Bangalore: In its centenary year, the country’s leading academic and scientific research organization, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is focusing on making entrepreunership an attractive career option for its students.
“We are consciously trying to encourage entrepreneurial activities on the campus in the hope that the graduating students will look at entrepreneurship as a serious career option,” says P. Balaram, director, IISc. He admits that not much attention was paid to private business enterprise in the past, but is convinced that it has enormous potential.
“It’s not that IISc is changing dramatically, it is merely responding to dramatic changes in India,” he says. With 1,600 publications, about 9% of India’s total scientific output, 400 faculty members and 2,000 students including 1,200 doing doctorates, IISc located on a 400-acre campus in Bangalore, can boast of an enviable wealth of knowledge.
The government is keen to do its bit to promote entreprenuership. The department of information technology (DIT) in New Delhi is to announce a new Rs25 crore fund called the Technology Incubation Development of Entrepreneurs (TIDE) to promote entrepreneurship. “We will pilot test in institutions with MTech and PhD programmes, which already have a culture of incubation and where professors can act as mentors,” says A.K. Chakravarti, an adviser to DIT.
Knowledge base: Students at the IISc campus in Bangalore. IISc director P. Balaram admits that not much attention was paid to private business enterprise in the past. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint)
Establishments such as IISc, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and others will qualify for the TIDE funding, which could range from Rs25 lakh to Rs50 lakh per start-up for a two-year period. “This is to ensure that the culture of start-ups gets built into the institution’s philosophy,” adds Chakravarti, clarifying that it would be an “invited initiative” from DIT, which is looking at funding about 100 start-ups in the first two years.
While funds are available, identifying the right ideas to invest in might not be easy. Even after setting up the Society for Innovation and Development (SID) in 1991, to primarily spur greater industry interaction, and starting an Incubation Centre in 2006, IISc somehow remained oblivious to the entrepreneurship wave sweeping similar academic institutions across the world.
However, C.E. Veni Madhavan, chief executive of SID and a professor at the department of computer science and automation, says “start-up is the way to go.” SID has consulted for around 160 companies till date and earns around Rs5 crore per annum in fees.
The incubator that IISc runs doesn’t have a similar success story. Only 3-D Solid Compression, a three-dimensional content visualization firm, received undisclosed additional funding by IDG Ventures in December 2007, and two more firms are being nurtured now.
From the time when the first faculty-led Pico Peta Simputers Pvt. Ltd was set up in 2000, followed by Strand Life Sciences by the same group of four professors, one would have expected at least a consistent seeding of ventures at the largest centre of scientific research in the country. What appears to be missing is an entrepreneurial urge. “Universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley had this urge much earlier,” argues Madhavan.
Experts say universities take time before the faculty is comfortable with the fact that industrial interactions are consistent with academic principles. Technology transfer success builds slowly and needs significant support, including finance, in its early years, says Lita Nelsen, director of the Technology Licensing Office (TLO) at MIT, who recently visited IISc and thinks “it is off to a good start”. The ultimate impact on the surrounding economy and on the students, who learn the ways of entrepreneurship even before graduating to the ‘real world’ can be very substantial,” she says. TLO helps MIT in seeding about 20 start-ups every year.
Signing up for a business venture is still a leap of faith for most on this campus. “The basic mindset is that this is a publicly funded institution, so all we have to engage in is academic pursuit,” says K.V.S. Hari, chief executive officer and founder of Esqube Communication Solutions Pvt. Ltd, and also a faculty member at the department of electrical communication engineering.
IISc is keen on changing this mindset and one of the ways it is trying is by dipping into the alumni resource pool, which, until the Alumni Cell was set up in February 2007, did not have a presence. The first pan-IISc convention in June 2007 at California attempted to assemble the scattered community, says S. Mohan, chairman of the Alumni Cell. He plans to have a large alumni presence at the centenary conference in Bangalore from 13 to 16 December. The institute is offering alumni opportunities to seed and mentor start-ups within IISc premises and claim stakes.
“It’s a challenge,” says Gopikrishna Mamidipudi, an active alumnus, who has founded two start-ups in the US, including an online learning company called HighPoints Learning. “I want a way of converting text to speech and need IISc researchers to work with me, but they see it only as a service, not research.” He thinks IISc needs to “understand entrepreneurship better”.
Also needed is flexibility in granting leave, when the faculty takes time off to seed firms. For instance, the first team of four academics who turned into entrepreneurs when they started Pico Peta had to resign from IISc when the latter couldn’t extend their five-year leave, though such extension is granted when researchers take up public sector assignments.
The original charter of the institute was to “work for the material benefit of the society,” argue some. “Since the ecosystem is not so well developed, it will take longer for the faculty to get the start-ups on their feet,” says Vijay Chandru, one of the four founders of Pico Peta and Strand.
Even as IISc tries to make the transition, MIT’s Nelsen’s has a piece of advice: “University echnology transfer should be recognized as ‘high impact’ endeavour for the economy, not be looked at as a ‘high income’ activity for the university itself.”