August 2017

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Speaking on innovation, Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon who is closing in on the heels of Bill Gates for the title of richest person on the planet, said: "One of the ways to get yourself out of a tight box is to invent your way out."

With its weakening energy sector, Trinidad and Tobago is in a tight box. With a 14% reduction in funding, UWI St. Augustine is in a tight box as well. But, as Bezos says, the Campus has its inventors. And they have been busy.

"There are products here that will shock the world," says Nizamudeen Mohammed, a technician with the Department of Chemistry, as he leads me into an office. The space is tiny but it’s not the space that matters. On display is a suite of coatings – indoor and exterior paints, red oxide primer, marine coating, 4-in-1 coating and plastic cement – many of them made from a combination of local asphalt and other additives. All of them made by a Chemistry Department team. Most importantly, many of these products will be available to the public as UWI St. Augustine launches a start-up company for asphalt coatings, a first for the Campus.

The asphalt-based products, as well as other innovations coming out of the Department, were displayed at the Innovation Conference held in late June at UWI's Teaching and Learning Centre. In his address at the Conference, Campus Principal Professor Brian Copeland said he had mandated St. Augustine to launch its first spin-off company in 2017.

This is massive for several reasons. Firstly the products themselves, representative of homegrown innovation that use local raw materials and were specifically designed to resist conditions like heat and moisture, are entering a market which is dominated by foreign products. The research team says the asphalt coatings are not only more effective they are also much less expensive.

"The Caribbean climate is hot. We live and work in coastal areas. We have flooding," says Mr. Mohammed. "These products were developed and tested to withstand the heat, the salt-water, the rust. And we can bring them to market at a much lower cost."

If the asphalt coatings are so effective in the extreme conditions of the Caribbean, then they will be even more effective in temperate climates, says the research team. This means there is potential for export business. In fact, Mr. Mohammed says there has already been several expressions of interest from regional and international parties.

Innovation-led entrepreneurship

The start-up is also extremely significant because it represents an evolution in UWI's role. At the Innovation Conference, Professor Copeland said UWI is "actively expanding the current 'education-for-jobs' paradigm to one that nurtures creativity and innovation." The asphalt coating start-up is essentially a blueprint for how it can be done – from research and development to manufacturing and bringing products to market, what Professor Copeland has described as the innovation pipeline.

Innovation remains a much-desired but elusive goal for Trinidad and Tobago. Currently the Government is working on a draft national innovation policy. Principal Copeland has made innovation a major priority for the Campus and is actively promoting a cohesive innovation strategy that includes input from government, the private sector and the education sector.

The asphalt coating start-up also represents a very effective use of the funding provided to the University.

"People need to see the result of investing in UWI and in our research," says Dr. Simone Walcott, Chief Technician in the Chemistry Department and a member of the research team.

At the heart of the team are Dr. Lebert Grierson (Head of the Chemistry Department) and Mr. Mohammed, who have been working on coatings, lubricants and other formulations for more than a decade.

"I looked at poor people who can't afford to buy a galvanize sheet for their roof or a can of paint at Christmas time," says Mohammed. "How do we use what we have in the country to create affordable solutions for them that will last? It was a challenge and I thrive on challenge."

He recounted how he and Dr. Grierson would go to residents of La Brea (the location of the Pitch Lake) and buy waste deposits of asphalt to conduct their experiments. Eventually, despite their extremely limited resources and several other difficulties they developed a range of formulations combining asphalt with other ingredients.

Several of their products have been tested and certified by the Shriram Institute for Industrial Research in India. This also includes two greases – a velocity joint grease and a heavy red grease. Mohammed says there are many more products in the works, some already completed and only awaiting certification.

"We have a great team of researchers and we can make a whole field of products," he says.

At the time of this writing the Department is awaiting additional funding for further research and expansion of the chemistry lab to better handle a larger scale of manufacturing. Despite the difficulties they have faced in developing these products, the team is optimistic for the future of the work, particularly under the leadership of Professor Copeland and the new innovation paradigm.

"All we need is 10% of the Trinidad and Tobago market and 10% of the Caribbean market and we can have an extremely profitable business," says Mr. Mohammed. "In the entire Caribbean there is no manufacturing of these kinds of products. The market is there. We can make an impact and we can help to put UWI in the driving seat for innovation in the region."

Joel Henry is an editor and writer.