Biman Najika Liyanage is one of the only two Sri Lankans listed in the 2017 class of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in the healthcare and science sector, the other being Rakitha Malewana, interviewed by the Nation last month. The 26-year-old prodigy is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of CirQ Technologies and Partner – Nanjing Tamo Tech Company Limited.
His recent achievement is the development of an application which focuses on erectile dysfunction and a smart glove which helps deaf and blind children to communicate. As far as the first app is concerned, the material based penile stimulation erectile dysfunction assistance device allows those suffering from periodic erectile dysfunction to achieve firm and lasting erection, to measure and monitor the blood-flow to the penis and also to increase sexual pleasure.
He is a multilinguist, fluent in five languages including Sinhala, English, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu. He is multi faceted. He is a researcher, innovator and an entrepreneur who has co-founded several technology-related ventures in China and in Hong Kong focusing on mobile internet technology and Smart material based wearable technologies. Liyanage was among the 200 future leaders selected for the 2016 St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland.
Liyanage spoke to the Nation regarding his vision of a futuristic Silk Route linking the intellectual prowess of Sri Lanka with the technological aptitude of China.
Below are a few excerpts from an email interview with Liyanage.
Q: How has Sri Lanka and China impacted your life and work?
I moved to China very early on in 2008 and have been living there ever since. But living and working in China has impacted my life in many aspects. It is indeed a humbling experience. People have a very different opinion about China in general but once you learn the language and the culture and slowly blend into their society, there is a lot we can learn from them. I think the key thing that I would like to express is on how we can work with China in a better way in terms of learning.
Q: What exactly is the smart glove interface design for communication for deaf and blind children? How does the platform for a finger Braille translating software for the deaf and blind work?
As a researcher, from the earliest days of my work, I was fascinated by the idea of how people interact with information. Information grants people access but there are many unfortunate individuals who cannot access information like colour, relative distances and even the most basic building blocks upon which our language is based on. I focused on ‘differently abled individuals’ and how to bridge this gap. My work was in designing wearables for those who are deaf and blind at the same time, by using tactile vibration technology to translate physical information through vibrations. I won two innovation related competitions with this patented technology, winning the first prize from among 10,000 applicants.
Q: How did your work involving fashion technology evolve?
The next generation of wearable technologies are the ones that are more indistinguishable products, ones that are seamlessly integrated with everyday objects which are ultra low-cost and highly durable. I have been working in the fashion technology sector for a while, designing wearable technology solutions for different companies.
We have designed and manufactured integrated solutions for clothing that can measure the heart rate variability, respiration monitoring and basal body temperature as well as other sensors measuring various health matrices. Apart from these, we have developed proprietary technology in integrating biocompatible sensors in clothing that is washable, tamperproof and waterproof. Recently, we demonstrated how these technologies can be integrated in the entertainment industry by partnering up with Intel on the China Central Television Spring Festival Gala, the pinnacle of the annual entertainment events, where 165 dancers were synchronized through smart clothing.
Q: How did CirQ Technologies come about?
CirQ was born as result of a design challenge Durex put out in looking for products that disrupt traditional products working in the sexual health space. We focused on combining the power of smart material technologies, in simpler terms materials that change their behaviour based on external stimuli, in integrated products. We were able to raise around USD 1 million in seed funding for developing the technologies. We have secured around three patents in this area so far.
Q: You have developed and created a series of Smartphone applications related to sexual health focusing on erectile dysfunction. One application in particular is a health tracking gadget which involves a condom that responds to the blood flow and sends data to an accompanying Smartphone app.
This invention won the Durex design challenge and you were awarded Yuan 100,000. Could you elaborate on this work?
It is a project we have been working on with the RSI Laboratories, where the sensor we have designed can actually measure the erection when blood rushes to the penis when sexually aroused. We can constantly monitor the blood flow and physically stimulate the silicon walls made up with micro actuators to let more blood flow organically. The data can be collected via a Smartphone application that creates a set of actionable notifications that can help improve erectile dysfunction. We have been able to secure the patent for the underlying technology behind the device.
Q: What does the low cost synthetic aperture radar imaging system do?
Synthetic Aperture Radar Imaging (SAR) is a coherent, mostly airborne or space-borne sideways looking radar system which utilizes the flight path of the platform to simulate an extremely large antenna or aperture electronically, and that generates high-resolution remote sensing imagery. I worked on designing these systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for my graduate studies. Usually a traditional SAR system is around 10 kilograms. We were able to miniaturize such a system for less than 500 grams that can be fitted on a UAV.
Q: What is the market for these products?
The market is quite big with people digitalizing almost every aspect of life. The key thing we have observed is that in the coming years we can see ourselves as a more connected species.
I have worked closely with health data companies that use data collected on patients to predict numerous health conditions. The key observation is early detection, so we focus on early detection technologies. We use a more data-driven approach for solving problems. With China recently changing the one child policy markets have opened up very rapidly and more and more people are conscious about their physical health and they are looking to more data-driven approaches to help them improve their lifestyles. If you look at International Business Machines Corporation Watson’s capabilities on using artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare, it is remarkable how much we have grown in the past decade.
The key problem in all the scenarios is that even though data analysis is moving quite faster with the growth in cloud computing, big data technologies and AI, it has been a challenge to collect the datasets from people using wearables. There are many datasets that have not been created so we work on creating those datasets that have not been created yet.
Q: Which sectors are you working on currently?
I have established two companies in China and Hong Kong where one is more focused on hardware design and manufacturing while the other company, Tamo Tech is focused on software development. Both companies have very specific goals. Tamo Tech works with mostly Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Tencent, Intel and others, designing and developing innovative software products with a special focus on data mining and data visualization technologies. We also work with Chinese Government institutions, providing them with software solutions.
CirQ Technologies is a hardware design lab working very closely on air, food and water. Some of the interesting highlights would be 3D food printing technologies we are currently working on, which would be commercially available in 2018.
Q: What were your experiences with Microsoft Research Asia?
I worked at Microsoft Research Asia, working on data mining and machine learning. It was quite interesting working in a large organization. You learn the skills that one needs to build one’s career up especially discipline, teamwork and industry standards.
Q: What are the main challenges you have faced in your chosen fields and life in general?
Working in China is definitely a challenge in itself. If you are not fluent in Mandarin, it is very difficult to focus on growth in China. Intellectual property protection is a very big challenge in China especially when it comes to manufacturing. On top of everything I would say that the main challenges are taking personal health for granted. I have been working endlessly which started slowly affecting my personal health.
Q: How do you view the scope of your work in the context of Sri Lanka?
I have been working with Sri Lankan Governmental and private organizations, working on technology transfer projects. I think we have a lot to learn from China in terms of manufacturing and how to increase the country’s productivity through digital technologies. It is sad to see that we have become the best at developing outsourced projects but not even one per cent of them are used in Sri Lanka for its own use. We need to motivate and encourage more and more startup founders, strengthening the startup ecosystem in the country. We have an amazing talent pool which needs to be properly utilized. We should be focused on importing ideas and resources instead of products and I wish to contribute in this area to bridge China and Sri Lanka with technology.