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Transforming India Into A Destination For The Best Scientific Talent

I spent the weekend attending the Young Investigator Meeting in Boston (YIM). Held at the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute and organized by a group of energetic and enthusiastic scientists, YIM Boston brought together scientists, policy makers and the heads of some of India’s top science and technology institutions. Among those in attendance were leaders from institutions like the newly-established Translational Health Science & Technology Institute, IISERs, Bangalore’s NCBS, Tata Memorial Centre-affiliated ACTREC and senior representatives from the Government’s Department of Biotechnology. There were attendees from all over the US and India, and even a few who had flown down from Europe just for the 3-day conference.

Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, former director-general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, set the tone by delivering a rousing and inspirational address about India’s rise as a scientific powerhouse. Young scientists interested in moving to India presented their research to some of the best researchers in the world, and got an opportunity to meet with potential future colleagues and peers to help them make decisions about making the move – and they were not just Indians.

Peter Zwart from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California said it was exasperating to be asked the question why he wanted to go to India, saying that it was becoming a destination to do cutting-edge work and there were compelling professional reasons to shift base. Yamuna Krishnan from NCBS, a young scientist who moved back to India 5 years ago, narrated her experience of setting up a research laboratory from scratch. She spoke with infectious enthusiasm and passion for doing top-notch science, and her talk found resonance with the audience. Dr TS Rao from the Department of Biotechnology took a number of questions on funding availability and described the government’s plan to fund scientific research.

The event ended with a session on commercializing science and moving inventions from the laboratory to the market. MIT’s Jeff Karp spoke about what it takes to build startups, outlining breakthrough science, a seminal published paper and a blocking patent as the key ingredients that can make for a successful venture. Shiladitya Sengupta of Harvard Medical School, who has co-founded three companies, talked about wealth creation via technology commercialization as a way to attract the best brains into scientific research and the importance of developing a cogent business plan before approaching venture capitalists.

There were several researchers who expressed an interest in starting companies, and this is very exciting news. The quality of talent considering moving to India is simply mind-blowing. For the first time in the history of our nation, we have the combination of well-funded research institutions, top-notch human capital and the availability of financial capital to back innovation-driven ventures. This makes for a very potent mix. The stars are aligning, and if our government continues on the path of higher-education reforms and economic liberalization, the sky is the limit for what Indian science and technology can achieve both in terms of fundamental research and technology commercialization.

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