India as a nation is at a point of inflection today – the thinking, frameworks, institutions and processes that have taken us this far don’t seem to be adequate for the road ahead. For one thing, these were, by their very nature and context, capable of catering only to a small section of our society. They simply can’t scale to the levels that a hugely democratizing India is demanding today.
Secondly, today we have, or are in the process of having, knowledge, tools, techniques, opportunities, aspirations and energies that didn’t exist till some two decades ago – resources with which new visions, frameworks, structures and processes can be built and put to work for the people of India. While there is a lot to despair about today’s India, there is much more to be hopeful about it too!
This is as true in the field of Higher Education, Research and Innovation as in other areas in India, and the AU-KBC Research Centre in Anna University Chennai (www.au-kbc.org) is clearly on the side of hope and enthusiasm about India and its future. K B Chandrasekhar from Silicon Valley set up this autonomous Research Centre in his alma mater at the turn of the millennium, and he has been supporting and engaging with it ever since its inception. Two broad ideas drove this initiative that are quite unique in the Indian context:
- Base of the quality pyramid in this field in India is too narrow to serve the needs of the emerging nation, especially its desire to be the ‘knowledge hub’ of the world. The base of quality has to spread way beyond the “IIT System”, into the state universities and colleges, and the AU-KBC Centre would demonstrate how this can be attempted on a sustainable basis through the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) mode.
- Applied R&D in India has to deliver Products, Technologies, Solutions and Intellectual Property (IP) that contribute to economic and social value creation. This requires creation of an Innovation/Entrepreneurship Ecosystem connecting research to markets and users.
Working in the two broad domains of Information Sciences (IS) and Life Sciences (LS), the Centre has by now contributed significantly to the University’s R&D profile – over 300 research papers, 40 research degrees, 5 US/PCT Patents, 6-7 commercialized technologies/solutions, over Rs.22 crores of R&D Grants raised, etc. Additionally, the Centre has taken up a number of innovative and socially valuable programs such as:
- Providing R&D support to Indian Systems of Medicine like Ayurveda and Sidha.
- Launching an Online M.Sc. (CS) program with week end classes for working people.
- Jointly with Apollo Hospitals, training/certifying manpower for Clinical Research.
- Providing affordable SW/IT solutions to the State Govt. using Open Source Software.
- Imparting skill-based short-term training and certification to over a 1000 persons.
The AU-KBC Centre is a part of a larger innovation ecosystem promoted by KBC which includes engaging with private sector companies and helps the Research Centre connect to the markets and users.
The Centre is close to being fully self-funding through its own earnings – something that is a unique instance in India. The KBC Ecosystem has conceived, implemented and sustained a novel concept of “Institutionalized form of PPP in R&D”, where the engagement between private and public parties is not one-off but sustained and long-term, enabling a continuous supply chain of IP s and their refinements. While still being something of a work-in-progress that needs to scale up many of its operations, the KBC model of PPP-in-R&D has already attracted the attention of the Indian Government, and suitable frameworks and mechanisms are being evolved in the government for supporting and promoting such entities in the country.
While this engagement of Chandrasekhar with the Indian Engineering Education & Research Establishment has perhaps been far from being smooth or painless, it nevertheless reveals that India, very much including its non-elite segments, is fast readying itself to experiment and innovate in unprecedented ways in this domain. One of the ways of stating the lesson from this pioneering endeavor could be that, if one has the vision, faith and patience, and the ability to stay with it for long enough, then this is the time to build long term engagements with India – there is perhaps no opportunity and challenge bigger than India today!