Filipino innovation and invention continue to shine
Rainier Allan Ronda (The Philippine Star) - January 9, 2020 - 12:00am


For the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), 2019 was a banner year in its continuing push for the commercialization of technologies developed from local research and development activities of Filipino scientists and innovators.

One of its flagship R&D projects – development of a hybrid electric train (HET) for the Philippine National Railways – became a success when the prototype train built by the department’s Metals Industry Research and Development Center (MIRDC) started commercial revenue runs last June, proving that Filipino engineers and technologists can build trains and the PNR need not be reliant on foreign technology.

Science Secretary Fortunato dela Peña said that with the success of the HET R&D, the PNR can consider tapping the team assembled by the DOST-MIRDC, composed of local steel fabricators and automotive firms, to build more trains for the line instead of buying expensive trains from abroad.

Dela Peña said that if the PNR will adopt the locally built trains for the rail line, an entire new industry can be brought forth – spurring new, high value jobs in the country and giving an opening to the Philippines to be a train maker and supplier to the world.

At the launch of the hybrid train at the PNR station in Alabang, Muntinlupa City last June, it was learned that PNR had recently bought several trains from Indonesia to address the need for more trains and the safety concerns on using old, reconditioned trains from Japan and Korea.

DOST Undersecretary Rowena Guevara recalled that the HET R&D project was thought of and started sometime in 2015, when the PNR approached the DOST seeking help for the fabrication of some hard-to-find train spare parts for the old Japanese trains needed to keep the trains in service at the rail line.

Guevara pointed out that if the PNR will adopt locally made trains, they will not be at the mercy of foreign train makers who can dictate the prices of spare parts especially if they have exclusive ownership of the technology.

Another ambitious transportation technology R&D project of the DOST – developing a Hybrid Electric Road Train (HERT) – also made headway in its bid for commercialization in 2019.

The Philtrak Digital Trackway consortium that adopted the HERT technology developed by the MIRDC has been cleared by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) for evaluation by the Panay Railways Inc. for its proposal to put to use PRI’s old, unused rail alignment from Iloilo City to Roxas City in Capiz by tapping the electric road train technology.

Francis Yuseco, Philtrak Digital Trackway consortium chief executive officer, said that another recent positive development in their proposal was the serious interest of Asian and European investors in participating in the project.

The HERT technology is being considered as a smart public transportation solution by Cauayan City as it  pursues its bid to be a full-fledged Smarter City, compliant with the Smarter City Framework laid out by the ASEAN Smart Cities Network.

Under the leadership of Cauayan City Mayor Bernard Faustino Dy, the local government unit is closely working with DOST’s Region 2, headed by engineer Sancho Mabborang, and the MIRDC, in an ongoing effort to find the best and smartest way of laying out and establishing an HERT line that will showcase the benefits of adopting the technology in the country’s cities and municipalities.

Dy vowed that the Cauayan City government will follow the advice of the DOST to commercially operate the HERT by charging fare to generate revenues and so make it a sustainable operation, as well as to showcase the feasibility of HERT as a viable, commercial mass transport technology.

By charging fare, Dy said they will also address the opposition raised by public utility tricycle operators and drivers in the city to the HERT project.

The HERT is said to be a hybrid transport technology that also features battery charging aside from running on diesel fuel, making it more environment friendly. With a capacity of 240 passengers, it is offered as a solution to the public transport problems in cities all over the country.

The DOST has been encouraging LGUs to tap the technology as it provides an environment-friendly and energy-efficient alternative to the smoke-belching jeepneys and tricycles, or the high-priced foreign light rail and traditional train technologies offered by foreign transport technology companies.

Space race

The year also saw the country join the ranks of the world’s space-faring nations with President Duterte signing into law the Philippine Space Act, which calls for the establishment of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).

Dela Peña said that the PhilSA ensures the country will benefit from the space technology expertise generated from the DOST’s earlier R&D, particularly in projects to develop local capability in the building of microsatellites and nanosatellites, and the establishment of ground receiving stations to receive, store and process satellite images and other data.

The DOST places the amount of investments it has poured into space R&D at P7.48 billion since 2010.

This investment funded the successful efforts at building and launching into orbit two microsatellites, Diwata 1 and Diwata 2, and nanosatellite Maya 1, from 2016 to 2018.

Dela Peña said that with the current DOST thrust at “localization” in the building of future microsatellites and nanosatellites to be launched into space, the country now has the potential of producing applications and other products from this technology.

On the ground, Dela Peña said DOST had also gotten a boost in its priority program of providing assistance to local tech startups especially with the signing into law of the Innovative Startups Act last April, and the signing of the implementing rules and regulations of the law late last year.

The law is seen to provide long-term strategic planning in fostering a thriving startup community in the country. It aims to create initiatives that will provide benefits and incentives to startups and startup enablers, and to remove procedural constraints for businesses by streamlining government and non-government operations.

The signing of the implementing rules and regulations was taken by the DOST as cue for its Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD) to release grants to 15 pioneer beneficiaries of the Startup Research Grant Program.

Dela Peña said the assistance program will ensure a thriving culture of innovation among the country’s budding entrepreneurs, and hopefully pave the way for the emergence of the next Filipino tech unicorn, or a tech startup that hits an enterprise value of $1 billion.

Filipino startup Revolution Precrafted, an online platform that sells prefabricated designer, custom homes across the world, and connects developers and real estate buyers, is acknowledged as the first Filipino tech unicorn.

Herbal inroads

The DOST chief said that Phase 1 of clinical trials for the anti-dengue herbal medicine obtained from three herbs formulated by a team of researchers from De La Salle University Dasmarinas’ Medical and Health Science Institute led by pharmacologist-epidemiologist Dr. Rita Grace Alvero showed promising results. Phase 2 clinical trials are ongoing. 

“If this will give positive results, it can be applied at our FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as the first anti-dengue medicine,” Dela Peña said.

The medicine formulated by the team of Alvero is said to be a cocktail of three endemic plants proven to be effective in curing dengue.

Aside from the promising anti-dengue drug, Dela Peña said that the DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development recently launched 18 herbal medicines for possible adoption by pharmaceutical companies.

Dela Peña said that it will be up to the private adoptors to pursue further clinical trials if they want to develop the herbal medicines into full-fledged medicines.

Eric Paringit, PCIEERD executive director, said that overall, 2019 was a banner year for S&T and innovation in the Philippines and Filipinos.

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