29 Mar Innovation is the name of the game
Theesan Bahorun, Executive Director, Mauritius Research and Innovation Council, speaks of the exceptional measures currently being taken to promote innovation in Mauritius.
Would you share with us what the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council’s (MRIC) overall contribution and impact has been to the Mauritius innovation ecosystem since it was launched?
In fact, the MRIC stems from the Mauritius Research Council (MRC) which was set up in 1992. It was only in 2019 that the MRC turned into the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council with an I (for Innovation) in the middle. At the beginning, while the MRC was indeed the institution which advised government in terms of research and development, and was a major funding agency, it was for universities mostly, catering for academic research endeavors. This slowly evolved over the years, and in 2014 the (then) MRC started to look at how they could impact research with regard to international development at the level of the private and public sectors. That is when they started to revamp their schemes to include the private sector as part of the system by putting in funds on a matching basis. In 2019, the MRIC act was promulgated and most of the schemes had evolved from an academic orientation toward an industrial orientation, where partnerships of the private sector, public sector and academia could equally bid for funding in a group at national or international levels. In the last three years, the MRIC has been funding over 200 research/innovation initiatives with an investment of more than $4.5 million from the private sector alone.
There are around 14 ongoing schemes—the old ones having been phased out—and most are now on a matching basis. Among those we have specific schemes that fund business ideas, proof of concepts, poles of innovation and social innovation projects. The MRIC also promotes the protection of intellectual property. Last year, we added another tenet to the MRIC: the latter can now conduct research in priority areas of the country. Now we are a full-fledged, apex institution which advises government as well as promoting, coordinating and conducting research, development and innovation for the country.
What has been experience here in Mauritius around the digital transformation, and how has the MRIC leveraged this momentum and used it to advance its goals? Did the pandemic play any role in accelerating this process?
With regards to the pandemic, the MRIC has reacted promptly to cater for the needs of the country. Indeed, we had our core business in place with specific goals, but with the pandemic and the new normal, the MRIC had to revamp its priorities and adjust itself to the demand of the various sectors. As such, we came up with a Special Call for Proposals to counter the impacts of COVID-19. We received, around 252 projects, among which 26 were approved, including a high number of ICT and digital transformation linked projects. That was our initial contribution, to be able to be responsive to what the sector was needing. Despite the lockdown, we were able to process and award the projects.
Just after the lockdown we also had a number of other initiatives. We launched the Fast-track Innovation Initiatives special call for projects, where the focus was on circular economy, smart agriculture, emerging technologies and social innovation. There again, 15 projects were approved to help the public/private sectors recover from the pandemic. These projects were partially funded by the MRIC along the same matching grant principle. We also had had another call: the Enterprise Innovation Booster Scheme, which was launched to help Mauritian companies grow, transform and be better equipped for innovation in the new normal as well as for the global market. Seven projects were here retained.
Remember, we also had the Wakashio oil spill episode in Mauritius. Again, the MRIC was very responsive, and we launched what was called the Building Blue Resilience Through Innovation scheme to support multidisciplinary research and innovative projects that can potentially improve and accelerate the national response to the challenges that were posed by the oil spill. There we funded 18 projects. As you can see, we have been very responsive, funding projects and responding to the needs of industry, the private sector, and of academia during the pandemic and during the new normal. Many of these, as I said, were ICT oriented. Globally speaking, around 50 projects/programs funded over the past 3 years were ICT related, thus promoting digital transformation amongst our stake holders. As of February 2022, the MRIC funded ICT projects to the tune of $1.6 million for a total project value of $2.8 million through seven of its schemes for the past three years.
So during the period of the new normal in the middle of the pandemic, the MRIC approved and funded more than 65 special call projects besides its normal schemes projects.
On what areas of strategic national interest are your flagship projects focused?
One of our flagship projects is indeed our nanosatellite, which we launched last year, and which is still orbiting around earth. This is a pride, not only for the MRIC, and not only for our parent ministry, but for the country as a whole. It is the first time that Mauritius—a small island—is becoming what we call a spacefaring country and a spacefaring island state. We should be clear about one thing. The satellite launch and deployment are not going to revolutionize the satellite industry. In fact, we are on a learning curve, trying to use the satellite and our ground station to inculcate what we call grassroots innovation initiatives in our schools for the young generation. The MRIC not only finances research and development for innovation, we also have a vision for the country. We want this country to become an innovation savvy nation. This is done by funding the private sector, the public sector and academia. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.
At the end of the day, we want our children, our school leavers, our small primary students, to get exposed to what innovation is. Through the satellite project we are going into schools, providing these schools with antennas and software so that the youth, the children, the students themselves, can download data from our satellite. We are also funding other initiatives along the same line. We are bringing robotics to pre-primary, primary and secondary school to provide our kids an exposure to what innovation is. When we launched the Enterprise Innovation Booster Scheme during the pandemic, one of the criteria of the call was innovation in businesses, but there were very few acceptable projects among the 79 applications we received. In fact, only seven of them reached the final stage. There was this feeling that companies, small- and medium-sized businesses (SME) and entrepreneurs did not have the right idea of what innovation was. Hence, we did some reflection at the level of the council.
We can fund millions of rupees; we can dish out money for projects, but if we do not do the groundwork to tell people what innovation is, we will not get far. A small idea can become an innovative endeavor and a springboard for a startup, an SME, an industry. We should show Mauritians the pathway to innovation. This is also our responsible role. This is why we are promoting grassroots innovation initiatives, to remind people of their potential to innovate. We continuously urge them to bring up their ideas and churn these into innovation projects. The MRIC will accompany them in this journey and raise awareness for entrepreneurship. This is currently being done now, throughout the country and relayed by our national television. We have launched the National Innovation Challenge, calling for ideas from the nooks and corners of the country. We are providing seed money to selected participants to develop these ideas into viable projects in the context of a contest. The selected ones pitch their ideas to a jury, and they are provided with funding to develop their ideas into a prototype or pre-project. They will again be assessed and the best ones will receive a prize. The award ceremony is scheduled for the 3rd week of April 2022 with the first prize being $5,600. As it is on TV every week, we will also have a viewer’s choice award as well. The MRIC is thus popularizing innovation.
In parallel, another flagship project since December is the launching of a national innovation campaign. The campaign is visual with billboards, wrapped buses, wrapped metro and bus stands, with announcements for the MRIC’s Inové Moris, which is ‘Innovation in Mauritius.’ We have also radio clips, TV clips, quizzes, interviews and roadshows. We are painting a broader picture of innovation, not just staying in our office and saying we should innovate, but bringing people towards us, bringing the whole nation.
How are you connecting international VC firms with these local entrepreneurs?
Among our schemes, we have some which can accommodate international partnerships. This is still a learning curve with regard to international partnerships. COVID-19 has, in fact, decelerated this process because funding is scarce everywhere. However, we already have measures which accommodate international institutions, whether it is an international company or university with which to couple. This way we can finance international projects, but with local entrepreneurs. The aim is to have international expertise and technology transferred to Mauritian counterparts.
From April 27 to 29, we are organizing les Assises de la recherche et de l’innovation. We are providing an international cachet to this initiative with international keynote speakers. This will be a golden opportunity to have an international exposure with reputed international innovation leaders mingling with our national innovators. Six major themes, covering the majority of our economic sectors, will be discussed and a clear roadmap for research and innovation will be carved out for Mauritius for the next three to five years. Our roadmap is being paved with regards to our needs while taking the perspective of what international actors have been doing in the same field.
How is the MRIC driving innovation to boost sustainability on the island, and what kind of partnerships are you currently looking at to contribute to Mauritius’s green transition?
We should also include here the green economy. In fact, this is of great importance to Mauritius. Over the last several years through our schemes, we have been trying to promote smart agriculture within the framework of existing schemes and also within the framework of the special calls we had with regards to our green transition. MRIC used to host the Agency, which is now known as MARENA and which is responsible for renewable energy policy and project implementation. MRIC still accommodates a number of projects with regards to renewable energy. This happens less because MARENA now looks after all that is renewable energy.
However, on the green front, regarding agriculture, we are indeed very active. We have been funding more than 15 projects; not only in smart agriculture but also empowering people to develop new types of agriculture in Mauritius. This can range from more effective agricultural practices with less pollutants, to the use of organic fertilizers, or turning sugarcane trash into energy or bioplastics, Arundo Donax Viable Alternative Towards National Clean Energy Development, Acacia Nilotica valorization (an endemic Rodriguan plant) into furniture etc… These are some of the projects we are financing. We are currently having discussion groups on the blue and green economy so that clear recommendations are made for discussion at the upcoming Assise de la Recherche et de l’innovation in April.
We want novel solutions. We do not want only to think out of the box, rather we want to remove the box and think openly on how to improve our agricultural situation: where are we, what are the gaps, and what are the legislations we need? What projects or programs can MRIC fund? Most importantly, since we have been in the business for so many years, we are analyzing the impact of our schemes and our funding on Mauritian societal development. There is a fundamental question mark, and the Assises will be a golden opportunity for us to review, rethink and create novel initiative schemes moving us toward the future.
The MRIC is also funding business incubators. As you see, we have moved from our original capability of financing academia to including the funding of incubators. To be precise, we are funding seven incubators and a hundred incubatees. From these incubatees, a number of startups have sprung up. This is another initiative of which we are very proud and, indeed, the more incubators we have, the more we will be improving upon the entrepreneurship ecosystem. This is what we need and what young entrepreneurs need—help and a strategy from government to bring these entrepreneurships to fruition in terms of startups and industries.
Final Message to the readers of Newsweek.
Mauritius has the necessary manpower and competencies to lay down the basis of an innovation savvy nation. However, we would undoubtedly need to have novel investment, namely innovative collaboration in key sectors-emerging technologies: fintech, blue and green economy. I would like to extend my personal invitation to all international investors who read Newsweek. We have a beautiful island, gorgeous beaches, wonderful people, and a lot of investment incentive. We want to have a leapfrog innovation strategy to drive the country forward, and we are giving ourselves the means to do so.