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The great Indian talent hunt

State-run institutes are trying to attract some of the brightest scientific and technological minds from around the world but to be globally competitive, they need a business model to market the researchers’ inventions, reports Anika Gupta.

delhi Updated: Nov 15, 2009 23:27 IST
Anika Gupta

In early 2008, Samir Brahmachari, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), created the “outstanding scientist/technologist of Indian origin” programme to bring fresh talent into the 67-year-old institute.

The very first offer — extended to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher and entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai — ended badly. Ayyadurai was sacked five months after being hired. He had written a report criticising the CSIR leadership, and accused the institute of being vindictive.

The CSIR claimed he was a poor fit.

The claims and counterclaims notwithstanding, the episode highlights how important it is for government bodies like the CSIR to attract top talent from all over the world if they want to become globally competitive.

But becoming competitive will also require a change in mindset.

The CSIR gets a majority of its funding from the government, but it also has a mandate to make money on its own, partly by commercialising its inventions. Over the past ten years, the CSIR has spent more on filing for patents — government registrations that mark an invention as the inventor's sole property — than from licensing the right to turn those inventions into commercial products.

That’s because turning an invention into a product requires business expertise, not just scientific knowledge.

“You need people who can map innovative technologies to market needs and then wrap business models around them to build a viable business,” said Bejul Somaia, managing director of Lightspeed Advisory Services India, a part of international venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners.

“The old mode was that a scientist filed a patent and then waited for someone to license it,” said Somenath Ghosh, chairman and managing director of the National Research Development Corporation, an organisation that works with universities and laboratories on commercialising innovations. “Now there has to be interaction between business and scientists at an earlier stage.”

In other parts of the world, like at Ayyadurai’s alma mater MIT, it is easy for inventors to take new technologies and spin off their own companies. MIT gets to keep part of the profits.

Until recently, it was very difficult for CSIR scientists to start their own firms, thanks to elaborate code of conduct regulations.

On July 15, on the CSIR’s insistence, the central government approved a proposal that would allow scientists at the CSIR and other government institutes and departments to spin off companies and hold an equity stake in them without losing their government jobs.

The institutes include the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the National Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science and the Department of Science and Technology.

But scientists might still hesitate to turn entrepreneurial, in part because they don’t have the business knowledge required to outline, test and market a new invention. This is where experienced entrepreneurs, who have built businesses in the past, can offer guidance.

“In the US there is a culture of innovation, risk-taking and accepting that failures are part of the process of innovation and learning,” said Somaia.

Although there were plenty of experienced professionals in India, most worked with established brands, Somaia said. They might hesitate to take a chance on a new company, where the pay is initially low and social recognition slow in coming.

“Indian-American graduates are very ambitious and they really want to grow and make an impact,” said Kewal Likhyani, a technology commercialisation consultant, who has worked in both the US and India. To attract first-rate talent, government-run organisations need to offer adequate compensation and “some of the bureaucracy has to go,” he said.

The private sector had already made these changes, he said.

The government could create special schemes to help technology entrepreneurs, perhaps by providing financial incentives or inviting speakers to give seminars on the subject, he said. No matter what it does, the government will have to evolve its rules if it wants to attract global entrepreneurs and play a lead role in the knowledge-based economic growth of the coming century.

As Ghosh says, “We opened up the economy in 1991, but our policies (for attracting technology entrepreneurs) haven't changed much since then.”