excerpts;
Recently, UNILAG launched the Project Innovation to Market (I2M) initiative. What are the motives behind this project?
The Innovation and Technology Management Office (ITMO) of the University of Lagos is responsible for the coordination of translational inventive works of members of the university community emerging, either from their research and development (R & D) activities or non-procedural mental capital inventions (from students, street innovators within the university community).
In the course of carrying out this responsibility, the ITMO noticed the low translation of research work into innovations among members of the university and saw the same trend in other tertiary institutions.
A careful study showed the reasons centered on five main problems, which include:
Lack of proper know-how on how to innovate, unavailability of funding for prototyping, very low access to machinery, laboratory equipment, etc. to aid and fast-track the prototyping process.
Lack of access to fast intellectual property (IP) protection and no defined route to markets and industries.
The goal was to seek funding that would help power a solution that would remedy these 5-main problems and implicitly catalyse a change within the innovation ecosystem of the country.
The search led us to a publicised grant advert by the Research and Innovation Systems for Africa (RISA) which we got.
What is the socio-economic impact of the Project Innovation to Market initiative?
Nigeria at the moment has three challenges it is battling, these include;
Nigeria is a net importer of goods and services which puts a strain on our foreign reserves. Youth unemployment is high, and there is strong economic migration of Nigerian youths to other countries.
At the core of the project is to provide support that would help create opportunities for Nigerians with innovation.
The project I2M has also adopted a model whereby, we hand-hold the innovator till the innovation is in the market.
This means youths can access needed help to commercialise their products and in so doing generate employment for others and reduce reliance on other countries for such products or services; this connotes a higher GNP for the country
How will the initiative spur innovation and research in the country?
Nigerians are very innovative at heart, with the right training and support system, there is no limit to what they can achieve, and we have seen Nigerians produce amazing innovations in other countries.
This initiative is to help achieve two things; first to show a working model that can be replicated by other organisations within the country. Secondly, to remove the roadblocks that impede innovation and innovative products from reaching the market.
You can be certain that this factor will spur people to innovate.
Furthermore, success stories from the initiative will help reinforce the willingness to innovate and translate research works into innovations.
According to the Global Innovation Index (GII), Nigeria lags, ranking 122 out of 137 economies due to many factors such as a lack of proper know-how on how to innovate hindering birthing innovations in the country. How do you intend to support the government in addressing these issues?
The government has made some strides in funding research and innovation in tertiary institutions through bodies such as TETFUND, NCC LASRIC, etc.
The I2M initiative will support what is obtained from the government and its various agencies and also help extend it to others who may not have been ineligible to benefit from the government’s opportunities.
In addition, we provide support to another class; of people: those who have already received government funding but still need help to commercialise the innovation.
Nigeria has enormous innovation potential due to its vast and lively youth population and economy. Why does the country seem not to be ready for the fourth industrial revolution?
I do not want to sound like a broken record, but it is known that in the past, because of the ease of getting access to money from the sale of crude oil, much effort was not deployed to prepare to harness opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has to offer.
The 4IR requires significant human development and some other factors, and hence deliberate steps must be taken. India as a country readily pivoted, and we can see the result in where their economy stands in the world.
In recent years, we have seen many of our youth make strides and take advantage of the opportunities that come with the 4IR. Such youths upskilled themselves and gained employment working for foreign companies in capacities like data scientists, cloud engineers, and software developers while residing in the country.
They contribute to the foreign earnings of the country. You can imagine what the case would be if concerted efforts were deployed to harness the potential of the country toward positioning it for the 4IR.
There is a fundamental paradigm shift toward the tech economy. How would this initiative help UNILAG drive a quality industry-complaint learning system?
One of the overarching objectives of Project I2M is to enable a nexus between industry, innovators, and researchers.
Organisations can put out challenges (which could center on problems they currently face) on the iBank platform to receive submissions from innovators and researchers. In this scenario, the resultant product would be an easy sell since it would address a pain point for an already known customer.
Besides, what is the plan to expose participants to digital upskilling and competency development?
Digital upskilling will be one of the benefits that the innovators get by going through the initiative. For example, the platform that will manage communication and contact between the innovators and the Project I2M team has learning management software, a CRM, and other functional parts.
In addition, in preparing the innovators to either create a startup or pitch their innovations to potential licensees, they would be trained on various software packages and IT tools. At the end of the innovator’s journey in Project I2M, you can be certain that their proficiency will have greatly increased.
What plans does the project have for women’s inclusion in the pursuit of innovation and research in Nigeria?
One of the most important aspects of the project is to pay special attention to persons within the gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) classification which includes women, youths (16-35 years) persons with disability (PWDs), and innovators from the informal sector. In the design of the initiative, its programmes, and how resources are accessed by innovators on the programme, the design was done in such a way that factors that can inhibit women from participating are removed. So far, we have seen numerous women applying and getting into the programme.
What are the sustainability plans for the project?
The current funding from RISA for the initiative is for one year. What we have, however, noticed, especially since the launch of the initiative, is that people and organisations are reaching out to partner in various ways on the initiative.
To ensure sustainability we are actively exploring partnerships with various organizations (both foreign and local) to ensure funding and the needed support for the project.
The partnership options are multifaceted, for example, it can be a CSR initiative of an organization or provide funding for the commercialization of innovations, at which point returns might be expected from the funders.
Funding is an issue in academic research and innovation; how is the institution sourcing funds for the initiative?
The initiative is funded and supported by UKAID through the Research and Innovation Systems for Africa (RISA). They are our funders and are providing all the necessary resources for the implementation of this initiative.