Zest is the spirit – Innovation follows faithfully

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 21st September 2017

This week officially marks the start of an international Innovation conference organised entirely by the Malta Communications Authority at the Radisson Blu Golden Sands Resort and Spa. Many sponsors have backed this event, including the Times of Malta, and it augurs well for the disruptive technology – another buzzword which alongside Blockchain is making the news.

This is no ordinary event as it is expected to attract over 500 participants, mainly the creme-de-la-creme of young and established service providers, including start-up founders and CEOs, and investors. As can be expected the clarion call is that we are looking for our home grown “Steve Jobs” to kindle our fire of innovation and with his magical touch turn our young and aspiring start-ups into mythical Unicorns.

One hopes that such events succeed to place the island on the map for research and development – a resting place for talent where our PhD graduates can find solace in building a commercial ecosystem that makes us proud. Naturally, Parliamentary Secretary Silvio Schembri thinks that Zest is a meritorious initiative since being responsible for digital economy and innovation at the OPM he plans to exploit to the fullest the disruptive phenomenon driven by tech start-ups.

He pontificates that since his appointment at OPM last June he was tireless in his efforts to build up an effective ecosystem that cements the essential elements to support start-ups in digital technology. In this context, he has addressed another event sponsored exclusively by PKF, attracting talent particularly in the digital and Life Sciences sectors. Unhindered by lack of sponsors, PKF forged ahead and invited keynote speakers at an event held on 28th June at Microsoft Centre at Skyparks.

As main organisers they sought support from a number of government agencies and were greeted with smiles and an equal number of polite ‘no thank you’.   Undeterred they succeeded to invite a number of local and international speakers,  such as Gor Sargsyan, president of Qbitlogic International, Atlanta (USA), specialising in building multi-purpose approaches and tools that synergize the power of artificial intelligence and quantum computing to help humans build and protect software systems across various industries.

Gor is currently based in Palo Alto, California, which is the forerunner of Silicon Valley innovation stunts. Certainly one cannot ignore the immense contribution that researchers based in Silicon Valley have made towards cutting-edge technology.  Stas Gayshan MD CIC Boston, Joe Woods MD Creolabs, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, executive chairman MCST, Leonard Bonello, Senior Associate Ganado Advocates, Matthew Caruana, Manager ZAAR Crowdfunding, Ing Joe Sammut, CEO LifeSciences Park, formed the list of speakers on their subject.

The good news is that both political parties promised in their manifesto to substantially increase investment in R&D, and consequently major conferences like Zest and another one by Netrefer do not come a moment too soon. This roadmap is an ambitious one as European governments are in competition to attract international companies and inventors participating in quantum mechanics, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain technologies.

Readers may ask what is quantum learning?  The answer is that this involves research into machine learning algorithms which learn a desired input-output relation from examples in order to interpret new inputs. This is important for tasks such as image and speech recognition or strategy optimisation, with growing applications in the IT industry.  Understanding the inherent complexity of quantum research involves understanding how the laws of physics interact on information and computation so as to tackle problems in related fields.

Speakers at Microsoft Centre discussed technical details couched in easy layman terms. They explained how to apply machine learning techniques, using examples from specific research areas in artificial intelligence to analyse complex sequences such as simultaneously timing, and sequencing.  This begs the question – how can researchers in Malta benefit from a future research centre which among other things can explore the fruits of quantum mechanics?

This is an ambitious task which has already been tested in modest terms at the University. The crux of the problem is lack of funding. More is needed to reach the benchmark, i.e. 2% of GDP benchmark as currently the island only spends a mere 0.8%.  Undoubtedly the efforts by MCA to organise and support initiatives like Zest and others is like lighting a small candle in a dark room. We need more initiatives possibly supported by Innovation funds now available at EU level.

Again, we need overseas experts to help us map our future roadmap.  Europe tends to have a philosophy that once you fail then you ought to go and cry in a corner. Failure in USA on the contrary is seen as a catalyst to spurn you on a more ambitious path driving you to retool and start all over again with courage.  In such spirit a delegation from PKF visited Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA to explore links to promote Malta as a potential business accelerator and/or Life Sciences hub for innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs.

It is interesting to note that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts founded in 1861 –  built in response to the increasing industrialization of the United States. The uniqueness of MIT is in its appetite for problem solving – especially those intractable technical problems whose solutions make a tangible difference. It is no stranger to accolades – rated as the world’s best university in chemistry; economics; linguistics; materials sciences; quantum mechanics and nanotechnology.

It goes without saying that this impressive learning institution is the pride of the American intelligentsia and other advanced countries (such as Singapore and Israel) have regularly invested in its development since the sixties to partake of its overflowing chalice of innovation and cutting-edge research.

Another interesting landmark is the Boston-based Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC).  It was here that Android co-founder Rich Miner built his unique Google Android software. CIC also has a non-profit sister, the Venture Cafe Foundation (this provides a Forum for venture capitalists to scout and help fund new talent).

What is so special about CIC? The answer is that as an innovation hub it succeeded to attract worldclass start-ups which proved very supportive for the US economy through the generation of premium jobs and its high value-added inventions.  Imagine how in the near future, research labs will be reinforced by PhD graduates from Barts Medical school, MCAST, University, AUM and other colleges.

It is not an easy journey as many countries want to emulate the commercial success of Boston, New York and Silicon Valley. Pioneers helping in such critical stages to build our fragile ecosystem need to overcome great odds but the exemplary efforts by MCA to organise Zest and help others to forge ahead can be compared to an athlete bearing a torch in an Olympic event which if victorious will underpin GDP growth and improve our competitiveness level.  Zest is for life.

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 21st September 2017
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