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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
OP-ED

Business incubation: Prospects for Bangladesh

When we look at our own country the implications of business incubation are immense. All eyes appear to be fixed on information technology but the next big thing widely acknowledged is biotechnology. Contrary to what people may think, over 200 students from the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology departments all around the country graduate every year in Bangladesh. Universities such as Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Shahjalal, Maolana Bhashani have varying number of intakes and this has been an upward trend. The question is, where could these genetic engineers go?

Currently, over half of the biotech graduates leave the country for higher studies. They seldom return. About 10% get into related jobs such as teaching, pharmaceuticals and research, etc. Another 10% go to jobs that have no relation to biotechnology. 5% of them start their own businesses and meet with limited success. The future is unknown for the rest 25%. However, if the policy support was in place, they could start biotech enterprises. This is not as farfetched as it appears. Bangladesh has a huge dependency on import for a lot of biotech products that could easily be produced locally.

Take India's experience for instance. The Indian government set up the Department of Science & Technology to help entrepreneurs' kick-start their businesses. The experience has been mixed. The government now has a Technology Development Board that sponsors some 60 incubators with another 30 to 40 incubators that are run privately. Why so much emphasis on incubators? As stated by Roshan Kumar, Manager, Comcubator at Mudra Instritute of Communications in Ahmedabad “an incubator can be a great place for entrepreneurs, especially for those who are in the initial stages of their ventures, anywhere from conceptualisation to early stages of operations. The incubator acts as a hand-holding guide, mentor and support system and acts as a shield from the outside world so that the entrepreneur can learn to stand up on his own much more swiftly and smoothly. An incubator offers, among other things, a mentorship network, access to investors, quality infrastructure and, above all, a vibrant echo-system, all or any of which may not be accessible to those outside.” However, incubators are only successful where the product or idea is exciting, innovative and implementable.

It is hardly surprising that India has emerged as a centre for technology innovation requisite with skilled managerial and technical manpower that is second to none. This did not come from the heavens. Entrepreneurial skill was backed up by necessary legislation. The Science and Technology Policy, 2001 recognises that science and technology are tools for national development. Formation of the National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board (NSTEDB) has had vast implications for incubation. It provides policy guidelines for promoting SMEs. It provides policy guidelines at state-level and basically charts out legislation for foreign direct investment, administrative set up, access to credit, technology development, etc. The NSTEDB goes beyond mere incubation in the strict sense of the word in that it provides policies to aid in marketing, paves the way for a fiscal regime geared towards small-scale industry, helps promote “village industries” that are integrated with existing rural employment generation programmes by providing thrust to small industry, etc. Infrastructure, entrepreneurship development, international cooperation are indeed crucial towards developing an incubation echo-system.

Moving back to the Bangladesh scenario, it is good to learn that the prime minister has urged the National Institute of Biotechnology (NIB) to start a biotech incubator. True, that NIB has all the modern facilities and equipment in its Gonokbari, Savar campus. Intention is noble, but implementation will be difficult, as most NIB officials themselves live in Dhaka. Yet it is a start. But for NIB to develop, some mechanism needs to be put in place whereby personnel can start learning the ropes from people with experience in running incubators in Bangladesh. Expertise is available in the region which can also be tapped into with ease.

Although this is a recent phenomenon in the country the initial success is not meagre. Take the examples of banglarestora.com or Creativa.Asia.These companies started off with just an idea and a lot of energy to drive forward. However, they did not know how to register as businesses nor had they any clue how to bag businesses once they were registered. However, with the help of one private sector incubator, both businesses are generating income today, creating jobs for people and adding value to Bangladesh's economy. Creativa.Asia is an interior design and event management business which finds most of its clients through the network the incubator maintains. Another incubatee of the same incubator is One Light Studio whose business is rural housing. It works in the villages of Bangladesh, where no architects or engineers step foot. Combining the technical with local knowledge of building houses, they assist to build homes with organic materials that emit zero carbon. They can help a villager build a two-storied house for seven people at the cost of only Tk200,000. Examples like this are only handful because we do not have as many incubators as we should. If a country like Indonesia can have about 500 incubators how many Bangladesh should have? A few young innovators have taken up the challenge but the government should step up and set up incubators in the public-private-partnership modality. It also needs to come up with detail policy guidelines to help facilitate an incubation echo-system.

The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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