Scientists must turn entrepreneurs

Tags: Knowledge

Working with scarce resources and under the constraints of government rules, our scientists still manage to come up with some remarkable new inventions and technologies. But when will they reach a market?

On a recent visit to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), one of the oldest research labs of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in New Delhi, I had a chance to visit the laboratory of Dr Ravinder Kumar Kotnala. He is the Chief Scientist at NPL and heads the Multiferroic and Magnetics Group. Kotnala has spent the past 32 years at the state-funded research institution and is humble, straight forward and passionate about his work. He showed me his latest invention – a hydroelectric cell. It is a green source of electrical energy which uses innovatively principles of electrode chemistry, nanotechnology and new materials – and few drops of water at room temperature – to produce an electric current. It is supposed to be cost-effective and more efficient than solar cells and fuel cells. His work has created waves globally, attracting queries from several parts of the world.

Having developed what appears to be a pathbreaking technology, Kotnala has done what most scientists working in government labs in India do – he has published results of his research in a peer-reviewed journal, obtained a couple of Indian patents and has applied for an American patent. When asked how he plans to take this technology to market or commercialise it, the scientist had no definite answer but merely said “it is ready for the industry to take it up”.

This is the bane of Indian science and technology developers like Kotnala. Working with scarce resources and under the constraints of government rules, our scientists come up with new inventions and technologies but have vague ideas about taking the same to the market. Research conglomerates like CSIR and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) do little to help them. On the other hand, there are bodies like Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) which support industry to forge links with academia in the life sciences sector. Effectively scientists and technologists interested in going commercial have to fend for themselves.

For several decades, CSIR has followed the conventional model of ‘technology transfer’ for taking its know-how to industry.

Technologies developed in research labs are available to industry and are transferred to them, usually in lieu of a one-time license fee or a transfer fee. This route only attracts small companies or, at times ‘fly-by-night’ operators, with no background in technology development or marketing. Technologies transferred to them end up being under-exploited or die a natural death. ( There are some exceptions in the field of chemical research). The other route research councils take is floating an in-house technology arm to market technologies developed by their scientists. This is somewhat better than plain vanilla ‘technology transfer’ model, but still falls short of expectations.

What we need is a model in which scientists and technologies can become entrepreneurs themselves. Why can’t they be allowed to float their own companies, market technologies developed by them and make profits (with their parent lab getting a share)? Why can’t their knowledge be turned into equity? It will be particularly helpful for scientists who don’t part easily with technologies developed by them. Ideally, the technology developed by Kotnala should be marketed globally by a spinoff firm incubated and perhaps located in NPL, in which both NPL and he have equity stakes.

CSIR is making a few feeble attempts towards making this a reality. Its technology transfer arm, CSIR Tech, based in Pune is supposed to help scientists float their technology companies but no scientist has done so in the past five years. The government has allowed scientists to hold an equity stake in scientific enterprises and spinoffs while being in employment. Research labs have also been permitted to place their knowledge base as equity in commercial outfits.

All this sounds very good on paper, but little has been done to operationalise this intention. Many scientists still have no idea about how entrepreneurship really works, and struggle to make any moves. CSIR Tech needs to become proactive in scouting for technologies from CSIR laboratories spread across the country. Rules and regulations relating to ‘scientific entrepreneurship scheme’ need to be simplified and scientists in labs made aware of the same. It is ironic that even as the government is marketing the idea of startups so aggressively our scientific institutions, who really require a push in the right direction, are left with few options for commercialisation.

(Dinesh C. Sharma is a journalist and author with thirty years of experience reporting on science, technology and innovation)

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