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What can we do to accelerate technology commercialisation in India?

By Dr Shai Vyakarnam, Director, AcceleratorIndia.

So, this gets a bit personal. I have started 2012 as a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. The purpose is to co-create courses, soft infrastructure and begin a journey of culture change that favours a faster transfer of knowledge and technology to the wider society.

Why IISc and why not a Business School or one of the IITs?  IISc is the grand-daddy among the higher education institutions in India. It has science, engineering and management on its campus. It is still the only serious producer of PhDs, albeit the numbers are really small for a country the size of India.

The IITs and the IIMs and other management institutions are great providers of talent pool for the corporate world, which then incubates entrepreneurs.  Institutions like IISc, NCL (National Chemical Laboratories) and some of the labs of the CSIR are much more the hubs of the scientific research community.  In the absence of other research hubs we have to look to these Institutions to drive India’s innovation agenda.

Yes, Indian corporates are increasingly innovative and we see ever more products, services and business models that the rest of the world is looking at (although not yet learning from). With the size of India and the variety of problems we cannot rely only on corporate innovation – we must look to research hubs for deep research, which can take a long time to yield results and hence would not be touched by businesses.

The IISc is in Bangalore – need I say more. It is also my second home (the other being Cambridge).  I like the history of the foundation of IISc – with land from the Maharaja, energy and funding from Tata and the British Raj.

The vision and values of JRD Tata need to be revived. A great visionary who put in the seed capital to enable the birth of an Institution that would research and help solve problems of the day! This vision is similar to the one that gave birth to The Royal Society, when the role of the scientist was described as a “merchant of light” solving the needs of mankind (I have paraphrased into modern English what Sir Francis Bacon said 350 years ago).

Institutions in India, including the IISc, have – it seems – forgotten this grand purpose and substituted publications as the only metric of success.  So, one of the solutions is to link entrepreneurs with scientists as we see in Silicon Valley, Boston, Cambridge and other technology hubs – so that while scientists press ahead with their love of research, they can have mature conversations with creative entrepreneurial people who can see possibilities for the commercialisation of their research. It takes a particular entrepreneurial mindset to see possibilities, join the dots and do the hard work of taking research to the big wide world in sustainable and profitable ways.

I hope that my visiting tenure at IISc can impact in some small way here and provide insights that will enable us to learn how to accelerate innovation. It is in this context we ask:

What are the objectives; and the challenges? What are the enablers to make the year productive?

Helping to instill new curriculum is a key objective. This being education FOR entrepreneurship, which I hope will start to be adopted widely across the Institution.  This will bring researchers and entrepreneurs into conversations.

To jointly kick start the building of a friendly ecosystem in which the students and faculty both can come together – at the very least reduce hostility to the notion of technology commercialisation and at best to play a highly proactive role that accelerates the agenda.

If we are to make any kind of difference, especially in a country the size of India – ambitious targets must accompany these objectives.

And, we need to move quickly to sustain belief in what is stated as well as to capture the moment.

To provide evidence of the efforts and log them so that we can act as a national role model for other Institutions in India – thus cumulatively moving the innovation agenda. In other words there needs to be a solid research foundation in entrepreneurship to support these activities.

The above objectives are based on what I have learnt at Cambridge. I have the hugs and the bruises to show for what has been achieved there.

There are some powerful challenges and it is going to take time to properly identify what they are. At a superficial level, one can cite all manner of cultural, bureaucratic, institutional level barriers. But the real challenges may be much softer and deeper rooted.  What are the systems, structures, rituals, symbols and controls that sustain the day to day of the Institution? Which of these will be friendly and which the barriers?

I am going to suspend judgment and do what every good entrepreneur does – remain delusional that change can happen!

Happily there are allies – not least the alumni, the director of the institution and a number of his senior colleagues and a thriving technology entrepreneurship environment around Bangalore. These are the sources of positive energy and will be the source of enabling this venerated Institution to embrace the benefits of technology entrepreneurship.

So, that is the challenge and if anyone has any supportive advice and information or people who can assist with this agenda I would be more than happy to hear from them.

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A version of this blog was originally published at India Incorporated, a social media proposition with a difference that aims to encapsulate the India global story through pithy reports, interviews, analyses, profiles and features.

Published on 17 January 2012

Last updated: 06 Feb 2012