Avia Collinder, Business Writer
The University of the West Indies has rebranded and restructured its three departments of Science in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad as it positions to commercialise its R&D creations.
The university hopes to leverage its innovations into money-making ventures that will, in turn, provide a new pool of resources for continuous research and development of saleable applications.
The fields under exploration in Jamaica are optics, which deals with the study of light; and photonics, the study of individual particles which make up light - with lead research and lecturer in the Department of Physics at UWI Mona, Dr Kert Edward, in charge of the initiative.
Edwards told Sunday Business that the faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences have been rebranded at the Mona, Cave Hill and St Augustine campuses as the Faculty of Science and Technology with the aim of reflecting a "renewed commitment to driving the technical innovations which will sustain the region's growth in this new global and technology-driven economy".
UWI Mona was among 25 organisations worldwide to recently receive a grant from the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) to establish an optics curriculum and to introduce the field to high school, pre-university and undergraduate students.
SPIE is touted as the largest optical society worldwide.
Edwards says he foresees, along with optics, "the development of technological innovations at the research institutions and universities in the region. This would ideally lead to spin-off companies and centres working closely with academia to develop and exploit the novel technologies for economic gain," he said.
Still, Edwards' programme is just starting, having got under way towards the end of 2012. He has nothing exciting to show, but said a couple of possibilities are in the pipeline.
In the United States alone, lasers have accounted, he said, for US$1 trillion in output from the transportation industry, US$2.5 trillion from the biomedical section and US$4 trillion from telecommunications, ecommerce, and information technology.
"The opportunities for employment and economic sustainability are therefore quite significant. A highly technically literate workforce could potentially make it more profitable to move technology jobs to Jamaica and the region instead of India and China," said the scientist.
"It is also worth noting that innovations developed in one area can and often drives growth in disparate sectors."
Fibre optics technology
Optics is a branch of physics which deals with light and its properties while photonics primarily involves the investigation and application of phenomena related to the particle nature of light. Much of telecommunications systems are based on fibre optics technology.
In industrial applications, Edwards said that optical fibres are lighter and more durable than copper wire and allow for greater information transmission per fibre, in addition to the potential for impenetrable security in the form of quantum cryptography.
In medicine, high-power laser systems are currently being used as "laser scalpels" in delicate surgery or for destroying tumours.
CDs, DVDs or Blu ray players transmit sound and video information via embedded discs read by reflected beams from a diode laser.
"The ubiquitous cell phone, digital camera, flat-screen TV and tablet PC all rely quite heavily on optical engineering technology. In the case of cell phones, apart from being supported by a fibre-optic network, the digital camera component which is essentially standard on contemporary devices consist of miniature optical components such as lenses, an optical image sensor and led flashlight," Edwards says.
The spin-offs from optics include portable and consumer audio/video devices such as disc players, tablets, PCs and flat-screen televisions, telecommunications equipment, biomedical devices, industrial and commercial laser systems, low-cost lighting solutions and efficient energy collection regimes for solar panels and photovoltaic devices, to name a few.
"It is, therefore, clear that this is a multibillion-dollar, perhaps multitrillion-dollar industry. Admittedly, it will be very difficult to compete with large international companies on the manufacturing front. Instead, we need to focus on developing innovative technologies which will both reduce cost and add value to the final product, with the ultimate goal of licensing," Edwards said.
He notes that the US company Tessera generates most of its revenue using this model.
"Two examples of technologies that are licensed out by this organisation to international conglomerates such as Samsung and Sony include miniature cameras for smartphones and auto-focusing mechanisms for cell cameras. In 2012, total revenue for Tessera stood at US$234 million of which US$193 million was due to intellectual property revenue," the physicist said.
He said that the initial investment in terms of initiating research programmes across Jamaica would probably require US$100,000 per institution per year, over at least a 10-year period.
Additional capital would be required towards the end of this period as centres and companies "spin off" from the research, he said.
However, only the most promising technologies would ever get to this point.
"It is worth mentioning that it is not uncommon for patents and licences to be acquired during the original research stage at the university/research institution, so this model is potentially self-sustaining after only a few years," said Edwards.
The lecturer was instrumental in UWI being awarded the SPIE grant, through which he hopes to introduce students to optics and photonics while increasing their awareness of the potential applications.
Opportunities for employment, growth
For Jamaican industry, Edward notes that the broad applications include opportunities for employment and economic growth, noting that Professor Cardinal Warde of MIT who is the current director of the Caribbean Science Foundation has often expressed the same sentiment.
"Another implication for the country is the development of a new education system with a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics to support the technological revolution. Since we are starting essentially from scratch, the main area of investment should be in research," said the scientist.
"It is imperative that we in the region start to move away from the myopic mindset of primarily addressing regional scientific concerns to also addressing the world's scientific problems."
Noting that R&D requires a substantial investment in applied research, and that Caribbean governments are not exactly awash with cash, Edwards said part of the solution will involve a much stronger synergy between academia, industry and international research institutions to engage in collaborative research and grant application.
The region, he states, is not short of intellectual capital.
"Quite a few of my contemporaries from high school and college are currently employed as programmers, engineers and scientists at some of the top companies in the world, including Intel, Google, Microsoft, NASA and Sony," said Edwards.
"That does not take into account the even larger number of Caribbean nationals employed at these and similar organisations unbeknownst to me. The fact is that we are already driving the innovation process outside of the region," he said.