Innovation is all about change

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

The writer of this article is Lebert Grierson, born in June 1963 in Chapeltown area of Leeds, United Kingdom of immigrant parents from Clarendon, Jamaica. Graduated with PhD in Chemistry in 1988 from the University of London. Did post-doctoral work at The University of Groningen, The Netherlands and then Max Planck Institute for Radiation Chemistry in Muelheim an der Ruhr, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany. From 1992 University Lecturer in Chemistry at The University of West Indies, St Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. Between 1997-1999, Deputy Government Chemist, Kingston, Jamaica.

Consulted, researched and published papers in the areas of polymer chemistry (cracking of waste polymers), biophysical chemistry (microcalorimetry, synthesis/characterisation of biological model ion-channel membranes), and cement admixtures. Specialise in the formulation of asphalt sealant/coatings technology. In 2019 two products (asphalt primer and so-called plastic cement) were licensed from UWI to Trinidad & Tobago Lake Asphalt based on joint co-invention work of Nizamudeen Mohamed and Lebert Grierson. In 2020 a UWI company, UWI Seal It, was spin off to manufacture other asphalt products and grease lubricant inventions of the same authors.

Innovation is all about change, innovation is a process that brings to a problem exacting solutions with their particulars and map the problem and the solution and realises that the problems and solutions are dynamic and forever changing. It recognises the ability of man, black man, to navigate his/her own pathways. It recognises their ability in history and a history that has been at the forefront of change as seen in Kemetic society 18th - 28th dynasty where black culture, business, science and technology was at the forefront in world development/change. It recognises the importance of positive memories about a person’s contributions to be part of the solution and not necessarily part of the problem. History is important and an individual’s history is also important because it acts as a testimony of how each person can navigate their ways through life to their target and how we overcome our obstacles in the process. So for October 2020 Black History Month I will tell some of my story. In life it is not so important where you start but where you finish, although where you start certainly dictates how difficult the journey will be. I always thought I would be part of a solution, but was not certain of solution to what. I am not certain of where the drive came from but I suggest it came from Miriam, my mother. She had to brave to decide it is better to become a single mother of nine children and to be able to create a positive and rich social environment. Poverty is not just a matter of financial economics but of social economics.

I am the sixth child of Jamaican immigrant parents landed in Chapeltown area of Leeds, UK in late 1950s. Lived a life like many children of immigrants. From late 60s to early 80s went to Cowper Street and Elmhurst primary and middle school, then to City of Leeds High School. Followed by B.Sc. and PhD degrees in Chemistry at University of London. The most significant thing I recognised was the importance of teachers/lecturers/educators in the learning process, they help shape your character and expectations. There are too many teachers to name but I will name three, Mother/siblings, Mr. Tony Nelson of Elmhurst School and Professor Michael John Perkins of University of London. We need people in life to believe in us. Education is about learning not certification. Transformational education is about learning, understanding how to be innovative and solving real complex problems using thought-out “distilled” simple dynamic solutions. Early education prepared me how to navigate myself for the hostile real world. But as I reflect the key things were that I recognised my history, recognise my family responsibilities, recognise my society responsibility and because I am black I definitely and happily always recognised my black society in good and bad times.

In early life I realised the importance of connectivity of “capital” and ideas, whether capital owned by shareholders or workers. Innovation in this world society is matching ideas from thought with problems and needs and in the process develop wealth. While my education was formed in UK, my real learning was formed in The Netherlands and Germany where I did postdoctoral fellowships at Rijkuniversitat Groningen and Max Planck Institute for Radiation Chemistry in Muelhiem a.d. Ruhr and in the process develop a love for learning languages or trying. These countries have a culture of understanding the importance of the manufacturing process and social capital.

Even before I was “born”, I made a decision that I would match being happy and contribute to this world through innovation. Although British by birth, my heart and culture were shaped by the Caribbean and because of the multicultural nature of the Caribbean, the world. So it was no accident that I headed to The University of The West Indies in early 90s to be a Chemistry University Lecturer. Teaching and research are important but innovation is the life source of change but it is resourced by the other two.

UWI gave me the opportunity to mature in a psychologically safe environment, the Caribbean gave/gives me an opportunity as a test bed for my ideas and a place to develop innovative products, with the end in mind for the developing world, very often not on the radar, with wider relevance to rest of the world. In the process transforming “our world” from users to developers of technology and produce innovative products that create wealth based on creativity, produce manpower that is technologically savvy and relevant.

Over the last 20 years we have focused on both pure and applied research in the areas of biomembrane models, construction materials (cements and asphalt sealants/coatings and tribology (field of friction and lubrication). Our motto is ”Good research and technology drives success and takes years to achieve”. And real change is based on building a foundation based on innovation, bridging those inventions to meet people needs and changing people mind sets; all this with limited resources.

One of the common problems in tropical and arid climates is the leaking of flat concrete roofs (common roof construction) require sealants to coat surface and provide an impermeable barrier to water. Asphalt based materials while being very economic compared other synthetic polymer sealants/coatings, suffer from “wearability problem” in tropical and arid climates experienced in Africa, South America and many part of Asia, as most asphalt sealants are manufactured in north American and Europe for temperate climates. We realised that these wearability problems were a consequence of the intrinsic complex nature of asphalt material and its nature to crack and become porous to water on drying under intense heat. We found that asphalt sealants formulated for temperate climate could only withstand/be water impermeable under tropical climate conditions for one to two years. Leaking of flat concrete roofs is a perennial problem in developing countries. Over 15 years ago, I (with Nizamudeen Mohammed) developed new/novel asphalt sealants that stay water leak free for over 15 years in tropical climate based on designing/formulating a range of asphalt sealants/coatings that have “memory” and recognise the ambient conditions and alter their behaviour to resist negative effects of the climate (temperate climate as well). We manufactured and supplied on small scale to our customers mostly in the construction industry over the years but with the increasing demand by customers, The University licensed two of our asphalt products to Trinidad & Tobago Lake Asphalt Company. Products are expected to be manufactured on a large scale in the nearest future. There is a very large international market for the products as they can be used to seal any type of surface, e.g. concrete, wood, metal, vertical and horizontal walls. Our science and technology work has been extended to many other areas including designing grease lubricants for DIY and heavy industries. Licensing agreements with a company are being developed presently. Our measure of success would be described in terms of the transformation of Trinidad & Tobago Lake Asphalt Company from an asphalt mining company to a technology driven company, reducing the economic burden of maintaining waterproofing and the integrity of family dwelling, public and private institutions building across the world.

The University of which I am a member has made significant strides to improve its university world ranking over the last years in a highly competitive world. At the centre of these activity is the basic unit of the University, the Department. In the cycle of life/growth there is a time to create and then there is a time to lead/manage change. I was Head of Chemistry Dept. for nine years and used the opportunity to help transform the UWI St Augustine Chemistry Dept.’s undergraduate and postgraduate student experience, drive departmental research output, create an operation and contract research and consultancy unit in the dept., help launched a Masters programme Occupational, Environmental Safety and Health that has been academically and financially successful for over 10 years (graduating 40 students a year with high employment history) and put emphasis on science, research, technology and development that dealt with local problems that had international relevance.

So I will finish where I started, before the Black Lives Matter movement, black lives mattered. My journey, our journey and the success along the way is not just about talent, although talent matters, it is really about being given an opportunity in society, having courage and support and to be given a space to be creative and develop wealth that can be reinvested back into your society, here the black society because when “Black Lives Matter, all lives will matter”. What has kept me grounded and made me pushed against all the obstacles, is the realisation I, we all, have our role in making a difference in our societies and in this world all societies have become interdependent but the black society, black persons, black business needs to take its/their space and decide their future.

I would like to acknowledge my late parents, siblings and their families, church family, extended family, my UWI colleagues, especially Nizamudeen Mohammed friend and collaborator and last but not least my late wife, Carmen Sarran-Grierson for their signification contributions on my journey

Written by Dr. Lebert Grierson

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