Professor Dan Shechtman, the Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in 2011, is an Israeli engineer and material scientist. He was recently in Kathmandu to participate in the 13th International Conference on Quasicrystals (His Nobel Prize winning discovery) organized in Dhulikhel. Akhilesh Tripathi and Krishna Dhungana of Republica Online caught up with Professor Shechtman for an interview. Excerpts:
What do you think of this international conference on technological entrepreneurship organized in Nepal?
This is conference number 13. I participated in the first one. I’m the only one in the conference now who participated in the first one thirty years ago in 1986. So every 2 years or so we have a conference and it’s important that the very people who do research on quasi-periodic material, I call them quasi-periodic material, meet every now and then to see some new stuffs or they learned from each other and think it’s exciting and whatever ways of development. The people from Nepal invited us. They made an offer. I’m not the part of the committee but we have a committee and we decided, “Okay, this time we’ll do it at Nepal.”
Was there any specific reason for organizing the conference in Nepal?
They invited us. That’s the sole reason. Every year there are several invitations. And then we discussed and agreed that Nepal is an interesting country. So we did it here.
How is your discovery applied in day to day life?
There are several applications of quasi-periodic materials. When a new discovery is made, people start to study the properties of that material. There are hundreds of quasi-periodic materials. People study their electrical, magnetic, energy properties. If they find something interesting in their properties then they try to find its application. So, today there are several applications of quasi-periodic material. Because of their low surface energy, quasi-periodic materials are non-sticky materials like Teflon. A recent application of quasi-periodic material is in 3-D printing. There are other applications as well. Quasi-periodic materials heat up with infra-red radiation very fast.
Photos: Keshav Thoker
Yesterday, you gave a lecture on the importance of technological entrepreneurship. Why is it important for countries like Nepal to focus on technological entrepreneurship?
Technological entrepreneurship is important for every country, Nepal included. All countries can benefit from it. I come from a country where the technology is very developed. Technological entrepreneurship can help Nepal increase its GDP per capita. Currently, the GDP per capita of Nepal is very low, somewhere around US $ 700 per year. Israel’s GDP per capita is close to US $ 40,000. Technological entrepreneurship means start-ups based on new technologies that can make new products and services and sell them in the market. Modern, high-tech companies produce US $ 100,000 GDP per person. Nepal can flourish if it has such companies. Currently, Nepal depends on foreign aid. It should learn from its neighbors India and China which are growing very fast. Technological entrepreneurship is the best way to do it.
What are your suggestions to the government of Nepal for promoting technological entrepreneurship?
First of all, the government has to focus on good basic education for all. It should focus on producing more engineers, scientists. It has to embrace free market economy. And corruption has to be as minimized as possible. These are basic requirements for any country to develop. To promote technological entrepreneurship, the government can provide the seed money needed by start-ups with new, feasible ideas. If the idea clicks and the start-ups make money, they can return the seed money to the government. If not, the government can forget it as a bad investment. The government can teach technological entrepreneurship at the universities. This is a subject which can be taught.
The absence of angel investors and venture capitals in the market makes launching a start-up in Nepal quite difficult for an entrepreneur who doesn’t have deep pockets. What do you suggest to overcome this problem?
You have to come up with good ideas. If the idea is new and good, I think money should flow in. The government can and should help in such cases.
Talking about new ideas, a new idea means innovation. But an innovation is of no use unless it is transformed into a product or service which has to be done through entrepreneurship. What is more important – innovation or entrepreneurship?
What is more important in a human body – the lungs or the heart? You need both. Technological innovation as well as entrepreneurship. But innovation is being done around the world. You can take one innovation and make a product or service based on it. Innovation is a long process and entrepreneurship is a short process.
What lessons can Nepal learn from Israel’s entrepreneurship journey?
The driving force in Israel, besides knowledge, is a culture of entrepreneurship. I have contributed to this personally because I started to teach technological entrepreneurship in Israel 30 years ago when nobody was even talking about it. Over 10,000 engineers and scientists have taken my class. Nepal can learn from Israel to invest in human ingenuity. Long before Israel had anything else, it had engineers and scientists. It had good universities. At least 3 of the Israeli universities are among the top 100 universities in the world. Nepal has everything that it needs to succeed. It has 30 million people; we have around 8 million. Our area is very, very small. Nepal’s total area is very large, when compared to Israel’s. You have the Himalayas. You have water. That means a huge potential in hydroelectricity. Israel is surrounded by enemies and Nepal by friendly neighbors. But we turned our difficulties into benefits. Practically, every large country in the world has a development and innovation center in Israel.
Who do you think can create a better world – politicians or scientists?
The kidneys or the digestive systems? We need both. Look at the developed countries; they all have well-supported bright scientists. Except for countries that are living on oil. For example, Qatar is a very rich country but it doesn’t have scientists. Yes, it has oil but that won’t last forever. What after all the oil is used up? Most of the developed countries have good scientists as well as good politicians.
Finally, what is your message to the young scientists in Nepal?
I say this to the young people around the world – find a subject that you love. It could be Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and so on. And become an expert in the subject you love.