Top govt engineering colleges | IIT-B cheers research, start-ups

Top govt engineering colleges | IIT-B cheers research, start-ups

Mumbai: In August 2007, two engineering students of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, or IIT-B, walked up to their professor and dropped what most would consider a bombshell. “We want to build a satellite," they said.

While an average professor might have been taken aback, at IIT-B, the proposal by Saptarshi Bandopadhyay and Shashank Tamaskar, third-year students of the aerospace department, aged 21 and 22, respectively, at the time, was dealt with like any other project request.

Months of work, research and consultations later, the now 50-member team of students is well on its way to building the institute’s first student satellite, Pratham, and signing a preliminary agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation to provide them with funds to the tune of Rs1.5 crore.

“All kinds of exploration, academic or extra-curricular, is encouraged," says Rohit Manchanda, faculty member and author of Monastery, Sanctuary, Laboratory: 50 years of IIT Bombay . He adds that the liberal attitude and encouragement offered to students is one area where “IIT Bombay might steal a march over the others".

Known for its illustrious faculty and alumni, lavish cultural festivals and a smattering of Silicon Valley-funded start-ups, IIT-B has long been considered the most glamorous of the IITs. For many years now, it has attracted some of the best students, faculty and recruiters. At least 50% of the students in the top 100 list in the high-stakes Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) usually pick IIT-B, adding to its stature as a Mecca for aspiring engineers.

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IIT-B didn’t start off with this advantage, explains Manchanda. At its inception in 1958, it was set up with financial aid from the then Soviet Union through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco.

Creative licence: Students on the IIT Bombay campus. The school encourages entrepreneurship through organizations such as the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or SINE. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

Mumbai, which by then had developed into a financially vibrant city, offered IIT-B the opportunity to evolve. “The aura and ethos of the city, of the time, also spilled into the institute, making it one of the most democratic and least hierarchical institutes of the lot," says Manchanda. Compared with the other IITs, IIT-B is considered less rigid and hierarchical, and has the widest mix of faculty from all over the country.

“Our greatest strength is our faculty," says Devang Khakhar, who took over as IIT-B director early this year. “It’s an egalitarian place, so you could join as an assistant professor, but each is as independent as the next."

If anything needs to be done on campus, committees are formed and the opinion and experience of several people is relied upon to reach a consensus. The committees could look into everything from a change in the curriculum to ensuring that certain campus residents, such as stray cattle, do not venture into class. Unfortunately, the “cattle committee" hasn’t been able to sort that one out yet.

While the infrastructure and academic excellence at all the IITs, endowed with the status of “institutes of national importance" through an Act of Parliament, is fairly uniform, there are some things that set the 51-year-old institute apart: its liberal, egalitarian way of functioning; research facilities; mammoth cultural and technical events; geographical location—it is located in the country’s financial capital, nestled between two lakes, and with a national park in its backyard—and, among other things, a willingness to embrace change that could benefit students and industry.

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“It’s more forward-looking and liberal than most other institutes," says Khakhar. For instance, the institute changed the curriculum for the undergraduate programme in 2007. Under the new system, students can choose to do a minor in a subject of their choice or take an honours course in their own subject, in addition to their main degree.

So instead of cramming 25-30 courses under one discipline, they now have the option to study 20 compulsory courses and take up to eight courses from another discipline. A minor is awarded on the completion of five courses under this option. Should a student wish to take up specialized courses in his own department, he will be awarded honours along with the main degree. So, a student of mechanical engineering could graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in math, or an honours in mechanical engineering.

All-rounders: Saurav Agarwal (left) and Jaideep Bansal. Agarwal, 20, is the guitarist and back-up vocalist for 7 Spokes, a rock band. Bansal. 21, is the band’s drummer. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

No surprise then that at the recently concluded post-JEE counselling session, a large number of new students made enquiries about the curriculum, says A.K. Pani, chairman, JEE-2009, IIT-B.

But some queries raised at the session are of concern: Which department is best for cracking CAT (the Common Admission Test for the Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs)? Which is the best course for higher education and, more importantly, a good pay packet? Both questions indicate that IIT-B is seen as a means to an end: a seat in the IIMs or a good salary.

IIT-B’s location in Mumbai makes it the first port of call for recruiters, considering many of the industries that hire engineers, such as telecom, finance, consulting, automobiles and process manufacturing, are based here. The location and easy accessibility make it a popular choice for guest lecturers as well, especially those who may be passing through India, and for faculty.

“Beyond the natural locational advantage of being in the industrial and commercial capital, another aspect that sets IIT-B apart is the fact that it has strong industry linkages," says Rangan Banerjee, a professor in the department of energy science and engineering. For instance, Banerjee and his colleague K.J. Nayak are setting up a solar thermal power station that is funded by a consortium of industry players, including Tata Power Co. Ltd.

IIT-B also has adjunct faculty from industry, making up approximately 10% of the institute’s 470-strong faculty. “This is extremely helpful as students get to know of current industry practices," says Khakhar.

This year, the institute will launch a customized postgraduate programme in technology for employees of auto parts maker Bharat Forge Ltd. Designed by IIT-B faculty in consultation with scientists and engineers from the company, the two-year course will meet the need for engineering talent within the company and encourage efficiency in processes, innovation and product development.

IIT-B’s superior research and development facilities also tend to be a big draw for faculty as well as students—at least 80% of the faculty is involved in research. It is one of the few institutes in the world to house state-of-the-art research facilities related to nano-electronics, electronic devices that are so small they function at a molecular level. The institute received in excess of Rs107 crore between April 2007 and December 2008 for sponsored research.

Of all the creatures that trawl the IIT campus in Mumbai— leopards and crocodiles from the nearby national park and cattle included—one expects most often to find the archetypal nerd, the kind who spends every waking moment poring over books and research papers.

Jaideep Bansal, 21, and Saurav Agarwal, 20, hardly fit the description, though: They don’t cut class, but notes are usually photocopied from the anointed note-taker in class. They’re fairly happy to maintain above-average scores, while pursuing other interests. “You can’t be one-dimensional all your life," says Agarwal, guitarist and back-up vocalist for 7 Spokes, a rock band that was formed on campus. “When companies come to campus, they also want bright, well-rounded personalities who can also go on to represent them, not just geeks and nerds," he adds.

Bansal, the drummer of the band, who has lived “all over India" thanks to his father’s postings in the army, picked IIT-B because he had “never been here". Now, as part of a band that is looking to go professional, and marketing head for IIT Bombay Racing—a student group that has built its own racing car and an all-terrain vehicle—Bansal is happy juggling various interests. “IIT Bombay throws opportunities at you, it’s up to you to grab them."

The cultural scene on campus also tends to encourage students to do more than just study. Mood Indigo, one of the biggest cultural student festivals in India, manages sponsorships worth Rs1 crore now. Beyond this, the institute has at least 70 other cultural programmes through the year, including an inter-hostel festival called the Performing Arts Festival (PAF), where students are responsible for everything from live acts and production to building sets and design.

Last year, a PAF production featuring a replica of the Golden Temple in Amritsar required the actor to jump off the structure into a pond, all of which was created by the students. According to popular campus folklore, Nandan Nilekani, IIT-B alumnus and chief executive and managing director of software services firm Infosys Technologies Ltd, has often attributed his leadership and management skills to his experience in organizing Mood Indigo.

There is lobbying for a reduction in cultural activities, out of concern that students today do not have the academic drive of their predecessors, who were passionate about extra-curricular activities but also managed to maintain a firm focus on academics.

“There is some concern…so some of the events will have to be put on the chopping block this year," says Rahul Gaur, general secretary for cultural affairs.

Another thing IIT-B has come to be known for is its entrepreneurial set-up. Over the last few years, SINE—the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship— has earned a name for itself as one of the top incubators in the country. It has now taken on the task of helping other institutes set up their own incubators. Unlike its counterparts at IIT Madras or the IIMs in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, SINE is not open to outsiders but is aimed at IIT-B graduates, alumni and faculty.

The institute wants to help commercialize research and turn projects into businesses. SINE is run as a not-for-profit organization chaired by the director of IIT-B, and its board comprises an equal number of faculty and industry members, including venture capital fund Seedfund managing partner Pravin Gandhi and Mastek Ltd chairman Ashank Desai.

The 32 companies incubated were started by faculty, former students or a combination of both. A majority of the faculty members hold doctorate degrees and specialize in one aspect of their discipline. Here, they can further their research and even turn it into a business.

Take the case of start-up Sedemac Mechatronics Pvt. Ltd, which developed an electronic control unit for fuel injection in smaller engines, to be used in two- or three-wheeler vehicles. The new product promises to reduce fuel consumption by 10-15% and cut emissions by up to 70%. The company recently received seed funding of $500,000 (around Rs2.4 crore) from Nexus India Capital, a Mumbai-based venture capital fund.

“The Indian market is not ready to absorb semi-proven work, neither are business houses. So, it made sense to go through SINE and see the project to its logical end by creating a viable company with paying customers," says Shashikant Suryanarayanan, founder and director, Sedemac Mechatronics, who founded the team with three students.

While the institute is well on its way to improving research and development facilities, some of the key challenges it faces are the same that technical institutes across the country face. “The challenge for us is to attract outstanding faculty," says Khakhar.

The ratio of faculty to students is 1:13 at IIT-B, compared with the 1:10 mandated ratio. Among the other key challenges facing the institute is building additional infrastructure to cope with the 54% increase in student capacity owing to caste-based reservation policies.