The Need for Industry – Academia Partnerships in India

Academia-Industry collaboration has always been a topic of great interest around the world. In an economy, Innovation is an essential tool for job creation and is a primary driver in solving daily life problems. Furthermore, every Innovation driven Start-Up ecosystem across the world, whether it is the Silicon Valley, London, Tel Aviv, Beijing or Seoul, has had Universities being the primary catalysts for the Innovation. In all these cases the Industry benefitted from applied research taking place in these Universities across a range of subject areas, like renewable energy, material science, medical technologies, and Big Data. Moreover, to ensure that these innovations grew into job-creating commercial products and services, it was important for the Industry and Academia to collaborate throughout the Innovation Process. These partnerships were further encouraged by the respective governments through effective policy making.1

However, despite such widespread recognition of the importance of such partnerships, it is ironic that such collaborations are quite limited not only in India but all over the world. The reason for this can be attributed to the lack of a definite model due to many barriers to university-industry collaboration that still persist.2 During its interaction with the academia, a Start-Up’s desired time frames are instant, and investment is aimed at how quickly new patents or new products can be obtained. This results in an inherent mismatch between research orientations. Academicians also have widespread apathy towards applied research and they are largely unaware of the real industrial needs. This problem is further exacerbated by a lack of appropriate incentive to faculty & specialized technical infrastructure (R&D Lab.) and absence of exclusive university-industry interaction cells in campuses. Moreover, collaboration is costly and the returns only accrue in the medium to long run, but Start-Ups seek short-term results and clear contributions to current business lines.3 Many a times, bureaucratic hiccups also contribute to the problem as the sluggishness and inflexibility of the government mechanisms result in the delays in requisite funding.

In view of these obstacles, it is important for both the stakeholders to strive for mutual benefit during the collaborations by streamlining negotiations to ensure timely conduct of the research and the development of the research findings. This can be achieved by developing an integrated model of Academia-Industry Interface. Eminent scientists /technocrats outside the university systemshould be encouraged to participate in teaching and research ventures.Tax exemptions could be given in such cases of collaboration for all expenditure on the R&D and the technology transferred by an academic research institution to an industry. Also, creation of special honourable “Chairs” wherein the holder of the “Chair” will get financial benefit will also provide appropriate incentive to the faculty members.4

In this regard, the Central Government’s decision to set up 7 new Research Parks in seven different IITs with an initial investment of INR 100 crore each is a highly welcome step. The Research Parks modelled on the IIT Madras Research Park will enable companies with a research focus to set up a base in the Park and leverage the expertise of that IIT. These Research Parks will break down the traditional, artificial barriers of innovation through their connectivity and collaborative interaction. Leveraging best practices from successful Research Parks such as those at Stanford, MIT and Cambridge, these parks will help industry to create, integrate and apply advancements in knowledge.5 Moreover, mentorship needs to be provided by the educational institutions in order to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, especially in the Product Start-Up Sector. Lately, several leading educational institutions in India have started incubation cells to help entrepreneurs in areas like building a business around an idea, creating and testing a prototype and understanding the market. Some examples are Society for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (SINE) – IIT Bombay, NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL) – IIM Bangalore and Rural Technology Business Incubator – IIT Madras.6 The focus needs be on developing appropriate technologies to respond to local needs, providing business incubation services and imparting entrepreneurship education. The research consortia and long term research partnerships should lead to the emergence of ‘Spin-off companies’.

A case in point here is ‘Powai Labs’, India’s first chip design verification (Electronic Design Automation or EDA) firm. An indigenous example of a successful university spin-off, the company grew out of ReapanTikoo’s student project at IIT-Bombay that was funded by Texas Instruments. ReapanTikoo, a student of IIT Bombay at thattime, was working with his academic guide, Professor Madhav Desai when they realised there was a commercial opportunity for innovation in the Electronic Design Automation (EDA)space. Thus, the company started out within the campus of IIT Bombay in 1999 by Tikoo and Desai. In 2001, they realised the commercial potential of their product. Tikoo took charge of the task of acquiring capital while Prof Desai was involved in R&D. In 2002, they were made part of the IIT’s incubator unit. The IIT incubator provides support for technology based entrepreneurship and extends the role of IIT Bombay by facilitating the conversion of research activity into entrepreneurial ventures.The government (Department of Science &Technology) and academic support at the early stage is very important for such companies.7,8

India presently ranks a dismal 81 (at the bottom of the BRICS countries) in the 2015 Global Innovation Index which noted that the biggest issue facing the country is its education system.9 Courses at the technical and vocational training institutes are not currently geared towards a start-up economy. Similarly, schooling system in India doesn’t focus on imparting entrepreneurship education to children. One outcome of the lack of adequate and appropriate skills is that entrepreneurs find it difficult to access the right kind of employees.10 Thus, it is of paramount importance that the government fosters Academia-Industry collaboration through effective policy making. Conducting research at universities that is applicable or accessible to start-ups or the start-up ecosystem will ensure that more and more successful spinoffs emerge from Indian universities.

This piece is the second in the series of articles published at the conclusion of a policy review project on PM Modi’s Start-up India Plan undertaken by Praneeth Rao, Vaibhav Goyal, Agrima Singh and Simrat Singh.


  9. Confederation of Indian Industry, “A Snapshot of India’s Start-up Ecosystem”.

IPAN Research Team

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