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India Needs Infrastructure For World-Class Research

When Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was announced as one of the winners for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, the nation erupted in celebration. The president and prime minister formally acknowledged and congratulated Dr. Ramakrishnan’s achievement. The media went into a tizzy documenting the life and work of the typically shy and introverted professor who suddenly found himself at the center of attention in the land of his birth. Encomiums poured in from all quarters, and Dr. Ramakrishnan was so overwhelmed with the reception that he actually asked people from India to stop contacting him with congratulatory messages and good wishes, to which some in India took offence. Dr. Ramakrishnan emphasized how it wasn’t important that a person from India had helped understand ribosomes, which are the protein-producing factories in cells, and it was significant because it was a fundamentally important scientific discovery. It was easy to feel the excitement he felt in doing his work from the choice of his words, and his almost blas√© attitude towards winning the highest prize in his field made the honour seem incidental.

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was born in India in 1952, shortly after Independence. He graduated from the Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda in 1971 with a BSc in physics. He then obtained a PhD in physics from Ohio State University in 1971, and went on to study and conduct research in biology at the University of California, San Diego and Yale University. Dr. Ramakrishnan switched from physics to biology late in his academic career, and his work on understanding the structure of ribosomes after completing a PhD in physics won him the Nobel for chemistry. Today, he leads the group working on understanding biological structures at Cambridge University’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology, the same laboratory where Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.

It is instructive to ask the question why Dr. Ramakrishnan chose to the leave the country in 1971. If Dr. Ramakrishnan stayed in India after completing his studies at Baroda, he would not be able to conduct the cutting-edge research that he did in laboratories across the US and UK because India lacked the research infrastructure, even though a full generation had grown up since Independence was achieved in 1947. Moreover, it would have also been almost impossible for him to build a research career in biology after completing a PhD in physics. It is likely that Dr. Ramakrishnan would not have been able to do the work which ultimately won him the Nobel if he had remained in India. Science would have been poorer.

Nanotechnology is an enabling technology, and is based on the design and engineering of materials at length scales of below 100 nanometers to obtain unique and novel materials properties that would otherwise not be achievable. It’s common experience that a cube of sugar takes much longer to dissolve than the powdered form. Certain material properties are size-dependent, and it is this principle that is at the core of all nanotech innovations, which are rooted in breakthroughs in basic sciences and engineering.

Recently, clean technology has become an area which is seeing the widespread application of such novel materials, including nanomaterials. Venture capital investment in nanotechnology and materials-based technologies has increased at a rate of over 40% annually worldwide since 1997, according to New York-based research firm Lux Research. India received just 2% of global venture capital investment in 2008, compared to 10% for China and 4% for Israel, a nation whose economy and population is many times smaller. As Asian countries such as China and India industrialize, productivity gains and process efficiencies derived from advances in nanotechnology and advanced materials will be critical to ensure that the consumption of naturally-occurring minerals and commodities is optimized and waste is minimal.

According to numbers published by the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology, investment in research and development has languished between 0.85% and 0.90% of GDP since 2000. Moreover, since 1998, private sector investment in R&D has grown substantially to contribute over 25%, while government investment has declined. This means that while tax receipts have increased in the period alongside the boom in the economy, the government’s research funding has declined in relative terms and the gap has been bridged by the private sector. The bulk of R&D investment has traditionally come from the government, and this imbalance is being corrected, but nevertheless there is a case for increasing government investment.

The substantial growth of the economy has not seen a commensurate increase in the establishment of more science and engineering universities and government R&D investment. Instead, we have seen a rationing of existing supply, with increased reservation of seats at the IITs and other centrally-funded universities, policies which can compromise merit and quality. We should be focusing on increasing capacity to such an extent that everyone has opportunity and nobody is left behind.

Nanotechnology also presents some unique risk management challenges for health, safety and the environment. These real and perceived risks must be duly evaluated within a well-defined regulatory framework, else nanotech might go the way of genetically-modified foods. International cooperation has been strong in this area, and India should work with the international community to formulate appropriate standards.

It is not just the dearth of financial capital which makes building nanotech and advanced materials businesses very difficult for entrepreneurs. Another severe constraint has been that of human capital – high-quality scientists and engineers, like Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, have frequently chosen to live and work abroad, given the lack of access to leading-edge equipment and low budgetary allocation for research in science and engineering. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), two of the nation’s leading research institutions, were established by private trusts controlled by the Tata Group. Much before the IITs, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani opened its doors in 1929 in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, offering courses in engineering from 1946. Indian science owes a lot to the vision of industrialists J.N. Tata, G.D. Birla and J.R.D Tata, who played key roles in the establishment of IISc, BITS and TIFR.

If India’s best brains choose to work abroad, that’s where they also create new knowledge and technology. A self-perpetuating cycle begins, with talent gravitating towards places offering cutting-edge equipment and infrastructure, sufficient research funding and a high-quality pool of human resources. For most of the 20th century, the United States was that nation, and the US continues to be the world-leader in technology development and commercialization.

The United States had a similar experience precipitated by the Second World War. Before and during the War, many leading European scientists fled the continent and made America their new home. Among them were titans like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. Moreover, scientists from India and China also went west, with socialism in India and Maoism and the Cultural Revolution in China stifling the freedom and creativity of scientists like Dr. Ramakrishnan. The US became the destination of choice for the world’s top scientific talent.

Today, Indian scientists, who are doing some of the most important scientific research work in corporate and academic laboratories abroad, are thinking of returning to their home country. India must capitalize on the converging trends of recent economic turmoil in the developed nations, the rise of a consumer class in Asia and the movement of the center of gravity for economic growth towards the Asian countries. Unforeseeable events and good fortune have presented us with a golden opportunity, and it must not be frittered away.

China began changing its approach towards higher education in 1977, when Deng Xiaoping reinstated the Gao Kao university entrance examination system suspended by Chairman Mao. In the last three decades, China has become a hotbed of science and engineering research. According to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization, China was granted nearly 68,000 patents in 2007, while India did not even cross 8000 patents. China implemented over three decades ago the kind of reform India is attempting now under Education Minister Kapil Sibal, and the results are there for all to see.

India is not just a technology deployment market. We have a rich history and culture of scientific inquiry and achievement and there is no reason for it to be any different in the future, but India needs to proceed on a war footing if it is to realize its potential to lead the world in technology development and commercialization. Unlike any other country, we have the scientific and entrepreneurial talent, and what is required is consistency and commitment in government policy. World-class research conducted by universities, higher-education institutions and national laboratories is a key ingredient to catalyze businesses built around nanotechnology. Policy for nanotechnology cannot be constructed in a vacuum and should be designed keeping in mind the accompanying environment where the research, which is the bedrock of this emerging technology, is conducted.

This means ensuring that there are plenty of universities, and cultivating a culture of academic freedom and flexibility, the kind that Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan enjoyed when moving from physics to biology. Errors made earlier which drove talent like Dr. Ramakrishnan’s away from the country must not be repeated. The existing environment has to be changed and it should be done not by piecemeal reform but wholesale liberalization. The government should be setting minimum standards for higher education institutions and playing the role of an incorruptible referee only. Once that happens, we will see a more thriving ecosystem of nanotechnology and advanced materials research, commercialization and entrepreneurship which will increase productivity, generate wealth and create employment.


Nanotechnology is the design and engineering of materials at a length scale of below 100 nanometers to acquire materials properties which would otherwise not be achievable. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology and can be best understood as value chain of nanomaterials, which are used to make nano-intermediates such as fabrics, coatings, memory chips and mechanical components.  These nano-intermediates in turn go into creating unique nano-enabled products as diverse as stain-resistant apparel, machine tools with extraordinary strength, aerospace components that are lighter and more durable and electrodes which multiply the power and efficiency of batteries used in electric vehicles.

Going by that working definition and standard, India does not have any noteworthy nanotech ventures. There are a few companies who claim to be manufacturing nanomaterials and nanotech-enabled products, but because of the hype associated with the sector, companies say they are in nanotech without really understanding the technology. Having said that, India does have a number of promising start-ups in the broader advanced materials space. I have personally seen some very talented teams and high-potential ventures at IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur in particular. Worldwide, the market size of nano-intermediates which allow for the development of unique nano-enabled products should grow from $29 billion in 2009 to $498 billion in 2015, a compounded growth rate of 61%, according to consulting firm Lux Research. In the nanotechnology value chain, nanomaterials manufacturing has been highly commoditized and has seen the entry of global chemical manufacturers. Building a nanomaterials business has proven to be difficult and start-ups in the US have learned the hard way. Increasingly, nano-intermediates seems to the space where new companies can create a niche by applying commodity nanomaterials manufactured by bigger players in innovative ways.

The big success story to come from the nano-intermediates space is US-based A123 Systems, a manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles. Founded in 2001, A123 took an innovation in battery electrodes developed in the labs of MIT’s Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang and applied it for lithium-ion battery packs powering electric vehicles, offering better safety and performance characteristics at a competitive price. A123 Systems received venture investment of about $300 million from firms like Sequoia Capital, North Bridge Venture Partners, Procter & Gamble, CMEA Capital and General Electric. The company went public last year, and jumped 40% on listing on the NASDAQ. Even now, A123 boasts a market capitalization of over $2 billion.

As Indian industry matures and becomes more competitive, Indian corporates too will look at adopting and assimilating leading-edge technologies in their products. It is also crucial to encourage market competition as a part of economic policy, because only then will larger corporates be driven to take risks and embrace innovation. It is no coincidence that sectors such as software, Internet and telecommunications, which see the the big chunk of venture investment and are among the more dynamic, innovative and high-growth sectors in India’s economy, are also the ones relatively less constrained by bureaucracy and red-tape.

India’s ecosystem for nanotech and advanced materials companies is still evolving, and is relatively under-developed compared to other sectors such as Internet and mobile value-added services, but given the latent talent in the area and the investor appetite for themes and sectors separate from Internet and telecommunications, nanotech and advanced materials should see more entrepreneurial activity and venture capital investment in the coming years, assuming prudent policy-making in higher-education and the liberalization of the economy go hand in hand.

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