Bangalore: One is a handheld explosive detector as good as a sniffer dog. Another is a cardiac disorder detector. From the functional point of view, there is nothing unique about either. Yet, the two mark a milestone in Indian science. They are among the first nanotechnology-based devices that have been licensed or are in the process of being licensed out to companies for commercial development.
The devices are the output of two Centres of Excellence in Nanoelectronics (CEN), set up by the ministry of communication and information technology (MCIT) at a cost of Rs400 crore four years ago, partly in response to criticism that the government wasn’t doing enough to foster development of microelectronics in the country.
Now, say scientists, the challenge is to commercialize the technologies, a task that is as big as the science they are based on is small.
After four years of toil, the two CENs at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay funded primarily by MCIT under its various programmes, have a handful of technologies, particularly microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based devices, ready for licensing. The miniature machines—they range in size from 20 micrometres to a millimetre—behind sleeker and smarter phones today, MEMS are smart machines that convert inputs such as sound, light, motion and temperature into digital signals that are detected by a chip on-board.
“From the platform technologies that we’ve built in the first phase, some sensors for automotive, biomedical, aerospace and other applications are being licensed to the industry,” says S. Mohan, chairman of CEN at IISc.
For instance, the explosive detector and the cardiac disorder detector have been developed on a microcantilever-based nanomechanical sensing platform. The former is licensed to a biotechnology company in Bangalore, Bigtec Pvt. Ltd, which is producing 50 devices for a field test. For the latter, which will be ready for prototyping by the year-end, developers are in talks with three Indian companies, says V. Ramgopal Rao, chief investigator at CEN, IIT-B.
“Our platform has the highest reported sensitivity in literature. That makes our explosive detection device as good as a sniffer dog,” says Rao. In cardiac disorders, experts say about 30-40% of cases go undetected in electrocardiograms. “In our handheld device, cardiac molecular markers like myoglobin and troponin can provide more accurate detection in just about 7-10 minutes,” he adds. A molecular marker is a sort of litmus paper that changes colour under certain conditions.
In the automotive sector, Coimbatore-based Pricol Ltd, a global auto components supplier, is currently testing the manifold absolute pressure (MAP) sensor. MAP sensors are an integral part of new age internal combustion engines and make them more efficient by simply telling them what to do when. The Rs810 crore auto parts maker has been importing the sensing technology from Japan so far. “With this (CEN sensor) we will completely indigenize the technology; it will reduce the cost of MAP sensors by half,” says K. Udhay Kumar, president and COO of Pricol. And with the orders slated to pour in from the two-wheeler industry as they opt for fuel injection technology, Pricol says it’s worth going through the entire technology development cycle. It has also identified a couple of other CEN technologies, including an array of sensors for wireless emission check.
Still, it would appear that developing technologies is the easy part. Getting them to market is tricky. IIT-B’s Rao, who, in an earlier partnership with a large software firm developed a Web-enabled ECG monitoring system called Silicon Locket, but couldn’t commercialize it, now wants to avoid such collaborations. “We have decided that we’ll only approach small and medium companies whose survival will depend on commercializing these (CEN) technologies.”
So when it was time for A.Q. Contractor, a co-chief investigator at CEN at IIT-B, to select a marketing partner for his “potability sensors”, he decided to jointly set up a company with a Bangalore diagnostic device maker Bhat Biotech Pvt. Ltd. Admittedly not a business-savvy academic, Contractor took the plunge after things didn’t quite work out with his earlier institutional partner, the MCIT-promoted MediaLab Asia. “I am convinced big partners or companies will not rock the boat,” he says, referring to their unwillingness to nurture breakthrough innovation that challenges the status quo. Already, his company, Polymeric Sensors Pvt. Ltd has launched onsite water sensors, branded Polyfin Aqua in the market; those for milk, soil, and healthcare are in the pipeline.
The problem is systemic, says Rudra Pratap, a mechanical engineering professor who started India’s first MEMS lab at IISc in 2002 in collaboration with Cranes Software International Ltd. “On the technology readiness level of 0-10, labs typically work at levels 0-4. Unlike in the West, the industry here wants to enter at level 10; they want a ready-made product. Levels 5-9 are generally missing from Indian technology ecosystem,” he laments. “We don’t have a single success story in these new technologies. Much before Taiwan and Singapore came to limelight, we had lab leads in areas such as semiconductor, optical and wireless communication.”
Pratap worries that if India doesn’t bridge the technology development gap soon, it will lag in nanotechnology too.
That won’t happen for shortage of people, though, say scientists. With scores of projects under way, including those supported by companies such as IBM, Intel, Texas Instruments, Hitachi and Applied Materials, at least 400 students have been trained in these areas. The goal is to produce 150 PhDs every year between the two CENs.
“People (overseas) are catching up, we need to move very fast,” says Kota Harinarayana, Raja Ramanna Fellow at the National Aerospace Laboratory and former programme director of the project to develop the light combat aircraft (Tejas). He is spearheading development of a set of MEMS-based systems for aircraft health and structure management which would totally eliminate unscheduled maintenance of aircraft and reduce the scheduled ones to minimum. “Even if the airlines are able to reduce maintenance time from two-three months to two weeks in a year, they’ll increase profitability due to enhanced operational time.”
But translating technology to products isn’t routine in India. “The problem also lies at the level of scientific planning,” says Nalinaksh S. Vyas, head, department of mechanical engineering at IIT, Kanpur, which has developed several technologies now deployed by the Indian Railways. “We hardly do engineering in this country any more. Where are the people doing ruggedization and calibration of technologies?” asks Vyas, also an expert member in CEN. “We need to put right processes for calibration and packaging at the development stage itself.”
His grouse: for a long time scientific enterprise in this country has been guided and shaped by people from pure science. “Developing technology is different from doing science but have you seen an engineer lead any big national programme?”
Vyas’ call for engineering leadership comes at a time when the global science research lighthouse, the $6.9 billion (Rs32,223 crore) US National Science Foundation, is set to be led by the dean of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also an IIT, Madras alumnus, Subra Suresh.
CEN chairman Mohan says one way to nail the tech development issue is to set aside funds and incubate in-house technologies by encouraging students. Both the centres have already allocated space for it.
“The government should set aside a sizeable fund for this, a few crores will not do. After all, Rs4-5 crores get wasted in the government in one day,” says Contractor.