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Indian Industry – Institution R&D Partnership: An Overdue Imperative

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Summary

Prescriptions for better Academia-Industry partnership in India.

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Most developed economies have had a tradition of deep science & technology capabilities and an ecosystem where industry, scientific research centres and academic institutions continuously collaborated to deliver powerful innovations. The USA, Germany, Japan are prime examples of the success of such partnerships. In recent years, other nations like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and now China are reaping the dividend of creating integrated R&D networks.

 

More than any other nation, USA stands out as a great example of how such an industry- institution R&D partnership flourished. Industry for years provided generous research grants to institutions for R&D in frontier areas of science & technology – especially where their own R&D capabilities were limited. These funds in turn built world class R&D infrastructure at institutions and thus fostered high expertise. Japan’s technology edge approach has been to develop a research strategy derived from its national industrial policy and the government then facilitated its execution through an interdependent R&D partnership between selected industry and institutional centres of excellence. Likewise Taiwan’s Industrial & Technical Research Institute (ITRI) is a government funded Science & Technology establishment (much like India’s CSIR labs), dedicated to serving high technology research needs of Taiwanese industry. ITRI has been the leader in semi-conductor revolution which has helped Taiwan become a world leader in electronics industry.

 

Current global economic dynamics are re-shaping the contours of industry at a furious pace. Industry today is confronted with several challenges which require it to reinvent the way it organizes itself and conducts its business.  At the same time, giant advances in science & technology – increasingly pioneered at scientific & institutional R&D establishments – are creating immense possibilities which can power growth.  The various salient forces at play and their implications are summarized below:

CHALLENGESFORCESOPPORTUNITIES

*More stringent regulatory environment

*Higher cost of compliance

*Effectiveness of solutions

SUSTAINABILITY, SAFETY AND ENVIRONMENT

*Increased cost of renewable materials

*Safe solutions, eliminate CMR (Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, Reprotoxic)

*Reduce, recover, recycle streams

*Competition squeezing growth rate

*Emerging markets need local solutions

MARKET DYNAMICS

*Industry consolidation – scale is everything

*Global “center of gravity” shift to East

*Focus on cost leading to drop in innovation rates

*Incrementalization

*High scale-up costs

INNOVATION

*Significant technology advancement propelling innovation

*More functional and affordable solutions

*Re-invention of products and services

*Constraints of current chemistries

*Declining funding for basic research

*Decrease in research in industry

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

*Age of knowledge

*Convergence of fields accelerating breakthroughs

*Growth in institutional research

 

Amongst above, of particular long term significance is the scale-back of research in industry, where much of the effort is now more developmental in nature. In contrast, institutional research – in centres for scientific & industrial research as well as academia – has continued to expand.

 

India has had a deep and longstanding commitment to science & technology. The creation of several technology specific CSIR labs soon after independence exemplified this. Established with a vision of finding solutions to societal problems, these have succeeded in creating a scientific temper, and have delivered several uniquely Indian innovations. However, programs at these labs were largely insulated from an engagement with industry. Thus, the full value of their prodigious R&D effort has gone unrealized as many technologies were not scaled up – which otherwise would have been possible with a robust partnership with industry.

 

R&D in Indian academic institutions too has been hamstrung by an over-weighted focus on pedagogy over learning through R&D, inadequate infrastructure, lack of clear central policy on R&D in academia (with exceptions), prioritisation of strategic technologies of national significance to be run in specific institutes, as well as creation of technology lead centres for identified technologies. There are small steps underway, for eg: Center of Excellence for Biotechnology at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) – an outstanding facility – but these are more exceptions rather than the norm.

 

In recognition of the need to be a knowledge economy, recently some ambitious investments have been made in spurring R&D through programs like TEQUIP, which is funding new lab infrastructure at leading technical institutes. The government has also tried to expand the footprint of research in scientific institutions by creating the well-resourced network of IISERs. Yet, unless a more robust industry & institution R&D partnership is systemically encouraged, India is unlikely to become an innovation powerhouse riding on its rich science & technology R&D.

 

A strong industry-institution R&D partnership in India has been one imperative which unfortunately has been overlooked for too long, despite both industry and institution R&D circles acknowledging its obvious advantages. The synergies of it are in several areas as outlined below:

 

Industry OpportunitiesInstitution Opportunities
Extend technical capabilities by integrating back into big institutional researchIntegrate forward into monetizing research
Science & Technology resource & value creation multiplierExpand research domains & its impact
Access to a large network of labs and talent pool Interdependent ecosystem with industry & talent training
Influence S & T policy and research directionAlign research priorities & outcomes to market relevance
Partner capability building for long termBridge funding gaps

 

More recently, the Department of Science & Technology has begun nudging central R&D centres to reach out and initiate collaborative research with industry. Although this overdue policy shift is  welcome , yet better collaboration on ground will not materialize until the fundamental gaps in orientation of institutional and industry R&Ds are addressed. These gaps are summarized further in the following table.

 

Institutional R&D (National Laboratories & Academia)Industry R&D
Organized as Centers of Excellence focused on specialized fields Focused on delivering market led innovations drawing on multiple fields
Priority is basic research and bench top "Technology Demonstrators"Priority is Product Development and Application Research, needs market ready technologies
Addresses "Societal Issues" and aspires for Affordable Solutions – Long Term HorizonDelivers solutions for consumer & customer needs to achieve commercial success – Short & Mid Term Horizon
Oriented towards Intellectual Property & PublicationsOriented towards Cost Efficiencies & Low Investment
Well defined framework of institutional processes, which are too complex for external partnershipsInternal processes makes external partnerships challenging and not a natural first choice
Industry outreach not fully resourced or structuredOpen innovation which scouts for institution R&D not fully funded

 

Industry is increasingly looking to access high quality research partnership, which institution R&D is well positioned to provide today. It though needs institution R&D and the framers of Science & Technology policy to address some areas enumerated below:

 

  • Institution R&D priority areas

Core institution R&D priorities as articulated in the recent Science Technology & Innovation Policy (STIP) are still framed by the higher objective of finding affordable solutions for those at the bottom of the pyramid. These do not necessarily meet research areas which the industry seeks. Neither will it raise India’s technology competitiveness, if the policy is not broadened to encompass advanced technology too in its ambit of research focus.

 

  • Pro-active industry R&D outreach by institution R&D and industry R&D relationship building

There are few national forums where institutional and industry R&D engage – on matters of policy or to review state of technology development. Most outreach today is by industry initiative rather than a mutual effort. Institution R&D processes could do well to encourage pro-active reach out by leading scientist to share and establish industry R&D relationships.

 

  • Long term partnerships vs project specific association

Joint industry-institution R&D presently is mostly project specific. It needs to expand and define fields where long term science & technology partnerships would be of mutual interest and of national benefit. This could be immediately initiated in the following significant areas of research – (i) alternative energy generation (ii) automotive efficiencies (iii) energy storage (iv) air/ waste treatment (v) electronics & lighting (vi) specialized coating & paint (vii) alternative materials (viii) advanced packaging (ix) affordable medical devices.

 

  • Flexibility in IP sharing

This is a real sticking point for industry sponsored research projects. Current IP ownership guideline exclusively favors institutional R&D irrespective of industry R&D IP used to generate the additional IP. Present guidelines need to be tweaked to accommodate industry concerns on jointly generated IP.

  • Project Management effectiveness

Collaborative projects with industry will demand higher order project management skills that institutional R&Ds are not readily equipped with.

 

  • One step forward from bench-scale “proof of principle”  to successful pilot design

Institution R&D will have to plan beyond successful bench top experimentation which while adequate for “proof of principle” demonstration, is insufficient for industry R&D to pick and scale-up further. Therefore pilot plant studies to establish product & process design and complete techno-commercial evaluation is essential. Pilot plant infrastructure at leading CSIR labs has unfortunately been neglected in the last 10 years or so, and requires urgent revitalization.

 

Policy changes in this respect would act as timely enablers for this essential partnership to take-off.

 

Atul Bhatia is currently President, R&D at Pidilite, a leading adhesives and art manufacturing company.  Mr. Bhatia is an industry veteran who previously worked with Hindustan Unilever and at Cadbury’s. The views expressed are his own.

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Mahul Chakraborty

A major chunk of innovation in life science research in U.S.A. originates from NIH funded research, and not from industry fund. The products are then taken up by the industry and further developed and scaled up.

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