University of Moratuwa 2.0

The country’s leading engineering university is leveraging its technical legacy to usher in an era of entrepreneurship

University of Moratuwa’s Vice Chancellor Prof Ananda Jayawardane has been on the job for five years with a singular focus: turning the university’s rich technical legacy towards a more fostered culture of entrepreneurship. This year, 18 fully fledged startups founded at the university were launched to the Sri Lankan market. At first sight, this may seem a small number, but this is a considerable bump, given that just over four years ago, only three startups emerged from Sri Lanka’s leading technical university. Today, the startup ecosystem at the university is thriving with a new kind of energy and is at an inflection point, believes Prof. Jayawardane.

Just a few months ago, Mora Ventures, an incubation and acceleration programme managed by the institution, announced its intention to create the first one million dollar university startup in the course of next year, and even more, it also proclaimed a much bolder vision of founding a one billion dollar valued company by 2027.

Prof. Jayawardane has been the architect of this endeavor, spearheading structural reforms to uplift entrepreneurial spirit and, more importantly, cultural change in the community.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

A number of initiatives over your tenure have intensively focused on improving entrepreneurial culture at the university. Why?
Being the best technological university in Sri Lanka, our role is to prepare graduates for the job market. I think we need to transfer towards research and development, and transfer technologies to industry. But to do that, first, we have to be ‘job creators’ rather than ‘job seekers’. It is something that we have been telling our graduates and staff, that if we are to advance the industry, we need to create jobs by forming our own companies and entrepreneurs. We have been talking about it for over a decade. Now, students are also echoing the same sentiment.

From the outside, there seems to be a new wave of enthusiasm, not only among students, but the whole community including staff and alumni, in building an entrepreneurial culture. But, this was not the case 10 years ago. What factors triggered this transformation?
This didn’t happen overnight. It happened as part of a journey to realise our vision, which is to be a globally recognised knowledge enterprise. What I mean by that is to be more entrepreneurial. When we also have success stories coming through, it explodes like that. And then, students began to start their own companies. In 2014, we only had about three startups, seven in 2015 and ten in 2016. This year, we have 18 already. So, we are experiencing exponential growth in these startup companies. At the same time, we are facilitating structural requirements in areas of intellectual property and commercialization. We are even promoting staff members to have their own startups. To see real success, we need a bit of time. But, we are very happy because a few companies have gone beyond our shores and branched out to companies in the UK and the US. This indicates that they are growing. We want to have a one million dollar company by next year; and by 2027, we hope to build a company with a one billion dollar valuation.

There is the criticism that the University of Moratuwa is too siloed into core engineering disciplines, thus lacking interdisciplinary movement. Don’t you think this stifles the development of entrepreneurship at the university?
We understood that business entrepreneurship culture at the university is relatively less developed. We consider ourselves highly technically competent, but marketing, business plan development and venture capital need further improvement.

So, this year, we established the faculty of business. This faculty was created with the idea to leverage our strength in the technology discipline. The business faculty will not function in isolation, but instead, support all faculties. Business faculty staff will lecture at the engineering faculty, and similarly, we want engineering faculty staff to teach at the business faculty. We strongly promote this and believe that the multidisciplinary culture would create better harmony among the students and better collaboration among the staff.

What kind of resistance did you encounter in your pursuit to integrate entrepreneurial DNA into university culture?
When they come here, most students would like to get formal job opportunities. Their parents also encourage them to be employed as an engineer or a professional, rather than experimenting in forming a company. So, the mindset change is a bit of a challenge. It’s also a challenge with the staff members. Unless we have a culture like a business school, even staff members don’t have that exposure. But, it’s gradually changing. We hope the faculty of business will change that.

Within the country, the University of Moratuwa has a reputation as the leading technical university. But internationally, it is relatively unknown. n order to get international recognition,  we need to have powerful international collaborations for research and student exchanges. That is why we have appointed a director of research and a director of international relations. Traditionally, state universities have been more geared towards undergraduate education.

We want to have a one million dollar company by next year; and by 2027, we hope to build a company with a one billion dollar valuation

We were not really competitive because we didn’t do any marketing, and we didn’t feel the need to have international collaborations. That mentality should be changed. If you want to really be globally positioned, we need to attract international students. We should get at least 5% of international students. But, we haven’t been trying hard to get that. We have 25 international students now, out of 1,700 students. We can take roughly about 200 international students if we really want to promote ourselves.

There is a dearth in professionals for academia, especially due to the brain drain. How do you ensure that staff remain with the university?
This is an issue. Even today, I got information that a young probationary lecturer is resigning, a very qualified person whom we sent for training in fashion design to the UK. In the electronics engineering faculty, it is the same—developed brains don’t return. Academically, we need to provide a rewarding time here. We need to have modern equipment. Financially, we need to create alternative sources of income. In the electronics communication area, starting salaries are equal to that of a senior academic staff member or a professor. At the University of Moratuwa, we promote our staff members to do consultancy for industries. We expect university staff members to be here at least four days a week, and do outside consultancy one-twentieth of the time.

All academic staff fall into a common salary scheme regardless of discipline, whether humanities, management or sciences. Don’t you think it’s unfair, especially for academia in the engineering and physical science disciplines, because their services will be offered an exponentially higher price elsewhere?
That is the issue. In the entire university system, irrespective of university or discipline, the salary of a senior lecturer and a professor is exactly the same. So, an arts professor will get the same as a high-tech electronics professor. So, while it’s attractive for some disciplines, it’s not attractive for others. It is our duty to make sure to generate alternative income sources for academic staff. We have voiced this concern, but salary demands are represented by the entire university academic federation. They don’t discriminate saying a certain discipline should get a higher salary. Therefore, individual universities need to find our own base of income. To incentivize, that’s why we encourage staff members to do consultancy. This may reduce the time they are at the university, but they bring new experiences to the classroom. This has become a strength of Moratuwa university. They are busy, they are out and they bring new case studies to the classroom; they don’t just teach from books only.

Sri Lanka is ranked 90th among 130 nations on the Global Innovation Index. What is your prescription to improve this ranking?
It’s a low rank. Actually, I’m supervising a Phd now that examines the national innovation ecosystem in Sri Lanka. The problem is that our players are not aligned in the ecosystem. Also, there is no sufficient co-ordination. Sometimes, ministries have their own ideas, universities are working differently and there is no strong collaboration with the industry. We find that the main thing holding us back is a lack of alignment and coordination. Different people are doing different things, and sometimes even repeating and contradicting. There has to be a very powerful national ecosystem to support that. The National Science Foundation is trying hard, but intellectual property aspects still need to be developed.