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Sitting at his workstation on a Friday evening, A. Thillai Rajan was scheduling his weekend. It was packed—a video conference with his chief executive officer, the head of business development and the chief technology officer. Also, a separate conference call with a group of investors.

Rajan is an entrepreneur. Nonetheless, he is not the typical startup entrepreneur—often characterized as a ‘young’, market-driven individual with a singular focus on product or service. Rajan’s loyalties are sort of divided. He is also a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, where he teaches financial management. His research work is focused on venture capital, startups, infrastructure finance, and public private partnerships. In short, Rajan is a ‘professor entrepreneur’.

His startup, YNOS Venture, is a business intelligence platform, a search engine that throws up information on about 76,000 startups, 5,100 angel investors and 1,080 incubators among several sliced and nuanced information nuggets.

“I could have written few more research papers on the startup ecosystem as an academician," Rajan, calm and articulate, said. But then, creating a product was more satisfying for him. “It will aid the young startup founders in finding a match with investors and mentors while giving them a better understanding of the funding ecosystem, which is a tough task," he added.

He has raised two rounds of investments and runs a team of 11 professionals.

Like Rajan, his colleague Krishnan Balasubramanian is the co-founder of at least nine start-ups including an underwater robots company that can help in ocean exploration.

Rajan and Krishnan are no longer isolated case studies in the Indian academic world. They are part of a growing trend of professors turning entrepreneurs. The incubation cells of India’s top tech institutes, where young minds once hurdled to write codes in small cabins, have evolved to accommodate teachers with experience and ideas. Professors at the IITs and other top institutions have started ventures ranging from deep tech and robotics to companies that map brain neurons and dabble in biomedicine.

“Some of India’s top institutions like the IITs have reached a stage where they must promote creation of a larger entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country. Faculties are best placed to do so because they understand the market need, and also know that their research and development (R&D) work can be converted to companies," Narayanan Ramaswamy, national leader (education practice) at consulting firm KPMG India, said. “The best part is that there is almost no entry barrier. They have the labs and a young pool of talented professionals to rope in as co-workers, co-founders and growth drivers," he added.

The trend of professors turning entrepreneurs might be relatively recent in India but is an established practice in the US, where academics and businesses often feed off each other.

“The entrepreneurship ecosystem in the US is primarily a university and institution-led ecosystem where industries, professors, scholars, researchers and students work to create a huge success story," Ramaswamy said. “It aids their economy, solves problem, betters the institutions’ global standing while positively influencing the creation of an entrepreneurial pipeline."

What are they building?

Similar to the diversity of India’s startup ecosystem, the professors are working on a wide range of products and solutions with technology as the clear driver.

One such startup at IIT Roorkee maps the seismic impact on Uttarakhand and seeks to put in place an early warning system for earthquakes in the Himalayan state. IIT Guwahati professor Mihir Purkait, who co-founded the startup—RD Grow Green India Pvt. Ltd—is working on membrane technology. He is building water treatment plants to provide arsenic-free water, besides aiding firms such as NTPC Ltd and ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd) to deal with effluent-related problems at their operation sites.

At the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Bhopal, professor Vishal Rai’s biomedical startup Plabeltech is working to help medical research and targeted drug delivery.

Electronic vehicles (EVs) are the flavour of the season and academicians don’t want to be left behind. Nishanth Dongari, an associate professor at IIT Hyderabad, has co-founded ‘Pure EV’ an electric two-wheeler firm that also produces lithium batteries. Another startup, The ePlane Company, co-founded by a professor-student duo of Satya Chakravarthy (a professor of aerospace engineering) and Pranjal Mehta (a graduate from IIT Madras in 2019) is working on electric flying taxis to cut down urban commute time by 10 times. These taxis will have seats for two, a payload capacity of 200kg, and operate in a hybrid configuration involving both fixed wings and rotors. The entire vehicle would be powered by a battery pack and fly at an altitude of 1,500 feet from the ground level at a maximum speed of 150-200km an hour.

Of course, there is the familiar sprinkling of deep-tech startups. A company co-founded by IIT Delhi professor Manan Suri is using technology to map brain neurons for building energy-efficient artificial intelligence (AI) system. The team led by Suri has invented a new spiking neuron model named DEXAT or double exponential adaptive threshold neuron. According to IIT Delhi’s official website, the invention will help build “accurate, fast and energy-efficient neuromorphic artificial intelligence (AI) systems for real world applications like speech recognition".

Support agents

As professors turn entrepreneurs, institutions such as the IITs at Mumbai, Delhi, Madras, Roorkee, Kanpur and Guwahati have stepped up support. They are offering seed funds, helping them bag projects from the government as well as the private sector. The institutes are also connecting them with private equity funds.

Some of them, like IIT Delhi, have a vision to convert 10 to 15% of their faculties into entrepreneurs. This could potentially boost research and industry collaborations, besides making a significant contribution towards development of marketable products instead of lab prototypes. At IIT Madras, the number of faculty-led and faculty-mentored startups today number around 70.

“Research and development, patent, commercialization and startups are all part of the ecosystem at our IIT. If we can solve a problem for (the) society, create a product and service, it will have a larger impact. And our faculty scientists are increasingly doing that," said Anil Wali, managing director of the Foundation of Innovation and Technology Transfer, the entrepreneurship wing of IIT Delhi.

“Deep technology is a big area. Biotechnology, clean tech are all shaping up. Faculty scientists having years of expertise and experience, have the advantage of converting them to ventures," Wali added.

Krishnan Balasubramanian of IIT Madras concurred. “Most of my startups have originated from research work," he said, emphasizing that an ecosystem is brewing at the IITs. Many professors with exposure to the US entrepreneurial ecosystem, directly or indirectly, are at the forefront of this change.

“I came back to India (from the US) in February 2000. The US went through a similar metamorphosis—in early to mid-1980s," Balasubramanian said. Back then, entrepreneurship in an academic environment was not something that was liked or appreciated much, even in the US. It changed by the early 1990s and around 2000, many of the top universities used entrepreneurship as a metric for measuring success, he explained.

The ‘Small Business Innovation Research Program’ of the US aided this shift and “became a big phenomenon in the world of academia and small business environment" said Balasubramanian while adding that Qualcomm was a good example of this trend.

Rajat Agarwal, a professor at IIT Roorkee, who also heads the incubation and entrepreneurship initiative of the institute, said that the entrepreneurship ecosystem has gained momentum over the past few years. “There is a growing acceptance among institutions like the IITs, in the industry and among people that faculties can establish firms and solve problems along with their academic responsibilities. Nearly 18 to 20 of our faculties have established 11 startups individually and collectively, and this is not (the) same as the student-run startups. Things are changing for the better and governments across states as well as the Centre are now more supportive," he said.

Several ministries and even public sector undertakings (PSUs) are now supporting academic R&D and deep research work at institutional startups. But an initial thrust came as early as 2009, when India’s startup culture was still relatively young—Flipkart started in October 2007. The department of science and technology, in 2009, for the first time promoted the idea of supporting innovation by faculties and academicians at top scientific institutions, which took off over a period of time.

Now, the Union ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) has a Technology Incubation and Development of Entrepreneurs (TIDE 2.0) scheme for strengthening startups that use emerging technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), AI, blockchain and robotics. This scheme, implemented through 51 incubators, aims to “handhold close to 2,000 tech start-ups over a period of five years".

Similarly, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) initiative of the Union department of biotechnology works as an industry-academia interface to “empower the emerging biotech enterprises to undertake strategic research and innovation, addressing nationally relevant product development needs".

IITs that already have a sizeable number of professor entrepreneurs are now inspiring other institutes.

“Four to six professors at IIT Gandhinagar are exploring opportunities to set up ventures. Gradually the entrepreneurship pipeline is getting strengthened," said Anand Pandey, assistant manager (commercialization) at IIT Gandhinagar Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre. Similarly, Prashant Bhalla, president of Manav Rachna International University in Haryana, has also observed a growing trend in campus entrepreneurship.

The challenges

The growth of the ecosystem is no doubt encouraging. However, there are multiple challenges these professor entrepreneurs will have to face.

One, such entrepreneurs still have to be a professor first—while working with a startup or starting a company, they cannot forgo teaching, research and other student-related responsibilities. This implies they are a divided lot and have to juggle between academic work and entrepreneurship. Second, entrepreneurship efforts do not, in general, work as a catalyst in their academic promotion. Not as yet.

An innovation guideline issued by the Union education ministry in 2019 actually does not encourage faculty members to take up entrepreneurship full time. “Institutes should work on developing a policy on ‘conflict of interests’ to ensure that the regular duties of the faculty don’t suffer owing to his/her involvement in startup activities. Faculty must clearly separate and distinguish on-going research at the institute from the work conducted at the startup/company," the faculty startup norms of the education ministry state.

Many argue that the dual workload is counterproductive when it comes to accelerating growth. “The problem begins after 4-5 years, when the venture reaches a stage of growth and has certain products in the shelf. That’s when you need funds, more time and more manpower to fuel its next phase," said Purkait of IIT Guwahati.

Besides, small firms started by professors are not eligible to participate in government tenders due to their size of revenue, age and other factors. “You can hit a roadblock. If one cannot manufacture products in large numbers, the market price cannot come down and the competitiveness gets impacted. This is where you need support from authorities," he said.

A senior administrator at an IIT felt that startup ventures should be considered as a criterion for promotion and those who are working in developing products and solutions should be given some respite from their regular teaching and administration responsibilities. “The aim shouldn’t be to create dwarfs, but large, mass impact firms. Here, faculties should get a certain degree of freedom," the official said. Overcoming these hurdles can help Indian educational institutes produce more technocrat-entrepreneurs, and by extension, benefit the economy.

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