After my February Innocolumn, I received two comments: first, could I write from my personal knowledge about an example of synergy between academia-industry? Second, what exactly is a ‘boundary-spanning manager’? I hope to address the first question in this article and the second one in my April article.
In this article I avoid dwelling on the fascinating science which is a vital part of the story. I wish to focus on the evolution of the academic and industry interface and the denouement of events.
On 22nd July 1976, New Scientist wrote a report about a cement factory operating in Banda District in eastern UP; it could convert burnt rice husk ash (BRHA) and lime into Portland cement. Set up Dr Bhartendu Prakash of Asu village, the factory process was based on the work of Metallurgy Professor PC Kapur of IIT Kanpur. The potential to transform BHRA into cement was already known; a patent had been granted to Prof PK Mehta of University of California. Prof Kapur developed an innovative, affordable way to do so, hold your breath, at 10 percent of the Californian process cost.
Independently thanks to participation in a meeting of the Canadian International Development Research Centre, Tata became interested to develop a low cost, affordable drinking water purification system. In the early 1980s, TRDDC’s Dr EC Subbarao, (Tata Research, Design and Development Centre) initiated a dialogue with Prof PC Kapur on water purification. Leaping from cement to water purification, Prof PC Kapur made a scientific connection through his work on BRHA. Quite cleverly, in order to activate minds and generate ideas, he introduced this subject as a B. Tech project in IIT.
With solid support from FC Kohli, then the chief of TCS, Dr Subbarao and later Dr Mathai Joseph pursued the subject relentlessly. The scientists developed a prototype, worked with KEM Hospital, scientific agencies and NGOs to validate the process and its field performance. Finally, a product called Sujal was patented by TRDDC. It is this patent that was further developed in the 2000s by the Innovation Centre of Tata Chemicals to enable the of Swachh, arguably the world’s lowest cost, gravity-driven, bacteria-virus water purifier.
The narrative and lessons are multi-dimensional–the science, the innovation journey as well as the product —are all super exciting. However my narrative is not about the science of BHRA, water purification or the cleverness of Tata, it is about how the fumes of serendipitous ideas can get adsorbed through a solid and an active interface between industry and academia. Academia should not look down upon industry as money-making hucksters and neither should industry view academia as thinkers, who do nothing useful!
Publicly funded research efforts often get bashed, but it is this kind of research that private companies can build upon successfully. This is the theme of Mariana Mazzucato’s seminal work (The Entrepreneurial State, Anthem, 2013). Dr Mazzucato argues that “most radical, revolutionary innovations that have fuelled capitalism–from railroads to the internet, nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals–trace the most courageous, early and capital-intensive investments back to the State……all of the technologies that make Steve Jobs’ iPhone so smart were government funded, such as internet, GPS, touch-screen display, Siri voice-activated personal assistant.”
The State must have the hunger to solve big problems and the confidence to pull it off. Lord Keynes had suggested that “government should not do what individuals are already doing, but must do things that nobody else is doing.” Imagine what an example and inspiration it could be if Indian agricultural, biotechnology and scientific research were really reoriented into a national mission mode!
According to World Bank/OECD data on research expenditure, India ranks approximately number 8 in the world, spending under a percent of GDP on research. India may or may not as yet increase research expenditure, but renewal of the neural connections between public research institutions and industry can be beneficial. In this context it may be worthwhile to study what America has tried: institutionalised facilitation through Small Business Administration, which implements Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (https://www.sbir.gov/).