At the time of independence, India had practically no modern technical base and it needed rapid development and new technologies. Five IITs were created as “cornerstones in building the industrial, scientific and technological edifice of the nation” in 1950’s. They were entirely autonomous institutions, supported by some of the best international universities and fully funded by Government of India at a level much higher than other institutions. Quality was supposed to be the hallmark.
And the IITs did well. By 1970s, they built a strong Undergraduate program which could compete with the best in the world. Their graduates would soon lead Academia as well as Industry in the United States among other countries. By the 1980s, the IITs had high-quality Masters’ Graduates, who would soon don leadership (CXOs) of industries all over India and they also set the base of the IT industry growth in the country. By 1990s, PhDs from IITs became the leading Faculty in a large number of private engineering colleges in the country, producing about 1 million engineers a year. These young graduates helped India grow its industry post liberalisation. At the same time, IIT Faculty had started publishing quality papers in international journals.
IITs were fast evolving but were still not “cornerstones in building the industrial, scientific and technological edifice of the nation.” Indian industry was still importing most of the technologies. At best, it was adapting these technologies for Indian markets, using some local raw-materials and sub-systems.
By the turn of the millennium, IITs started thinking about technology development and commercialization, through either industry – academia collaboration or by creating start-ups, wherever industry was not willing to take risks associated with innovative break-through technologies.
Late in the first decade of the 2000s, recognising that Innovation thrives when Faculty, Industry persons and Youngsters interact in formal as well as informal environments, IITM set up the IITM Research Park (IITMRP). The Faculty brought in the width of knowledge, whereas Industry came with experience to convert prototypes into products. The Youngsters did not know that “it cannot be done” and were ready to plunge into long hours of work to make the impossible possible. At the same time, recognising that established Indian industry is risk-averse and Start-ups drive Innovation 18 hours a day, IITM created IITM incubation Cell as well as Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), MedTech and Bio Incubator.
Starting with a seed money of ₹107 Crores, IITMRP borrowed money from the bank to set up a ₹500 Crore infrastructure. It has paid back its bank loan and today generates ₹40 Crores cash every year. The incubators have incubated about 220 companies, valued at over ₹11,000 Crore; IITMIC has shares worth ₹100C, and IITM Incubation Cell (IITMIC) and RTBI are financially self-dependent. Both IITMRP and IITMIC are board-driven companies with prominent Industrialists, a few Faculty members, and some Government Secretaries on board. They are fully autonomous section 8 companies.
However, the original mission of India is still unachieved. The Industrial, scientific, and technological edifice of the nation is still weak. India is still largely dependent on imported technologies. We are not known to be technology leaders in any field. IITs, its Research Parks and Incubators have to do much more in the 2020s.
IITMRP and IITMIC boards have thus set up some seemingly impossible 10X goals for 2030, which could transform India. The first goal for IITMRP/IC is to nurture 30 to 50 products for which R&D is carried out primarily in India, each to have revenues of ₹500 to ₹1000 Crores per year. So far, Indian R&D has rarely translated into such large-scaled commercialisation even though India is a large market. The second goal for IITMRP/IC is to enable 1000 incubations per year. Towards this, they aim to partner with about 100 incubators in tier-2, tier-3 and tier-4 institutes and nurture their select incubates to succeed. The third goal is focused on nurturing talent. 1 million engineers graduate a year in India, but we have very few technologists who are in the top 2% in any area. IITMRP/IC has to enable its ecosystem to hire 2000 youngsters every year and make 500 of them into Ranchos who become amongst the top 1% to 2% in their field of expertise. The fourth and near impossible goal is to ensure that in five areas, India is recognised as amongst the top five in the world by 2030. One would need to simultaneously work on R&D, Industry, Market and Policy to get there. To “get India to move towards 100% Renewable Energy” is first of the area that is being pursued.
A question comes up, can IITMRP/IC achieve the 10X goals by 2030? The answer is that India has no better option. It has the talent and the market size. What is needed is the will. IITMRP and IITMIC are in the best position to drive these goals, leveraging IITM and its associates.
Institute Professor, IIT Madras, India
President, IITM Research Park, IITM Incubation Cell and RTBI