Fellow Since 2004
This description of Shaikh Mizan's work was prepared when Shaikh Mizan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
Without rapid technological innovation, businesses in the developing world cannot compete and grow enough to provide their people with the jobs and services they need. In Bangladesh, Shaikh Mizan is working to prepare local companies for a rapid pace of technological innovation, bringing powerful new ideas and practices to industries that have so far struggled to compete on the global stage. Establishing connections to developed countries and leveraging the work of local researchers, he lays the foundation for an explosion of entrepreneurship and development in Bangladesh.
The New Idea
Shaikh Mizan is introducing the concept of continuous technological innovation to Bangladeshi industry. Traditionally, the first line of technological advancement for his country's firms is to adopt or adapt foreign technologies, but in the old model the flow of information and innovation was too slow to seed significant progress. Mizan quickens the pace of development by training local entrepreneurs and connecting them to sources of scientific progress and practical application. He brings expatriate Bangladeshis and other outside investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs together with their native counterparts, and connects researchers within the country to leaders that can use their knowledge to drive effective practice. Even better, he develops resources to help industries market their materials, locate firm sources of investment, and solve the technical problems that inevitably come with implementing new ideas. All of Mizan's work is in relentless pursuit of a principal goal: to create fluid information exchange among technologists, investors, and entrepreneurs in order to accelerate technological progress and benefit the people of his country.
Technological advances in Bangladesh tend to flow one way: from the outside in. As in many developing countries, traditional business practices, lack of education and a poor incentive structure keep the country dependent on external innovations for its economic growth. The garment industry, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of Bangladesh's export market, relies almost entirely on foreign representatives to market its wide range of products to world suppliers. With little direct control over the development and adaptation of new methods and machines, Bangladeshi businesses often struggle to stay afloat in the competitive world of international trade. The problem is not that innovations don't occur in Bangladesh: although thousands of scholars have immigrated to wealthier countries in the past decades in a classic example of "brain drain", government research institutes and universities produce important technological innovations by the dozens, particularly in the field of agriculture. However, the business sector is largely unaware of these innovations; there are only very weak channels of communication - and sometimes none - between academic researchers and business leaders. Without a means for rapid and effective idea exchange, real opportunities for technological advancement take so long to be implemented that their real impact is lost. Particularly hard hit by this trend are the food-based industries that employ more than two thirds of the country's labor force. These industries are integral to the economic well-being of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi citizens, but they struggle to consistently innovate: in particular, despite significant progress in agricultural production, food processing technologies have remained relatively stagnant for years. Businesses in this sector, as in all sectors, need to continuously upgrade their equipment to compete on a global scale. With sustained investment in domestic research and development, many of the components needed for upgrade could be manufactured in Bangladesh at lower cost than imported materials. Without such investment, Bangladeshi firms too often float restlessly behind the waves of innovation that drive the world economy.
Shaikh Mizan helps his country build the technological capacity for economic growth by creating resources, forums, and initiatives dedicated to the rapid spread of innovation. Through his organization TechBangla, he develops creative and effective collaborations between scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs to adapt new technologies and put them into wide practice. A startling achievement of TechBangla is that it enables Bangladesh to actually benefit from "brain drain". Rather than losing the knowledge and expertise of emigrated researchers, he brings them into partnership with local businesses, establishing direct links from Bangladeshi business to the techniques and technology of the most developed nations. The links that Mizan creates have brought direct benefits to his country's economy. He hosts ongoing mini-forums to match industries with the entrepreneurs that can help them meet their technological needs: through one, a group of young entrepreneurs developed software for international buyers to place garment orders through the Internet, dramatically increasing the sales potential of Bangladeshi clothes. TechBangla proposed and planned a business center in Santa Clara, California, which began in 2003 as the first direct institutional connection between Bangladeshi business and the innovations of Silicon Valley. His efforts to connect people and ideas are matched by programs to generate concrete new resources for the development and spread of technology. He has organized six leading research organizations to compile a database of all natively developed technologies and spread these technologies as widely as possible. For managers in the food-processing industry, he organized publishers and experts to create an industrial technology handbook in Bengali. To support entrepreneurs in agricultural industries, he has brought bank representatives together to develop a handbook and simplify financing opportunities, bringing order to a range of options that is often confusing and discouraging to potential investors. He formed partnerships to publish the first ever inventory of products and services from 950 light engineering manufacturers in Bangladesh, bringing the products of this huge industry to hundreds of new local and international markets. Drawing from his personal expertise and interest in the bio-technology field, Mizan has taken up a project for adopting and developing the technology of antibiotic production. While the last two decades have witnessed strong growth in his country's pharmaceutical industry, its activity remains largely limited to packaging and dispensing drugs imported from other countries. The parent materials of antibiotics in particular come almost exclusively from companies in Europe. Without a native antibiotic production industry, Bangladesh is forced to pay for the high labor and technology costs of western countries. Because antibiotics are essential drugs, their delivery at a cheaper price would especially benefit the vast number of poor in the country. In the near future, Mizan will bring his focus to spreading his successful training and outreach programs to poorer groups, and developing incubation facilities for innovative startup enterprises. He expects his work in the agricultural-industrial sector to take another two years, after which he will concentrate his work on the light engineering and electronics industries. Now and in the future, his initiative is pioneering ways to bring together policy makers, investors, technologists, and entrepreneurs to bridge the gaps that hinder indigenous development of industrial technology.
Mizan has pursued his vision of technological innovation for his country since his earliest days of graduate school. As a student in Bangladesh, he formed the Young Scientists Association for Advancement of Science and Technology to identify and help meet the research needs of the nation. When he moved to the United States to continue his doctoral research, Mizan kept these goals firmly in mind. He gathered a group of expatriate Bangladeshi technologists, investors, and entrepreneurs to form TechBangla, uniting under the watchwords "Technology, not Charity." Through their own personal contacts, they built a network of successful expatriates in the US, keeping them connected through persistent use of email and the Web. TechBangla gained visibility and trust through their first two major conferences in 2000. After founding the first branches of his organization in the United States, he visited Bangladesh to establish a local branch. During his stay he realized that to tackle the fundamental problems of technological innovation that confront Bangladesh, he would have to live there. He moved to Dhaka City, leaving his family behind. Through personal upheavals, he established strong connections with local industries and began in earnest the work of bringing Bangladeshi business to the global stage.