One of the first Indian Institutes of Technology to be established in the country, IIT-Madras continues to top national-level rankings. DH’s ETB Sivapriyan spoke to IIT-M Director Prof V Kamakoti on the institute’s success, the 5G bed project, incubating startups at the Research Park, monitoring startups, and on the question of social inclusivity.

Excerpts: IIT-M has topped the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) in the overall category for the fourth time in a row. What, in your opinion, makes the institute achieve this honour every year?

It is also the seventh consecutive year that the IIT-M has been rated as first in the engineering category. We continue to be on the top because we work as a very cohesive unit. There is a lot of give and take between departments which results in a great amount of alignment. While the teaching and learning process has been stabilised over a period of time, graduate outcomes are where we started improving on different aspects.

We look at what our alumni do once they graduate. Our median salary has been increasing and we kept it increasing. There is a rate at which it increased, and we are maintaining it. IIT-M’s curriculum which is very close to the industry standards helped us achieve this. Because if the industry has to come and take our students at higher pay than the previous year, they will want to see some added value in them. We have been consistently working on our syllabus.

One of the different methods we did was to introduce interdisciplinary courses which allow students to get two degrees in five years – B. Tech in the core discipline and M. Tech in the interdisciplinary subject.

Can you please elaborate on the interdisciplinary courses?

Our interdisciplinary courses are very industry relevant, and that is what is essentially making a big difference now. Some of the subjects in which we offer the courses are Quantum Science, Data Science, Robotics, Cyber-Physical Systems, and Quantitative Finance. The ranking is one (system) which tells us we are good, but what matters is the way we perform. We are now looking at local relevance and global recognition. I strongly believe that local relevance is extremely important for us to get global recognition because the way we serve society, and the society’s perception of the institute really matters.

For the last several years, we have been focusing on the societal problems of India which we can solve. Some quick examples are the robot that cleans septic tanks, 3D printed houses, and foldable housing through which 3,000 oxygen beds were made ready in just about a month during the Covid-19 pandemic. These were not quite expected from an academic institution a decade before. We have been able to show what we are capable of.

What do you think is needed to sustain the momentum?

We have given a lot of academic freedom to our faculty, and they are free to explore. For example, if there is an idea, we have a clear process of converting the idea into a product. The IoE funding has been helping us quite a bit, while the alumni support has been fantastic. The CSR funds we have got from the companies are also helping us.

We now have a dedicated dean for alumni affairs and corporate funding. If a faculty has an excellent idea to be explored, there is no stoppage for him/her in taking it forward. While the freedom to faculty and the infrastructure support have been scaled up, we are also improving on the governance factor where we are learning every day.

What will you term as the biggest plus-point of IIT-M and its biggest minus point?

The biggest plus point is we are cohesive. I don’t think there is any minus point, but we need to have more outreach and we are striving hard for that outreach. We have launched a massive programme called ‘Out-of-the-Box’ which saw the participation of over 1 lakh students. We want to become accessible to all and we are improving on the outreach point. We will continue to improve.

What will be the main focus of the institute in the next decade?

We want to increase the number of companies incubated at the IIT-M Research Park to 1,000 in a year from the current 100 a year on average. Currently, we have about 200 plus companies. It is a dream for us and even if we reach just 30 to 40 percent of it (in the next few years) will be a big deal for us. I want to achieve 10X and I can’t achieve it alone. We will collaborate with other educational institutions to increase the number of companies that the IIT-M incubates.

We plan to mentor institutions that already have incubators and fund them to an extent. Of course, we will take some equity from them. In the process of sharing knowledge and best practices, we will find ways to see that the company grows. Through this partnership, one becomes ten. Through one hub, I will get ten companies. And if there is a college that doesn’t have an incubator, we will go and help them establish an incubator or they can come and use our facility. This is the way we want to do it, and we have already signed up with 10 to 15 colleges. We will have several spokes and we will aspire to make each spoke into a hub.

IIT-M has developed an indigenous 5G bed. How will it help better our country’s communication network?

We got the 5Gi standard which means we get double the range. We have a complete end-to-end 5G bed created as a multi-institutional project. Within another few months, we will make the IIT-M campus a 5G-enabled one. We are already requesting industries to come and use the test bed to test their equipment and start using our indigenous core. We have also licensed this core to a couple of industries. It is up to the majors like BSNL, Airtel, Jio, and others to come and look at us. We have a portal where people can come and test equipment. It is an end-to-end indigenous 5G bed, except for the chips that we imported.

What is the USP of this indigenous 5G bed?

If we go with the Indian 5G, we will have a completely indigenous solution where it can be audited and there can be no black box for anybody who wants to implement it. We can have intra-institutional, intra-factory and private 5G networks. This will become a sort of plug-and-play module with very high range coverage, very good efficiency, and highly customizable. It will also pave the way for 6G as it will give us the required confidence. The Centre is asking IITs, especially the established ones, to look for more internal resources to reduce dependence on the government.

What are the ways to increase resources?

Will this result in an increase in fees which would put a burden on students? The government will certainly support salaries (of the faculty and staff). The Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) helped us augment our infrastructure in a big way. The new IITs are to get more funding and the established IITs like us have to start looking at internal revenue generation. There are several ways to generate financial resources.

Taking up consultancy, looking for sponsors for our projects, and applying for funds under government projects like the Indian Semiconductor Mission are some of the ways. And we can make money by conducting training for professionals as many companies are willing to reskill their employees to build respective talent in their industries. We have to look at these user-oriented programmes in a very detailed fashion and that is how foreign universities generate funds.

We have applied for 200 patents this year and 160 of them have already been granted. We have to put in place a mechanism to license these patents to generate revenue. And enough CSR funds are available in India for exploratory research. All we have to do is to apply for those funds with good proposals. If we do all these, the dependence on the government will come down. To answer your question in short, increasing the fees for students will be our last resort.

We see a lot of startups in the country today, and IIT-M has also mentored several of them. But we see many of them close down. Should we have a mechanism to monitor them?

The end user of any startup is the general public and major industries. While our Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) talks about Atmanirbharta, I think, to achieve this, our big industries and the public should have atma vishwas on our startups. One doesn’t have to shower crores of money but can help them by funding a little and giving them the confidence. Angel investors, big industries and the general public should impose more trust on our people to reduce our dependence on imports. And of course, there should be several checkpoints to find out whether they are doing well or not.

They (startups) should move away if they are failing, rather than taking it long. We have an established system at IIT-M to monitor from idea to product stage. There is a consistent effort to see whether these guys are doing well. I do agree there should be several checkpoints.

The country is now looking forward to hosting sunrise sectors like semiconductors and electric vehicles. Will IIT-M train future engineers in these sectors and reskill the existing workforce?

IIT-M’s interdisciplinary programme essentially targets doing this. We have a digital skills academy and have introduced several reskilling courses. We have certificate programmes and targeted M. Tech programmes. In addition, we should have very interesting training materials, specifically in semiconductor manufacturing. We are targeting virtual prototype labs where I can go, and train people. We can also put the virtual fab on the cloud. These are complex things but once we do it, that is the way to train people in these sectors. Virtual reality and augmented reality are going to be extremely important for capacity building.

Ever since you took over, you have been focussing on empowering rural students, especially those in Tamil Nadu. Why the outreach and what are the plans?

I am from rural India, and I still run two schools in my family. I know the difficulties of accessing education there and I have realised it. The aspirations of those kids need to be supported. We had been doing many programmes in the past. The small things that I did in the past give me confidence that there is no dearth of intelligence in rural India. We need to tap it. The moment we start touching rural India, we will get wonder kids in them.

One complaint against IIT-M is that the institution isn’t socially inclusive. How would you respond to this criticism?

Social inclusivity is present in IITs. There is no question of non-inclusivity at all. The only point they (critics) may say is that it is a difficult task to clear JEE and that only affluent people can clear it. That is not the case now. We are finding a lot of people whose annual income is less than 5 lakhs getting into our institution. The OBC reservation has enabled those sets of people to come in.

And to reach further, we have launched an online data science programme which now allows thousands of people to proudly call themselves students of IIT-Madras. Inclusivity in IITs is increasing. Inclusivity, per se, is how to reach the training materials and that is what we are aspiring for. We will continue to launch more online courses. We are doing the knowledge dissemination on accessing IIT in a big way. We are also training rural students to write qualifier exams.

There is an opinion in Tamil Nadu that entrance tests are anti-poor. Your comments?

When there is a cap on the number of seats, there should be a fair method to admit. There is no answer other than an entrance examination. When there is no cap on the number of students like in our online data courses, we won’t have an entrance exam. I can’t hold more than 850 students on campus and how do I select them across multiple boards in the country. The only fair method is an entrance test.

Author: ETB Sivapriyan
July 26th, 2022
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