November 25, 2012
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – “I have learned so much by trying to develop my own invention,” says Chandula Padmasiri, a 19-year-old student at Colombo’s Ananda College. “Not just about electronics or mechanical things, but about researching information, how to design something, and even my presentation skills have improved.”
In 2009, Padmasiri created a microscope that operates from a mobile phone, which he showcased at the exhibition.
“It basically converts an average camera phone into a powerful microscope,” he explains.
The small plastic attachment fixes onto the camera phone, where the user can insert a slide with a sample. The camera mode of the phone then shows a magnified image – up to 1,200 times – of the sample.
The production cost of the plastic microscope is between 500 rupees ($4) and 1,000 rupees ($8), Padmasiri says. Its mobility could aid doctors working in rural areas, where they can’t immediately access laboratory facilities.
“I think that doctors who run medical camps in rural villages or even researchers who have to take samples of water for testing and so many others would find this mobile microscope useful,” Padmasiri says.
Since the phone’s camera mode displays the image of the sample, a user can capture the magnified image as a photo or even as a video and send it in real time to a consultant or a laboratory elsewhere.
Padmasiri created the first prototype of this mobile microscope when he was only 15 years old.
“That year, we had started using microscopes at the school lab, and we really liked to use it and we had a large amount of microscope usage in our syllabus,” he says.
But the microscopes in the school lab were available only a few hours each week.
“So I wanted to develop a microscope that had a good magnification level and was also cheap, and you could take it with you anywhere,” he says.
This young inventor has won several awards in addition to the opportunity to showcase his work in October at Sahasak Nimavum, the first national inventors exhibition, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.
In addition to exhibitions like this, he says that more hands-on learning is necessary to fuel innovative energy among Sri Lankan youth.
“The education system doesn’t support or encourage young people to innovate,” he says. “What we mostly do is follow books, books, books – nothing else. In other countries, you learn by doing. But in Sri Lanka, you first learn and then try to do it.”
Innovative youth in Sri Lanka are creating inventions to help their communities and to try to earn an income. But an unsupportive culture and a lack of access to funding hamper youth’s pursuit of innovation. New government initiatives are aiming to change that through exhibitions, clubs and competitions. But they require a shift in society to recognize the mutual benefits of inventions so that it supports and invests in innovation as well.
Parliament established the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission in 1979 under the Sri Lanka Inventors Incentive Act. The government tasked the commission, which currently functions under the Ministry of Technology and Research, with creating opportunities for inventors.
The commission organized the first national exhibition in October to showcase inventions and innovations of Sri Lankans, says Deepal Sooriyaarachchi, commissioner of the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission. The three-day exhibition convened 921 exhibits covering 22 fields. Inventors of all ages from across the island nation featured their work, with more than half under age 20.
A group of four 11-year-old girls in grade six from the country’s Northern province showcased a machine they created to extract juice from the palmyrah fruit, a dark purple fruit known for its fleshy seeds.
“The palmyrah fruit grows in our area, and we wanted to help people extract juice easily,” says Kishani Vigneswaran, the bright-eyed team leader. “We have watched our mothers and grandmothers spend hours trying to extract the juice by hand, so when our teacher told us about the inventors exhibition, we thought of creating a machine to make palmyrah juice and to help our people.”
With the help of their teachers and parents, the young girls developed a medium-sized machine made of steel and metal that extracts the juice by pulping the palmyrah seeds.
“We looked at how a washing machine works and based our machine on a similar technique,” Kishani says. “We had to experiment for over a month, first making a small model and then this machine, and we were able to create a model that works very well.”
Their machine can pulp up to 25 palmyrah seeds at one time, in only five minutes. This quantity usually takes up to four hours to squeeze by hand.
“We want to give our machine to the people in our area,” Kishani says. “We don’t want to make a business and sell it.”
But another young inventor sees commercial potential in his creation.
Mihiru Piyamal Dissanayake, a 15-year-old student at Ibbagamuwa Central College in central Sri Lanka, has developed a night pen. With a battery-powered LED light attached to its end, it enables users to write in the dark.
“We have frequent power outages in our area, so I thought of developing this pen to help other students like me,” Mihiru says.
He experimented with various types of pen models until he found one that worked. He then spent another few weeks developing the concept into a prototype.
The teacher in charge of his school’s Young Inventors Club helped him to develop the prototype and to source the parts he needed.
“I would like to develop this model further, maybe even take it up to commercial production level,” Mihiru says. “But I can’t see how to do it. I will need more help.”
Mihiru says he doesn’t see how he would make a living or become successful from his invention.
“There is no future for an inventor in Sri Lanka,” he says.
The perception that Sri Lankans can’t succeed in a career in innovative research and development is one obstacle keeping youth from inventing.
“Students are not encouraged to be innovative, creative or to think outside of the box,” says Yasawardana Saman Kumara, the teacher in charge of the Young Inventors Club at Bomiriya Central College. “Often, parents and teachers will discourage students from experimenting or trying to develop better systems or processes, telling them it’s a waste of time. The focus and push is always to study your books and excel at exams.”
“There are a lot of talented young students who have a flair for inventions,” Sooriyaarachchi says. “But their parents’ attitudes prevent these children from developing their skills further.”
Funding is another challenge facing young inventors. The commission encourages government ministries as well as the private sector to invest in these ideas.
“We need to see an increase in investment in innovation,” Sooriyaarachchi says. “There isn’t a developed venture capital culture in the country. This impacts a number of factors in the innovation process and the eventual true market potential of inventions.”
But Sri Lanka has huge potential in this area, he says.
“We are a very innovative nation,” he says. “Just look at how we invent solutions every time there is a problem.”
Whether facing a tsunami or a traffic jam, Sri Lankans have historically found innovative solutions, Sooriyaarachchi says.
“For instance, the creation of the ancient rainwater-retaining tanks system across the dry areas of our country is a remarkable example,” he says. “These man-made lakes not only provided water for farming, but it took into consideration entire ecosystems.”
He says that Sri Lankans can once again come to the forefront of innovation, and the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission aims to assist young inventors.
The latest effort was the October exhibition.
“A target was set to attract 1,000 inventions and innovations for the exhibition and to position the concept of inventions in the minds of the people in Sri Lanka as an important aspect of development,” Sooriyaarachchi says. “The vision of the exhibition is to make this an international event where inventors from different countries will also participate in the future.”
Another major program is the Young Inventors Club, Sooriyaarachchi says. Since the mid-1990s, the commission has established Young Inventor Clubs in state-run schools in partnership with the Ministry of Education. There are currently approximately 6,000 clubs across the country.
The commission has also created an online portal for inventors and investors to meet in order to develop and commercialize inventions. National TV programs that showcase innovators have been another way to encourage and to highlight the potential of these innovators.
“We are also planning to have a TV program on national TV featuring young inventors in a reality-type show,” Sooriyaarachchi says.
More competitions are also in the works.
“We also plan to have regional-level competitions and pick the best for the national level to encourage students to keep innovating,” he says.
Advocates for innovation say it’s a mutually beneficial process for inventors and society.
“Innovating something, even a small item, provides a huge benefit to students,” Kumara says. “It improves their ability to do research, identify problems, think about and come up with creative solutions and it encourages them to think outside of the box.”
The process of taking an invention from an idea to a completed product teaches the students discipline and gives them a focus, he says. It also develops their confidence and ability to interact with a wide group of people at a young age.
Their inventions also benefit society.
“I think inventors too are like artists in many ways,” Sooriyaarachchi says. “They observe the world around them with a fresh set of eyes. They question what we, the ordinary people, take for granted.”
They then ask why something can’t be done simpler, faster, better, cheaper and easier, he says.
But society must support the commission’s and inventors’ efforts in order to benefit from inventions, he says.
“If a society wants to benefit from the creative brains of inventors, a collective, appreciative attitude towards inventors is a must,” he says.
Kumara says society must show more faith.
“Parents and even some teachers think that doing experiments are a waste of time and discourage the students from going any further,” he says. “But when a student perseveres and the parents see the results of the invention, there is an almost instant transformation and 360-degree turnaround in their thinking.”
Padmasiri, who plans to pursue engineering, would also like to continue developing new products.
“I would like to be involved in producing new stuff in the future,” he says. “Rather than improving what someone else has done, I would like to create and design something new.”
And he is confident in society’s support in the future.
“I think it will be easier to innovate in Sri Lanka in the future,” Padmasiri says. “The environment is being created now. There are new industries popping up that are headed by inventors, and there are jobs for people who like to create and develop new things. There are still not a lot of options, but in the future, I think that would increase.”