There are three steps in the knowledge chain. One of them is dissemination of knowledge. In this India has scored very well with its large number of institutions, teaching institutes and teaching programs as well as its institutions of excellence.
The second is generation of knowledge – writing and publishing papers. In this, India is again doing very well and already ranked at fifth position in the world. Here the country is growing at rate of 14 percent in a year and we will reach to third position pretty soon.
The third part is innovation — building products, solving problems, taking things to the market. It is in this that India can improve hugely.
While converting money to research comes very naturally to Indians, we need to work on converting that knowledge back to money. How do we build a structure in our educational system where we not only generate knowledge but we also use the knowledge to solve problems? We need to focus on this in our academic institutions.
Here are some examples of how we did it at IIT, Bombay.
One of the very first problems we took up at IIT Bombay was on developing a cardiac diagnostic system where we wanted a Rs. 100 test for people who are suffering from chest pain. If somebody walks into a clinic complaining of chest pain, can we carry out a simple Rs 100 test and diagnose the reason behind the pain – whether it is because of a problem in the heart or because of gastric issues?
At present a process of ruling out a heart problem is a complex one – we have to go to a hospital and carry out a number of tests. And even then it sometimes does not help us. In order to find a solution, five different departments in IIT Bombay worked together to develop a prototype. It resulted in the development of a platform addressing the problem, several PhD students worked on it and received patents on the test.
The platform which was cemented together while working on this problem also stated doing other problem areas. We started an explosive detector project which has now graduated to a company — Nano sniff which is now launching it.
On this platform, once we put the problem, people from multiple departments work on it. When we are confident about the development, we write a paper leading to generation of knowledge.
But our goal is always to meet a certain price point. One can develop a solution, but if it costs say 5 Lakhs per test, it is not going to work. Price point will be based keeping in mind, where the product will be used. This is how generation of knowledge can get converted into an innovation product that a start up can successfully take to the market.
The product that we develop should cater to the necessities of the target audience. For example, precision agriculture requires different types of sensor systems. Sensor systems are very expensive and they do not meet the social and educational requirement of our farmers.
Many of them will cannot read English, read displays, and operate existing imported sensor systems. They will not know how to calibrate those systems. So we need Indian versions of many of those technologies at much lower cost, keeping in mind, the economic, social and educational background of our farmers.
Developing such a sensor and putting it to use is another successful example by IIT Mumbai. A technology to detect soil moisture and help farming decisions was developed and has now been commercialized by a startup now run by the PhD students who worked on that project. The company called Proximal soils and Technology Pvt. Ltd was started to take forward a technology. Here again we put a problem first, understood the people who are going to use it, customised it for their requirement and deployed their solutions into multiple forms.
Nano-sniff is now developing multiple sensors system which are customized for Indian applications, to reduce agricultural inputs like water, fertilizer, pesticide or agriculture, fertilizers and all that and improve the productivity.
So these are cases where the researchers were able to write lots of papers, produce many PhD students who graduated and found good jobs, write good papers and at the same time, as a team they were able to take those researches beyond the publications and develop a prototype and take prototype to the market through a successful startup. This is a model that academic institutions can emulate.
We should not limit ourselves only to writing papers, thinking that somebody else will use the knowledge and sell it back to us. Instead we can take it beyond publications, build teams which can help us and use a startup as a vehicle, to deliver it to a society. Then our academic institutions will start looking very different and much of the knowledge that we generate will start to help the people immediately.
I think academic institutions need to become creative. If we are not creative, we will not be able to survive in the current context. Unlike minds can be brought together in the institution. When I say unlike minds, we need to have people from different disciplines come together and worked with each other. This ensures that nobody is limited to taking up problems only within their own discipline, but can work with people from multiple disciplines and provide complete solutions. This promotes inter-disciplinary nature of doing research right at the PhD level and leaves no boundaries in that.
At the BTech level one may be limited within the boundaries, but as you go higher and higher these boundaries should vanish. We should put the problem first. It is very important for our academic institutions to bring people with different attitudes, different cultures, different disciplines and unlike minds to work together. It is also crucial that industry and academia work together.
There are at least 90 countries below the GDP levels of India, and solutions we develop in India will also be relevant to them. There are many African countries which can use the same kind of technologies for agricultural practices. So our Institutions need to now admit students from different cultures and countries so that we can understand issues that exist there. In this manner, our students develop a global outlook and can solve global problems.