IITs look to nurture start-ups, host companies’ R&D centres

Around 40 start-ups work out of the IIT Madras research park. In the next six months, that number is slated to go up to 200.

Around 40 start-ups work out of the IIT Madras research park. In the next six months, that number is slated to go up to 200.

Tanuj Jhunjhunwala, 24, quit his job in a multinational car maker to return to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, to start an underwater robotics company. A year on he is gung-ho about his decision.

“IIT Madras gave me space, helped in business strategy and provided mentoring. The brand IIT, and its alumni network helped me in networking and getting possible clients,” said Jhunjhunwala, co-founder of Planystech.com. “Now, I have a couple of clients for whom we are doing underwater robotic inspections—and the credit goes to my IIT.”

Planystech is one of around 40 start-ups working out of the IIT Madras research park. In the next six months, their numbers are slated to go up to 200. Along with the start-ups, IIT Madras will also host some 75 research and development centres of established companies—three times their current number.

IITs across India are focusing on nurturing start-ups and housing the R&D centres of established firms in order to forge closer industry-academic collaborations and promote the government’s Make in India manufacturing campaign.

“There are two key purpose of this—better industry-academia relations in teaching and learning, and help start-ups and innovation,” said Krishnan Balasubramanian, dean of industrial consultancy and sponsored research at IIT Madras.

Balasubramanian said the second phase of the research park is almost over and that he is hopeful of building a better innovation ecosystem at IIT Madras. “Companies can do joint research, give consultancy work, make use of the labs if required and mentor young companies wherever there is a possibility,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about IIT Madras during the Start-up India event last month and promised to help set up seven such facilities across the country.

According to IIT Madras, several IITs and National Institutes of Technology (NITs) are in touch with them to develop similar facilities in their campuses.

Like IIT Madras, IIT Delhi too is setting up facilities worth over Rs.450 crore and authorities at the IIT said that other than housing dozens of R&D centres, it aims to house nearly 100 start-ups. “The HRD (human resource development) ministry is giving us some money and we are raising some more funds from companies and through sponsored research works,” said Suneet Tuli, dean of R&D at IIT Delhi.

Both IIT alumni and outsiders with a good business proposal can operate and obtain these facilities. “It just needs to be a good executable idea. For companies, we like those having a definite plan,” said Tuli.

The institutes say these are not simple incubation centres that are already in operation but much bigger facilities that will operate as not-for-profit registered firms. “Educational institutions’ research often don’t translate to commercial products. The effort now is to change that—if companies can coexist with an IIT, you will see more tangible products. We are very strong in sectors like aviation, telecom, semiconductors, etc., and after we put in place a facility like IIT Madras, we can hope to see more prototypes and products outside the lab,” said Kameshwari Mangalampalli, chief operating officer of IIT Bombay’s research park.

“By the next financial year (April 2016 to March 2017), we are hoping to start a centre that can house several companies. At least four have already signed expression of interest agreements with us. It will help in research, consultancy as well jobs for our student,” Mangalampalli said, adding that a permanent research park will be ready by 2018, which will house over 30 R&D centres in a 250,000 sq. ft area that will be scaled up to 1 million sq. ft over a period of time. “The aim is not to develop a rental model but innovation model that has multiple benefits,” she added.

Likewise, IIT Kharagpur and IIT Kanpur have also started the process of setting up similar facilities, and IIT Madras says NIT Tiruchirappalli too is interested in setting up one.

So are IITs only eyeing private companies for such collaborations? Not exactly, said Siddhartha Panda, associate dean (industrial collaboration) at IIT Kanpur. “We have a tie-up with BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electronics Ltd), ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd), Indian Railways, etc., among others,” said Panda.

Firms are certainly not complaining. “The Applied Materials-IIT Bombay partnership combines Applied’s leadership in materials engineering with IIT Bombay’s research expertise to create one of the most comprehensive industry-academia collaborations in the world. It serves as a great benchmark of how a global innovation-focused company and a leading research university can work together to provide foundational skills for a developing industry. We are proud to be at the forefront of creating a strong ecosystem in India to support the growth of domestic semiconductor manufacturing,” Om Nalamasu, senior vice-president and chief technology officer of Applied Materials Inc., said in a post on the IIT Bombay website. It has come as an anchor client for IIT Bombay’s research park initiative.

Similarly Titan, which makes watches, jewellery and lifestyle products, has opened an innovation hub at IIT Madras that it says “will have the opportunity to tap into the research wealth of one of the leading technology institutions in the country. The IITM Research Park will enable Titan to leverage the specialized expertise of the faculty and students and to utilize their facilities, labs, etc.”.

Jhunjhunwala of Planystech said the co-habitation has a multiplier effect. “While start-ups get to see bigger firms, students do go there for internships, part-time jobs and a bigger exposure. You also get to see internal industry stalwarts giving lectures, sharing success stories and sharing their thoughts on new ones. It’s a win-win for start-ups, IITs and companies.”