March 20, 2020
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For The Innovative, There Is Life Beyond IITs, IIMs, Welcome To The World Of Prayaas Shala

A dynamic culture of entrepreneurship and innovation is emerging in Indian universities. Increasingly, research products are becoming marketable

For The Innovative, There Is Life Beyond IITs, IIMs, Welcome To The World Of Prayaas Shala
Innovation Central
Lab at Munjal University
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
For The Innovative, There Is Life Beyond IITs, IIMs, Welcome To The World Of Prayaas Shala

It is an interesting time to be in an Indian university. Innovation and invention are no more the privilege of government-run premier institutions like IITs and IIITs. Nudged by the desire of students and the government to develop centres of research, private colleges and universities are also creating infrastructure to nurture innovation. Instead of just preparing students for the job market, many are initiating them on the path of entrepreneurship, helping them patent their innovations and license those to industries for commercialisation.

“Students are increasingly interested in materialising their ideas and launching startups. So many universities and colleges not supported by the government are developing infrastructure on their own to promote innovation and entrepreneurship,” says H.K. Mittal, adviser and member secretary, National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board (NSTEDB).

The board has an innovative programme called Prayaas, which promotes young and aspiring entrepreneurs. Under the initiative, innovators get grants of up to Rs 10 lakh for turning an idea into a prototype. NSTEDB also helps set up a ‘prayaas shala’ (fabrication laboratory) in that institute. The organisation is currently supporting more than 150 institutions all over the country, of which only 10 to 15 are IITs and IIMs. NITI Aayog, depart­ment of bio­technology and ministry of electronics and IT also support universities.

“We provide funding and help them build capacity by linking them to the Silicon Valley, universities in the UK and other institutions so that they can learn and adopt global best practices. We also help them establish linkages with funding agencies, angel investors, venture capitalists etc,” says Mittal. They have set up thematic incubators in the domains of biotech, agriculture, nanotechnology, design, etc.

C.S. Murali, chairman of STEM Cell, the Indian Institute of Science’s (IISc) entrepreneurship cell, says that many institutions are emphasising and encouraging entrepreneurship. “Across the world, innovations come more from startups rather than established companies, which just want to monetise their existing products as much as possible. This is why you see small companies being ­acquired by established firms every other day,” ­declares Murali. “To do ­research you, need the right kind of faculty, and depending on the area, you also need the right kind of equipment. It takes some time to build capability. Almost every other institution is now trying to build that kind of capability.”

Close to 4,000 students study in IISc—almost 80 per cent of them are ­research scholars and only a small proportion are pursuing bachelors and masters in engineering. Until about 20 years ago, the focus was on publications in reputed research journals, but in the last 10 years, there has been a focus on protecting intellectual property rights by patenting discoveries. The number of patents being filed and obtained by IISc in the last 10-15 years is significantly higher than in the period preceding that.

Young Minds

Munjal University.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

However, not all these patents are useful for industries. There are two ways in which these patents are ­employed. In some cases, large companies and industries license them, which is one way of commercialising intellectual property. Startups can also produce products based on these patents. On the IISc campus, there are around 20 active startups, of which one-third have been promoted by the faculty. All are developing products and solutions based on their own research output. This is the best ­example of converting a ­research product into a commercial product. It is encouraging that these startups are producing solutions that the Indian market requires. Many of the innovations now being converted into medical products are more affordable and can be utilised in rural areas with minimal training.

“A country of our size ­requires a large number of incubators,” says Anil Gupta, a committed supporter of innovation and board member of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). “We need them in not just government institutions, but also in private universities. There is a need for more handholding and quality improvement. The environment is positive for ­innovation, but it could be more positive.”

Gupta points out that several incubators have been set up and innovation has received a considerable push. Many have had success in attracting incubatees. Compared to five or six years back, the positive atmosphere is encouraging bright youngsters to set up enterprises. Many students are coming forward to innovate and translate the innovation into products.

Until 20 years ago, students ­focused on ­publications in reputed journals. Now they seek to protect ­intellectual ­property rights by patenting innovations.

With 20 central institutions of excellence, besides a large number of research and development establishments like the DRDO labs, Hyderabad today offers the very best of educational and research opportunities. A major thrust of these colleges is to help their students gain international exposure by providing ­opportunities to take part in national and international competitions. Towards this end, some institutes—such as Guru Nanak Engineering College, the JBIT Group’s Pharma College, Malla Reddy Institute of Technology, Nova Engineering College and the Swami Vivekananda College of Architecture—are encouraging students to ­undertake research and ­innovation and develop ideas into products. Some ­ of them are also helping students file patents.

Guru Nanak Engineering College’s students recently came into the limelight when they bagged a prize in the NASA competition for young and enterprising brains across the world for developing an ‘artificial village’ and ‘space-colonisation’ design. The type of research and innovation students have undertaken in some of the other private colleges gives hope that they are on the right path to not just become successful entrepreneurs, but also find much-needed solutions that can change common people’s lives. For instance, students at JBIT Group’s Pharma College have come up with unique ‘floating tablets’ to combat dreaded diseases like tuberculosis, while the CMR Group of Institutions’ scholars have developed  a ‘mobile-detec­ting device’, which can help solve  critical criminal cases. Students of Nova Engineering College have developed solar cars.  Not to lag behind are the final year mechanical and electronics students of the Malla Reddy Engineering College, who have designed a racing-kart that can be operated or stopped with a voice command using a mobile phone. Sri Venkateswara College of Architecture’s pupils have come up with a ‘protective-wing’ design to help conserve Charminar, a monument that is symbolic of Hyderabad.

The approach of many private universities is similar—partnerships with industries, research organisations, MNCs and universities in India and overseas. In the Tech Mahindra campus, Mahindra Ecole Centrale (MEC), an engineering institute, has started supporting innovation and incubation since November last year. Currently, the institute is promoting two student teams. “We have started an entrepreneurship cell,” ­reveals Rajkumar Phatate, professor and head, Centre of Entrepreneurship, MEC.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

”It is a student-driven initiative which organises events pertaining to entrepreneurship. From 2020 onwards, we would like to come up with a curriculum in entrepreneurship. Our physical facility for an incubation centre, wherein we will house around 15 startups, will be ready in a month or so.” Two of the startup teams being mentored by Phatate are developing new materials for low-cost housing and 3D-printing machines. Also under research is a new material to replace lithium batteries in electric vehicles with non-conventional charging methods.

In and around NCR, several private colleges backed by major industrial groups have formally launched ­efforts to promote innovation and incubation cells in the past year. Amongst these are BML Munjal University, Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University and OP Jindal University. All four have joined hands to form Banyan League in a bid to boost innovation and develop a culture of ­research and entrepreneurship.

“Innovation and incubation are capital-intensive,” says Ashish Bharadwaj, ­director—IT, digital and ­innovation, BML Munjal University. “The collaboration enables the universities to come together on multiple fronts, including infrastructure, joint-research and teaching projects. It works at the ground level. As no institution is able to provide all the resources ­required, collaboration helps. You can access human capital, skills, infrastructure and laboratory ­facilities of other institutions. Also, innovation as a process is inclusive and cannot be done in isolation. The only way knowledge is going to expand is if you share it and build upon it.”

The sharing of resources is on a quid pro quo basis. If there

Ashoka, BML Munjal, OP Jindal and Shiv Nadar universities in NCR have collaborated to found Banyan League. It seeks to foster a culture of innovation and research.

is a need for explicit funding for specific things, they address it as it is in their interest that the teams succeed. Banyan League plans to further this collaboration through an ideation competition later this year, in which students from all the four institutions will participate. They are being encouraged to form teams within and across the four universities. This collaboration is ­expected to give a boost to ­articulation, testing and finding of solutions.

In its overseas collaborations with institutes like Imperial College, London, and Berkley College, USA, BML Munjal University is striving for a “soft landing pad for startups across multiple institutions and incubators”, says Bharadwaj. “In this manner, we are able to give them ­access to the Indian market so that they can test their ideas’ scale, sustainability, modalities, etc.”

In less than a year, BML Munjal University has ­engaged with three startups, while many other innovations and ideas are being fine-tuned in Propel, its ­incubation centre. Students across various disciplines are working together on ­design, making prototypes of the innovation and test marketing. In its well-equipped laboratory, Vikrant Singh, a fourth-year BTech student, is engaged in developing a hybrid battery for electric vehicles that will charge in less than three hours for a 500-km run, cutting the charging time to less than half.

Pratham Mittal, head, New Initiatives and Incubation Centre, Lovely Professional University (LPU), says that since the establishment of the university in 2006, there has been a team which helps students with their ideas, fund raising and accounting, but since 2012, a more dedicated approach was adopted with the setting up of the LPU Startup School.

Bridging Worlds

BML Munjal University collaborates with colleges in other countries.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

Every year, it incubates 20 startups. All students are free to participate. If they meet the process criteria, they are eligible for the grant money. Throughout the year, events to promote entrepreneurship are ­organised by different companies and  the turnout is quite huge. All the students on campus are thus exposed to the startup culture. At any given time, there are at least 70-80 startups in the incubation cell.

Mrutyunjay Suar, CEO of Bhubaneswar-based KIIT Technology Business Incub­ator, says, “Though a lot of innovation cells are being set up, most are not sustainable. Where there is plenty of support, the chances of success are higher.” KIIT’s incubator, which started in 2010, has several interesting startups and innovations in the making in a large number of domains.

“Despite the push for innovation and incubation, when it comes to mentoring or providing early-stage funding, there is scope for improvement,” says Anil Gupta of NIF.

Suar says KIIT University’s biggest success has been the ability to demonstrate that companies with a turnover of Rs 5-10 crore could be formed from the university incubation system. “We are looking at starting  a large number of firms and not just a few big companies. With the first few successes, the response was good. Today, almost 175 startup companies have been set up, including 85 in-house firms, in our dedicated and sprawling incubation centre,” says Suar. “The good part is that our startups are not just from Odisha, but also from other parts of the country. We promote manufacturing facilities rather than IT startups.”

Ranking high on its success is a logistic startup venture by three students called Far Eye, which has so far received funds totaling around 16.5 million euros. After eight years in business, the company has a turnover of roughly Rs 500 crore and employs 200 people.

Furqan Qamar, educationist and secretary general of Association of Indian Universities, says there is some confusion regarding the definition of innovation and incubation centres. Earlier there used to be technology parks, which were large-sized incubation and research centres. Their numbers were quite small though. The best model that emerged was from IIT Chennai, but only a few others followed in its steps. There are also some Department of Science & Technology-funded incubation centres on a much smaller scale, though their number is more than technology or research parks. “Lately, entrepreneurship and incubation cells, along with courses in entrepreneurship and innovation, are coming up in more universities. The Atal Innovation Mission, a Niti Aayog-led initiative, has also promoted innovation cells in more colleges and universities,” says Qamar. He adds that as no study has been conducted, their number is not really known.

Despite the rising push for incubation, when it comes to mentoring or providing the innovators with early-stage funding, there is scope for ­improvement, says Gupta of NIF. There are only two organisations, Biotechnology Industry Research Assis­tance Council (BIRAC) and NIF, that are supporting ­early-stage funding for translating ideas into products or enterprises. These two have helped scores of innovators test their ideas and become entrepreneurs. While states and institutions are offering innovators up to Rs 10 lakh to turn their ideas into commercial ventures, getting grants of higher amounts is still a major challenge.

Gupta points out that currently, hardly 7 to 8 per cent of universities and colleges are helping innovators. Where IITs and IIMs have an edge over other universities and colleges is that in many cases, alumni are providing the funding to promote innovation. More helping hands with deep pockets might help herald a new era of innovation in more institutions.

By Lola Nayar and M.S.Shanker in Hyderabad

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