Research Cafe : Bridging Academic R&D with Product Innovation

Stressing on the need for accelerating the culture of product innovation in academic institutions, IIT Delhi director Prof V Ramgopal Rao has emphasized on building new creative platforms that would reap societal benefits.

“Focus on what one needs to do, what you have done for the society. We have to connect strongly with the society,” he said while delivering a nearly 40 minute talk on Bridging Academic R&D with Product Innovation on Friday.

The talk was a part of the Research Café series of the institute, started a few months back to ignite a desire for inter-disciplinary study and bring to fore the multifaceted research being done in the labs.

Referring to Internet of Things (IoT), he said this was the technology that was driving the future. “It is all about integrating all the components into tiny things that reduces the clutter. This will surely be the next big thing. Industries are putting a lot of money into it, some on sensor technology and some on its applications.”

Drawing a beautiful parallel with mobile phone he said of the 5 senses, the mobile phone was armed to detect only 3.” Smell and taste are two senses that it cannot detect. This triggered in us a need for building a new platform that could house these two senses also.”

Prof Rao then spoke about the research which jump-started at IIT Bombay in 2005-2006 for developing a low cost cardiac diagnostic system.” We tested on infinite possibilities. Material selection becomes critical. We used materials which no one was using at that time. We got into polymers and it became an interesting problem.”

“We spent time innovating on the platform, used chemistry based approaches. Many students graduated by working on this platform. We built a second prototype and finally we had a platform for molecular detection.”

Prof Rao then spoke about the challenges faced to develop an explosive detector. “Doing molecular recognition is not easy. We started looking at a Physics based approach for making explosive detectors and finally built X niff, the electronic nose prototype. Our aim was to scale it up and give it to security agencies. It can also be miniaturized.”

Moving on Prof Rao said how they started working on soil sensors. ”The biggest challenge is that they require calibrations. All these led to prototypes and many led to companies.”

Maintaining that India’s contribution to the world’s R&D and Intellectual Property is steadily increasing, Prof Rao said that in certain specialized areas such as Nanotechnology, India is among the top three countries in the world in terms of research publications and patent filings.

“Despite the low percentage of GDP spending for R&D in India, Indian researchers have excelled in research output, when measured in terms of the number of research publications. Though these are excellent achievements, the situation is entirely different when one looks at the innovation or the product development potential in the country”

India, he said had problems but there were also many opportunities. ” There is a need to address the bottom of the pyramid. Most of the MNC products get diverted to the market that reaches only about 100 million of India’s 1.3 billion population.Research and Development in academic institutions is primarily driven by North America and European models. There is a need to innovate in areas where there is a domestic demand. Local R&D for product development is absolutely essential for taking care of the needs of the people in India.”

Concluding the session Prof Rao referred to some take home lessons. “There should be top down product oriented approach for the work on platform development. Also protection with an IP is very important and should be done as early as possible.”

Stressing on the need for maturing the technology in the academic environment he said there should be a constant endeavor to work towards increasing the value of equity and not fighting for the equity.” Many startups fail because of co-founders for equity. Involve the students as this will be very motivating for them.”

Prof Rao said that one should look for areas where there is a great domestic demand and there should be a good awareness of the markets.

The talk was followed by a question-answer session.