It is always a challenge to step into an unknown space, particularly when this dark, unexplored realm is measured in microns. Prof. Rudra Pratap, chairman of the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, knows this.
It was in 1999 when Prof. Pratap, who was at the time working on MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems), realized that there were not too many options when it came to fabricating the various sensor designs required in the nascent field of nanotechnology. This field has vast applications in healthcare (like the intracranial brain pressure sensor which has been developed recently), drug delivery, communications and the military.
All designs had to be sent to foundries in the US for prototypes to be made, which was a waste of time and money. Prof. Pratap, along with his colleagues on MEMS—Prof. Navakant Bhat and Prof. S. Mohan—came up with a plan for a nanotechnology research centre and fabrication unit in India. They believed such a unit would help not only fabricate their designs easily and fast, but also at a much lesser cost. The trio approached R. Chidambaram, the principal scientific adviser to the Union government and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. While Chidambaram was convinced of their vision and capability, they had to convince several other committees that were subsequently set up to examine the proposal.
In 2003, along with professors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Prof. Pratap and his group submitted a proposal again, and in 2005, they were granted a fund of Rs.50 crore by the ministry of communications and information technology to set up CeNSE.
By this time the group had grown to 40 scientists from various fields of research, like instrumentation, mechanical, automation, among others. To realize their dream of a research centre, the group needed a substantial investment for space and developing the centre, for which the IISc set aside Rs.25 crore. After the Department of Science and Technology and Defence Research and Development Organisation (through the National Programme for Micro and Smart System) also chipped in, it took over a year to just plan it, and another 18 months of consultations and 50 meetings with FELCON, a UK-based consulting firm, to come up with a proposal to converge users’ requirements and draw up a conceptual plan of the facility. It took five years and around Rs.130 crore to set up the facility, which was finally completed in 2010.
Prof. Rudra with his “crack team”, including Prof. Bhat, Prof. Anil Kumar, Prof. Srinivasan Raghavan and Prof. S.A. Shivashankar, dedicated six years to creating this facility which is capable of conducting research on nano-material development process technology. The facility includes state-of-the-art fabrication and characterization facilities. “The greatest hurdles were getting funding, expertise and convincing people that this was important. Now, we are attracting bright minds from across India to do projects here as our facility is as good as any in the world,” says Prof. Pratap.
While research, especially in a nascent field like nanotechnology, is still not that popular, things are changing. CeNSE has already trained over 550 researchers from across the country and has currently over 100 PhD students and also researchers who can join through the Indian Nanoelectronics Users Program (a joint hands-on-training programme run by CeNSE and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, for accelerating research and development in nanoelectronics) to do projects here. “We are looking at not only creating an environment for research but also for incubating start-ups and encouraging students to develop lab prototypes which can be adopted by the industry,” says Prof. Rudra. “This will dispel the belief that research doesn’t pay,” he adds.
Their first industry meet in March allowed the students to interact with people from the industry and showcase their lab prototypes. The meet was a success, and CeNSE had companies like Analog Devices, Tokyo Electron, IBM and Centum Electronics as partners (who interacted with the researchers and students and looked at ways to absorb the lab prototypes commercially). Earlier in 2010, CeNSE signed an MoU with IIM, Bangalore to ensure academic alliance between the two and that both work together on technology- and innovation-related management activities. With companies partnering with the facility, the research on prototypes doesn’t go unnoticed, and the commercially viable ones are picked up. After 15 patents and 42 papers published in little over a year, industry tie-ups and a dedicated faculty, CeNSE can offer young researchers not only the space to explore their ideas but also make their research pay.