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Few takers for innovators

Our technological institutes come up with great innovations, but not many get commercialised. HT Education finds out why.

education Updated: Oct 24, 2012 13:56 IST
Jeevan Prakash Sharma
Jeevan Prakash Sharma
Hindustan Times

Of late, India’s first solar passenger car developed by the students of Delhi Technological University was flagged off by the President of India, Pranab Mukherji, from the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Though there was a big buzz around the event and the car, the product is yet to grab the attention of an automotive company willing to turn it into a viable commercial product.

Innovation is a word we love to use, but unfortunately, in India, not many of us are willing to give innovative products adequate recognition or the support. Apart from the solar passenger car, many such ‘inventions’ such as the unmanned aerial vehicle, energy farming and bio diesel reactor design, driverless car, a sensor for detecting air leakage in packed items, alarm-based LPG sensor etc, have been forgotten. Many have used up a huge amounts of funds, but apart from generating some buzz and helping their creators get some mileage academically or in the media, none of these innovative products or concepts have been commercialised or put to proper use.

So, does that put a question mark on the quality of innovations in this country or is there a missing link between the innovations and their commercialisation? There is a problem, admit experts. While some blame the private corporate sector for lack of interest, patience and entrepreneurship in coming forward and bridging the gap between the lab and the market, others say the innovations do not have an earth-shattering impact.

Vijay P Bhatkar, a senior computer scientist who is also chairman of the Board of Governors of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and known as the architect of the PARAM series of Supercomputers, says, “An idea which is non-obvious, suggests a new function and efficient operation and which hasn’t been dealt with in the past is an innovation. Now if I judge innovations coming out from our institutions on these grounds, only 2% of them are innovations. The rest of them are either copying of concepts or just an average thinking.”

Anil Wali, director, Foundation of Innovation and Technology Transfer (FITT), IIT Delhi, says, “There is no dearth of creative minds in this country, but, unfortunately, we have not been able to capture them to an optimum level. However, in spite of a whole lot of copy-paste work in the name of innovations, we still have some remarkable creative work being produced by various institutions.”

So what about the conversion ratio of even these 2% of innovations into marketable products? Experts like Wali feel that if the innovation is commercially viable from the user’s perspective, there are lots of takers in the market. “Innovation that is successful in the lab may not be economically viable or the right product for the market. For example, suppose someone comes out with a diagnosis kit for a deadly disease which is not available in the market, I am sure the industry will come out to accept it,” says Wali.

Do scientific minds require more support from the industries? “Industries, most of the time, show a keen interest in new developed technology but are hesitant to invest money in the same as they are sceptical about its success. This necessitates the intervention of the government to facilitate the commercialisation of new technologies,” says VK Jain, director, Amity Institute for Advanced Research and Studies (materials and devices).

Scientists see the benefits of these innovations in building innovating capacity among students and faculty at the institution level but effort to partner with appropriate industry which could exactly address market and consumer needs is completely missing.

“It takes time and good efforts to bridge the innovation to a marketable product. Many times, industries do not have enough patience to undergo this time-consuming cycle,” says A Balachandran, general manager, Technology Business Incubator at Vellore Institute of Technology.

One of the landmark achievements in the direction of bridging the gap between lab innovations and their marketable production has been the establishment of Technology Business Incubators (TBI) by the government. TBIs essentially help start-ups during their early stage of the venture creation process. They provide subsidised office space, access to campus facilities for product development, testing and trials, test marketing, mentoring and seed funding. There are over 50 TBIs in the country at the moment.

But this initiative is considered just one positive step as a lot depends on cooperation from the corporate sector.

Bhatkar sees lack of entrepreneurship as one of the major problems in the way of conversion of ideas into products. “Our scientists can innovate but then entrepreneurs have to commercialise and market that innovation. Unfortunately, they don’t want to take that risk,” he adds.

One of the suggestions that PB Sharma, vice chancellor, Delhi Technological University, puts forward is to involve the industry at the early stages of innovation, “otherwise we continue to lose such great opportunities of taking college innovations to products for the masses,” he says.

Pradeep Kumar, chairman, Delhi College of Technology & Management, endorses this, adding, “Take the industry into confidence for a particular innovation and encourage them to finance at least 40% of the cost of project. In counties like the United States, colleges and the industries coordinate closely on such matters.”

“Wider sensitisation programmes through the industry associations like FICCI, CII etc, and by creating an online innovation exchange portal where innovators are made to meet the needy industries could be the beginning steps,” says Balachandran.

Make your idea work

1 First of all, you need to build a model of the innovative idea so that it will explain how your concept can be transformed through technology into a usable product.

2 For the next step, you need to indentify whether your innovation requires inputs from experts of various technologies. You have to partner with such people.

3 You also need to prepare a business plan around the idea. You can approach bodies like FITT at IIT Delhi which encourage people to formulate a viable business plan.

4 The next step is to approach an angel investor or business incubators. The advantage of approaching FIIT is that the experts screen the proposals and help you find a place in an incubation centre.

5 An incubation centre provides opportunities for an early assessment of innovative technologies by identifying their market potential and provides the required support (marketing, operational and financial support). It facilitates commercialisation by providing an opportunity for individuals who have developed innovative products/prototypes and are not in a position to take it to the market on their own and are willing to transfer the technology.