Nathu Ram (Nat) Puri ranks among the top 20 richest Asians in Britain thanks to his packaging plastics conglomerate, which was recently renamed Puri Co. The 67-year- old Puri, who went to the UK in 1966, also heads the Puri Foundation, which began offering scholarships in 2001 to Indian students wanting to study at Nottingham University. Puri says the best way he can contribute to India’s growth is by importing quality education in to the country. A year ago, he set up the Indian Institute of Advanced Research (IIAR), near here. On a recent visit, he talked to Mint about its progress. Edited excerpts:
Give us an update about the institute.
International education: A file picture of Nathu Ram (Nat) Puri. He says IIAR is striving to provide a platform for fundamental, applied and analytical research in the field of biotechnology and biosciences.
IIAR became operational at Raysan village between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar in April 2006. We have put together six departments and begun with 17 PhD students. We hope to start the first batch for post graduate students beginning next academic year.
IIAR is striving to provide a platform for fundamental, applied and analytical research in the field of biotechnology and biosciences. The concept is alien to Indian thinking.
There are more than 125 institutions teaching biotech and biosciences. Why do we need one more?
The initial idea was to set up a joint venture with one of the universities, but, we realized that if we want to be a part of the changing culture and improve research infrastructure, we have to go it alone. When people from our institution enter the industry globally, they must create a brand image not only for themselves but also for the country.
I travel and meet a lot of academicians from across India. They tell me that they have a large number of students studying biotechnology in their institutions. But, the basic question is about a trained faculty. We are struggling to get the right faculty for our institute to teach biotechnology of global nature.
The concept of biotechnology to many in India is that it is a combination of biology, chemistry and technology. They normally put a couple of subjects together and call it biotechnology. This is not biotechnology and biosciences.
Many of the companies are not into pure research. Some have licensed their products from outside the country and simply modified the product and are marketing it. Pure biotechnology requires huge funding and long-term commitment. Hardly anyone in India has shown this commitment. We want to be one of the first to do so.
What’s your concept of biotechnology? How are you different from others?
It has to do with research on cells, pharmaceutical sector, agriculture and much more. It is also about manipulation of biological genes and finding new ways to work with them for the benefit of mankind. There is a large number of specialized areas of work in such as biomolecular medicine, human health science, industrial biotechnology, cell biology, chemical biology, plant cell and molecular biology, to name a few.
We offer courses in subjects that may not sound great, but are the need of the nation. We have good scientists here, but must have a facility that can help them tap their full potential. This is what we are trying to do. We are not building an industrial centre but a centre of education and research.
We do not earn any income, nor do we hope to earn in the foreseeable future from IIAR as our sole aim is to improve research infrastructure and capability of our people. Today we fund our institute from our foundation money but we are trying to get grants for research in the future. We have just initiated discussions with a number of European companies for some commercial tie-ups for R&D in the field of biotech and biosciences at our institute, beginning next year.
Why would international companies come to India for research in biotechnology?
This is only a mental barrier. They are apprehensive about working with a government body but we are a private institution; so they are excited. Many people say things but do not deliver. We have done the other way around. We have started delivery and now we are talking about it.
You are yet to get university status to be able to award degrees.
We have moved just 5% of the way because this institution has just started. The important thing is that we will never be able to reach 100% as this is a research institute and it involves constant search. So, even 100 years would not be enough (to reach our destination). We are striving to be a private university and have approached state and Central governments for this. In the meantime, we have affiliation with Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda and Pune University.
Your foundation is also into setting up schools at primary level.
There are more than 500 such schools running in areas bordering Nepal. They are being run by a foundation that I support.
We hope to set up 1,000 more such schools in rural India, primarily in tribal areas. These are villages where not even a single teacher is willing to go. We encourage teachers to go and teach in these tribal areas. This helps us provide basic education to children in these villages.
We want the children in these areas to be familiar at least with reading and writing so they can move over to next level.
Are you talking of Eklavya schools? They are perceived to be run by Hindu organizations with some other motives.
Well, to me, it is about providing basic education. They are not religious schools. Even the prayers in these schools are the ones we used to recite as children in our school days. These are areas that have no access to even a single teacher. Somebody has to reach out to these children.