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October - 2009 - issue > Director Speak
What will Facilitate ‘Research’ in India?
M.S. Ananth
Monday, October 5, 2009
It’s important to give all that you have when you have the chance. Most of the technologists in the Valley may not be contributing their all, but they put the best efforts to contribute back to their alma mater. Gururaj Deshpande and Kris Gopalakrishnan, among others, are some of the biggest patrons of IIT-Madras. This culture is what IITs are benefiting from today. The early Indian technologists, who migrated to the U.S. and attained numerous achievements, are now returning back to their alma mater. This reflects the pool of highly successful technologists the IITs have created in the Valley. Statistics show that over 50 percent of the Intellectual Properties in the U.S. have Indian names behind them, of which 70 percent are IITians. Of the estimated 35,000 IITians in the U.S. today, a majority is known to founding technology companies, filing patents for disruptive technologies, or heading technology teams. The IITians rule the roost in the corporate ladder as CEOs, presidents, or head researchers indicating their significant role in driving innovation in the Valley.

Such an achievement needs to be at least partially attributed to the quality of education the IITs have continued to impart to all its students starting from the under graduate level. The curriculum in our institutes ensures that the student does not have any holes in his background, while the education in MIT or Princeton is more liberal and it is possible for students to graduate with important subjects left out. In fact years ago, during one of my trips to Princeton, I had a chance to meet Professor Reed of the Chemical Engineering Department of MIT and he told me that IIT under graduates were exceptional in that their knowledge was without holes.

In spite of such vast difference in the quality of education, the U.S. has been identified as the hub of technology research. One needs to understand that the U.S. has always had the right climate for research, while other countries are just catching up. For years, the U.S. has been bringing bright minds together in its graduate schools because it is a country of immigrants and the cultural differences actually make it effective for people to grasp things better. It is all about a meeting of unlike minds.

University Research Parks in the U.S. have been fertile grounds for innovation. Louis Pasteur once said, “…discovery is the result of chance meeting a prepared mind.” We have been preparing the minds well for several decades and chance has been meeting them in the Silicon Valley.

Research Parks bring together three kinds of minds – that of the faculty that is well versed in their areas of specialization, that of the industrial researcher who sees the opportunity in ideas applicable to the market place, and the student who is unburdened with knowledge and is not afraid to articulate creative yet unusual ideas. This combination has worked very well and our students who have gone there have been very creative.

It need not be misunderstood that research is not prioritized in India. For example TENET, a group founded and headed by my colleague Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala over two decades ago, has been focusing on innovative research in the field of telecommunication and networking. Starting with a fund of $500,000 from Analog Devices during its early days, TENET has since incubated over 16 technology companies that spun off its research projects. One such company, Midas, recently crossed the Rs. 1,000 crore mark.

Focusing on the importance and need for research, we have been developing several programs that will facilitate research and development in India. The last five years have also seen a tremendous headway in the institute’s research activities. The number of research publications has tripled in eight years, indicating that the faculty is taking research more seriously than before. On an average, we now graduate nearly 200 PhD students a year in science, engineering, and humanities. Of the 1,000 articles published annually, about 750 are in international journals. This number used to be merely 250-300 till 2001.

Currently, IIT-M is building a first of its kind university research park in the vicinity of its campus, which will aid both in-house and industry related research bringing together people from R&D centers of companies, our faculty, and students. Spread over 11.5 acres, the park is being modeled after the ones at MIT and Stanford. Nearly 30 companies have already signed up for research and we hope to see close to 100 companies joining the effort by the time the park is fully built.

Alumni too have been giving back to the institute both in terms of research funds and expertise. Venture capitalists have been investing in early stage entrepreneurial projects, leveraging the institute’s incubation cell. Of every five projects that the IIT proposes, four get funded, which is a feat in itself.

With the foundations for eight more IITs in the country laid, it is a positive sign for the emergence of India as an innovative research hub of the world.
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