Dr. Naveed Anwar assumed the post as the new AIT Vice President for Knolwedge Transfer on April 1, 2019. Prior to assuming this position, Dr. Naveed was serving as Executive Director of AIT Solutions. An alumnus of AIT (Master's in 1988 and Ph.D. in 2004, both in Structural Engineering), Dr. Naveed has had a long association with AIT. AIT’s Office of Public Affairs joined him in his office and had a long and engaging discussion.
Here are some excerpts from the interaction.
After spending nearly two decades heading ACECOMS and then AIT Solutions, you have now been appointed AIT's new Vice President for Knowledge Transfer. How is this new role different from your previous roles?
The position of Vice President for Knowledge Transfer is not only a new position, it also focuses on a new mandate - that has not been explicitly addressed at AIT before. This role emphasizes and supports important aspects of the vision of the new management team, which is to create an entrepreneurship culture and to increase engagement with enterprises. Even though some of the activities in this portfolio are similar to my work in previous positions at AIT, most are new initiatives, with much wider scope and impact.
The work in Asian Center for Engineering Computations and Software (ACECOMS) with Prof. Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai, was probably the first commercialization of research conducted at AIT, and AIT Solutions (formerly AIT Consulting) was a logical extension of this work, where we took AIT's research and capabilities and converted these into consulting, and solutions. The main difference is that most of these projects were one-off ventures with little or no continuity.
But now we are going to create something with a longer-term benefit to both AIT and society, by converting the research carried out at AIT, and the knowledge created as a result to various knowledge products, such as patents, technology licensing, technology transfer and creating startups. Some example similar outcomes are in projects conducted in Naturally Acceptable and Technological Sustainable (NATS) and some other centers, such as Bangchak Initiative and Innovation Center (BIIC)
How will you bring about this change?
The most critical step is to change mindsets. Most AIT faculty and experts love to conduct research, write for publication, and create knowledge. This change in mindset is about focusing beyond the problem or the research project at hand so that the benefit is both long-term and on a larger scale. Similarly, the mindset of students needs to change, and the goal is not only to gain a masters or doctoral degree and get a job but also to create direct value for society, industry, and the students themselves, of course.
You are in a totally new role as AIT's first Vice President for Knowledge Transfer. This gives you the liberty to identify the contours of your new position. How do you envisage this role?
Not many universities have a similar position, though many organizations have a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO). But their role is different from Knowledge Transfer in a university. One perspective is that delivering a lecture amounts to knowledge transfer, or that publishing something in a journal or presenting at a conference or on a website is also knowledge transfer. While this may be true in certain contexts, to me, this terminology is a cross between Technology Transfer and a contribution to the knowledge-based economy through research. Tech Transfer, therefore, is part of knowledge transfer and hence encompasses the role of the Technology Licensing Office (TLO) and tech transfer through innovation. I envisage that the role will go beyond technology and we will combine it with both social impact and social business and thus make a greater contribution to society and the economy.
So is the primary role of a university to generate or to transfer knowledge?
Knowledge creation has been the key role of universities and will continue to be their key strength. Knowledge is created through teaching, the learning process, research, intellectual interconnections, and publications. Transferring knowledge has many facets, and part of knowledge transfer takes place during the knowledge creation process itself. Here, we are talking about converting this knowledge into value that goes beyond the knowledge creation process itself and is used to directly create a process, product, or service that is used by and is useful to a large segment of society. Faculty and students are the core of the process of knowledge creation. Their role will continue to be critical, and we would like to get them involved in the knowledge transfer process as well.
Every year we produce 300-400 theses, which is equivalent to hundreds of human years of effort. If a company were to employ 400 human years of work, it would expect a massive outcome from that input. Through knowledge transfer, we can create a larger output and impact.
How do you propose to accomplish this?
This requires three things. We have already discussed the need for a change in mindset. The second element is the creation of infrastructure, mechanisms, the ecosystem, processes and procedures, and supporting policies and incentives designed to achieve this. The third element is to attract external interest in our work. In other words, this is a combination of internal culture, the ecosystem, and external recipients.
What should be AIT's top goal in terms of knowledge transfer?
This September, AIT will launch an Entrepreneurship Center, which will act as a placeholder for these activities. In many universities, the Entrepreneurship Center is part of the Business School, but at AIT, we are creating an Institute-level Center to draw students and researchers from all three schools for greater integration and impact.
Second, our goal is to create a parallel stream for students and researchers and to create an alternative path that can lead to research output in addition to publications and projects. Even if we get only 10 percent of our students along with their advisors to join this parallel path at the beginning, it will be a great success.
Third, we will provide the external impetus in the form of mentors, exposure, and links with enterprises. We may invite mentors or major figures from industry to be part of the student advisory panel and to provide them with internships and access to practical applications.
What institutional measures are being put in place?
A comprehensive plan for an ecosystem is being put in place, and central to this ecosystem will be the Entrepreneurship Center. The Center will be headed by the new Dean of the School of Engineering and Technology (SET), Prof. Dieter Trau, who has vast experience in this field and is exceptionally well qualified to lead this initiative.
Then, around this ecosystem, we are building an Intellectual Property Support Office (IPSO), which provides not only IP support but also patenting and licensing assistance. Similarly, we have an earlier IP Policy in place. Another important component will be an Enterprise Engagement Office, which will facilitate industry and alumnus engagement in a systematic manner.
Key to entrepreneurship is innovation. What role will innovation play in the new scheme of things?
By definition, most theses are innovations, especially when they lead to publications, even though we may not see them as innovation per se. Whether they result in some new product or improved service or process is a separate issue. Many of those innovations can serve as ingredients for creating something that will become of value to society.
We will kick-start this process with a bang by holding a mega event in September titled "100 Innovations and Entrepreneurs," where the keywords will be: Innovate, Collaborate, and Impact. The event will mark the launch of a journey, and it will boost both our internal and external ecosystems. The theme of the event will be "Research to Commercial (R2C)," and not many events have been organized based on this theme. It will also be an opportunity to knock on people's doors and start a conversation to inform them about our initiatives. We already have a lineup of over 30 outstanding speakers, who will bring with them their organizational expertise. The list is impressive, and it includes established industry leaders as well as a stream of new organizations and startups.
The event will be an excellent opportunity to officially announce the launch of a new direction, to create new networks, and to put AIT on the map for innovation and entrepreneurship.
You mentioned startups. What kind of startups do you envisage emerging from AIT?
The term “startup” is sometimes used to represent only those working in the realm of mobile and digital applications. At AIT, we will expand this concept and base it on our core strengths, which are provided by our three Schools: the School of Engineering and Technology, the School of Environment, Resources, and Development, and the School of Management.
So while we continue creating robots in our mechatronics lab, we will try to integrate these into startups. Similarly, our computer science people will work on AI-based solutions, combining them with other disciplines. We also have a large pool of researchers in agriculture, aquaculture, energy, transportation, civil engineering, and many others, and we can create multidisciplinary teams where experts from various directions will join hands.
For example, we are organizing an idea-pitch competition called BEST (Business, Engineering, Science, Together). This is a program initiated by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and now joined by the National University of Singapore (NUS) as well as AIT, where students from these three universities will get together. For two days, they will generate ideas revolving around Social, Business, and Technology innovations, focusing on waste reduction and the circular economy. The aim is for these ideas to lead to new research and startups together with industry collaborations.
In a few years, can AIT place products on market shelves?
Absolutely. AIT already has a number of products, like the reinvented toilet in Thailand as well as the Habitech interlocking bricks technology, which is already licensed in India. I am confident that we will have many more products or services AIT can be proud of in the coming years.