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Role of Indian technology institutes, universities in making India self-reliant

Here is how Indian technology institutes and universities are helping our country become self-reliant in core areas.

By Sunita Singh

Globally, universities, particularly publicly funded ones, are being called upon to demonstrate their value to, and impact on society. There is an increased push for them to play a more definitive role in addressing societal challenges and economic development.

Students are also increasingly looking to gain practical learning and industry experience from applied research. These changes are being reflected in the recent global ranking of universities. Reuters’ Innovative Universities of 2019 “ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries.”

While India has made great strides in its science and technology education, no Indian University features in this list thus far. It is clear that we are yet to make a significant impact in the direction of developing and driving new ideas for commercialization from our higher education system.

The good news is that the Prime Minister’s mission of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ can provide a clarion call to the iconic Technology institutes and Universities to reimagine the role of Indian universities in helping spur innovation and competitiveness of its economy, especially for its small businesses.

It would require a ‘mindset overhaul’ (guiding principle of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’) to leap-frog the development process and establish an institutional model that results in a steady flow of new ideas, innovation and commercialization.

A strong institutional model steadily contributing to develop, co-develop or transfer relevant innovations or technologies to small businesses would among other things have or need to:

Purposeful focus on applied research and development work

Traditionally, university research has been known to be focused on the pursuit of fundamental discoveries. While fundamental or basic research continues to hold value, it is time that applied and development research takes space beside it. And for this to be effective, it has to become an institutional mandate for policies, mindshare, incentives, funding, and effort to be dedicated to it.

Enable the development of a mindset that enables and drives the commercialization

Transformations of culture within Universities are driven by people whose incentives are aligned to the change trigger. Universities should consider a change in incentives for faculty to include patents, technology transfer and other commercialization activity as well as resultant knowledge built and brought into teaching as important factors for career advancement.

This could work parallel to publishing, teaching and other administrative services that faculty perform. And it will help to create a legitimate shift in mindset and culture with more of the younger faculty also developing a stronger motivation to take on applied or translational research and commercialization activity.

Sabbatical leaves to enable faculty to commercialize their technologies via starting up is another strong incentive to drive commercialization.

Build integrated Institutional mechanisms to support innovation, invention, technology transfer and incubation

Facilitating innovation requires an effective and efficient support system along the lifecycle of research to commercialization.

Systems that expose faculty and students systematically to pressing industry and or societal needs; provide training to help identify the TRL levels of development of a project; training and support to fund-raise from relevant government and private sector partnerships; and provide ongoing support to patent, publish, prototype and or license.

Develop a network of infrastructure relevant to innovation

The paucity of funds and space often means that necessary infrastructure necessary for the advancement of new ideas and innovation and their commercialization is sparsely available.

Creative approaches have and can be used to create more accessible laboratories and other infrastructure for faculty and students to do applied and development research.

Some solutions that are prevalent elsewhere and can be adopted by Indian universities include the concept of ‘Shared lab’ with a Flexible and modular lab design for use by multiple faculty and their students; formalized associations with private labs; industry R&D centres for specialized support for instances like quality testing of high precision materials, animal or clinical trials, and other infrastructure that require large investments of funds, high specialized handling and or physical space.

Forge long term and flexible term Industry academia partnerships

Industry-Academia partnerships in applied and development research is of paramount importance. The industry is key for academia to understand or validate the real problem to solve, to sponsor or co-sponsor the research, to share knowledge and know-how, to help with infrastructure or validating results, and of course for commercial licensing.

Creating a win-win relationship is not easy and requires both attention, a deeper understanding of each other and patience to develop. The industry is known to lean towards customers, suppliers or vendor partnered R&D much more than academia collaborations most often citing misalignment of intent and objectives as a key reason.

Developing wider and longer-term relationships with industry along with student research projects, internships, etc. may be a way to build trust and a better understanding of each other. Models where exclusive rights to IP produced via an upfront royalty could be considered as the parties develop a better understanding of each other’s objectives and needs.

As government funding for R&D decreases more and more, private sector funding may become a critical factor that both funds new technologies, but also validates a university’s ability to “advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries.”

In summary, it is time for India’s top Technology Institutes and Universities of repute that are a role model in academia, to take some purposeful and radical step in defining models for successfully driving innovation from universities to commercialization.

Source: India Today