He has straddled academic research and venture financing in his 36-year-long career and believes being on both sides of the fence helps in commercializing laboratory research. Anthony K. Cheetham, currently a professor of materials science at the University of Cambridge in the UK, set up the first dedicated fund for nanotechnology and materials, the $70 million Ngen Enabling Technologies Fund, in 1999 when he was a faculty member at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
Having distanced himself from active venture investment in 2006, he returned to the academic world but now uses his experience to bridge the lab-to-market time of nanotechnology research in Cambridge and elsewhere. He is also a science adviser to the world’s second-biggest consumer products company Unilever Plc. and has helped it establish a technology venture capital fund in the US. Of late, Cheetham has even influenced his 35-year-long research collaborator in Bangalore, C.N.R. Rao, chairman of the scientific advisory council to the Prime Minister, to get used to the idea of Indian researchers exploring new business opportunities through private ventures.
In India recently, Cheetham spoke to Mint about what India can do to spur private ventures among its researchers, particularly in nanotechnology. Edited excerpts:
Venture matters: Cheetham says in India, business ventures by academics are frowned upon.
Why has India lagged behind in commercializing academic research?
It’s partly education, partly a structural issue. In the US and the UK, we have developed courses in entrepreneurship for undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and even faculty. This helps you develop a scientific community, at least a subset of which is knowledgeable and sophisticated about what it takes to create a company. I think there’s a lot that can be done on the education side in India.
What is the structural problem?
There’s a mindset issue here. While in the US, now even in the UK, it is normal, even encouraged, for faculty members to have start-up companies, in India that’s not in the tradition. From my association with C.N.R. Rao and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), I know that there’s a tendency to frown upon academics who start business ventures, because (the perception is) that’s not what you should be doing. I think if you indeed want to build bridges (between lab research and market), you’ll have to give people opportunities to gain experience on both sides. I can say from experience that it doesn’t do any harm though of course you end up working very long hours.
Then why haven’t you been able to convince C.N.R. Rao or others at JNCASR to spin out their research?
(Laughs) I tried but by the time I could convince him two-three years ago, it was too late (for that piece of research in conducting polymers). I think some of the nanomaterials work at JNCASR, or for that matter Indian Institute of Science, have good commercial prospects and can be spun out. Rao is more open to this idea now. Elsewhere, institutions see spinouts as a source of revenue, but here, they don’t see it that way.
Since time to market is long in nanotechnology and we don’t have success stories, how can venture capital be raised for this sector in India?
You will have to create your own venture capital for nanotechnology and build some momentum so that investors in other countries think they need to have a presence here. Government, state or federal, can do its bit by creating some venture capital trusts where common people can invest, instead of going to the stock market, and the (trusts) can in turn invest in start-ups. Another possible way out could be to look at Singapore which has funds that deal with materials and nanotechnology.
What would be an ideal fund size for India?
You could do a lot here with a $50 million (Rs195 crore) fund as the cost structure is cheaper. This would be equivalent to $200 fund in the US. Moreover, you are also looking at very young companies in India.