A blind woman is walking along a street, slowly approaching an obstacle ahead. As she gets closer, the device hanging from her neck emit a high-pulse click, which reflects off the object.

Trained in human echolocation, the returning echo activates a visual processing area in her brain, providing her with information such as the shape, material and distance, which she then uses to build a 3D image of the object in her mind. A wooden bench, she concludes, before she continues on her stroll.

She was demonstrating the use of a device called Sezual – the brainchild of Kazakh scientist and inventor Galimzhan Gabdreshov. In Kazakh, sezu means to feel, al means to get. By mimicking the auditory imaging system used by animals like bats and dolphins, this technology is allowing the blind in Kazakhstan to be more independent and become a bigger part of society. The prototype is now being further refined for commercialisation.

Sezual is but one of many technologies that scientists in Kazakhstan are actively researching, as the nation drives and accelerates research and development – a critical part of our quest to be a developed nation.

Kazakhstan has been developing and strengthening its R&D funding system over the last three decades of independence, in a bid to compete with the best in the world. In 2006, we set up the Science Fund, which provides grants and loans, often interest- and tax-free, for projects in applied research in priority areas, such as biotechnologies and renewable energy, IT and advanced materials.

Given the immense presence of oil, gas and mining companies, key drivers in our national economy, new regulations were introduced in 2018 to channel 1 per cent of these businesses’ incomes to fund R&D activities.

Last year, we also adopted a new state programme aimed at increasing funding for scientific research to 1 per cent of Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product by 2025, as well as growing the share of private funding from 7 to 50 per cent to enhance industry collaboration.

But beyond investing in R&D, there remains another big challenge – to get our technology past our shores. The goal of every invention is after all to make a far-reaching impact on people’s lives. What we need is cross-border collaborations.

And it is not our neighbours and natural trade partners China and Russia that we are turning to take this technological leap, but Singapore.

Crossing borders with technology

Our two countries cannot be more different. Singapore is land scarce and resource poor, while Kazakhstan has vast amounts of natural resources, from oil and gas to uranium and coal. We are also one of the world’s largest wheat producers, while Singapore imports over 90 per cent of food consumed in the country.

But I believe we align where R&D is concerned, as with most other countries in the world. Science knows no border nor is hindered by inherent geographical differences. It is the purpose that matters.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved, we inherited a rich scientific legacy with many experienced scientists and research institutes relocating to Kazakhstan, providing us with a strong foundation in R&D. Since then, we have enhanced our expertise in fields such as materials engineering, biomedical sciences, energy and agriculture.

We have developed more energy- and cost-efficient methods to purify silicon – the fundamental material needed for the manufacture of solar panels and the most upstream products in the electronics industry. We have also developed medical radioisotope substances and radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose and treat different types of cancer.           

Just like Singapore, we are now also focusing on the use of artificial intelligence and data science to transform whole sectors and to create new, more efficient and more accurate ways of doing things.

To improve care for COVID-19 patient, for instance, we are using data analytics technology to draw patterns from the blood samples of patients. This allows us to predict at what stage of the disease a patient is at and to make informed decisions on the best treatment. Our studies have shown that it keeps our doctors ahead of the disease by about two to three days.

Another similar area we are prioritising is biomedical science. Recently, our scientists at our National Center for Biotechnology developed a biocompatible glue, which mimics the adhesive proteins of mussels, for use in surgery and dentistry.

But to bring such technologies to the next level, we need to share them and our expertise with the wider research community, learn from experts overseas and to fine tune them together. And I believe Singapore is an ideal place for this with its strong regulations and intellectual property rights, quality talent pool, and its coordinated approach to R&D.

We have been some headway in this area.

IPI, an innovation catalyst in Singapore is working with us to find technology partners who will help us to bring Sezual to the visually-impaired in Southeast Asia. Bearing in mind the enormous amount of sulphur residues left behind by the oil industry, we are also collaborating with scientists from the National University of Singapore to commercialise a new kind of lithium-ion sulphur battery which has a larger capacity and is more cost-efficient. This will also fuel the growing appetite for electric vehicles and renewables.

It is my hope that this is the start of a long-lasting partnership that will push Kazakhstan-grown technologies onto the world stage, creating a fairer and more sustainable world, starting by bringing slight to the visually-impaired across continents.

This article was written by Al-Farabi Ydyryshev, who is the Director General of the National Center for Technology Foresight in Kazakhstan.