Universities supporting entrepreneurship
Nimesh Chandra, 27 Mar 2014


Lovely Professional University’s innovative vehicles at the Auto Expo 2014. The government has recognized 102 academic institutions as business incubators until 2013-14

THE recent Auto Expo 2014 in Greater Noida had an interesting facet, that of universities and academic institutes showcasing their innovative projects, products and services, ready to be capitalized. While Lovely Professional University conceptualized a range of vehicles unique to the pressing consumer needs largely addressing issues of energy and teeming population; the MAEERS’ MIT Institute of Design drew attention to automotive design concepts. Brainprogrammers, an initiative by alumnus of IISc Bangalore, IIT Bombay, BIET Jhansi et al also exhibited their interactive digital showrooms.

 

Creating novelties

Novel inventions such as these by budding entrepreneurs are increasingly seen it at IIT Delhi (India’s first biogas-fuelled passenger car, novel electrodes that remove impurities in welding rods) or Ekta Incubation Centre at West Bengal University of Technology, Kolkata (quick and affordable mode for DNA extraction) to quote a few examples. Academia has also been forthcoming in several innovation contests that foster the spirit for creating novelties. For instance the annual event by National Innovation Council is thematic, based on highlighting such innovations that reduce worker drudgery.

While there are institutional and organizational mechanisms that promote innovation culture in India’s academic set-up, these are very few. Further, given the fact that there are close to 750 degree awarding institutions in the country, only a select few would have any significant breakthrough to talk about. 

Entrepreneurial universities

Globally speaking, the universities that have given painstaking years in creating a name for themselves, have invested in faculty members, respected teaching as a profession and have cherished knowledge creation, are now also increasingly getting good results, capitalizing on their output. The universities that opt to go beyond teaching realize that making use of their intellectual assets would not only be beneficial to the society but would be a source of generating surpluses, which could be reinvested in research. This realization, however, is not true for all and many in academia take this route to spawn profits.

The entrepreneurial universities typically have structures that help in commercialization. An industry liaison agency, a technology transfer office (TTO), a patent management cell and incubation unit add to its set-up. They also network with technology parks, innovation centres and clusters.

Select Incubation Centres in academic institutes

Name

Estd.

Current Incubatee

Graduated

STEP-TIETS, IIT Kharagpur

1986

50

21

FITT, IIT Delhi

1992

13

16

SIDBI - IIC, IIT Kanpur

2000

23

25

SINE, IIT Bombay

2004

15

25

RTBI-IIT Madras (Research Park), Chennai

2006

26

34

Amity Business Incubator, Noida

2008

38

10

STEP-BIT, Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra

2008

17

15

MCIIE, IIT-BHU, Varanasi

2008

10

2

KIIT - TBI, Bhubaneswar

2010

17

6

MUTBI - Manipal University, Manipal

2010

12

2

Enabling environment

The key initiatives in an academic institute that promote innovation include entrepreneurship development cell (EDC), patent cell, TTO and incubation centre. For instance, BIT Mesra in addition to running the oldest Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Park (STEP) since 1970 and an EDC from 2008, has initiated incubation. “For our incubation centre, we are improving the policy to ensure that BIT funds the incubatee with a capital of Rs 5 to 10 lakh and the college will possibly pick equity of 3 percent. The duration of a start-up would be 3 years but extendable to six months,” claimed Prof. Vishal H Shah, Co-coordinator, EDC.

The EDC at University of Kashmir, due to its non-proximity to industry, has worked aggressively to go that extra mile and collaborated with National Innovation Foundation to have a parallel unit - the Grassroots Innovation & Augmentation Network (GIAN) Cell where start-ups gets relevant support. “The primary objective is to encourage entrepreneurship in Kashmir as industry scenario is quite poor in the state,” says Prof. GM Bhat, advisor -EDC.

 

How do incubators help?

The National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board (NSTEDB)-backed EDCs, STEPs and Technology Business Incubators (TBI) provide equipment and infrastructure facilities like labs and office support system like photocopier, Internet, café, bank, library and uninterrupted power supply etc, apart from a network that connects alumni, and industry for commercial outreach. And most of these provide funding. Typically, entrepreneur(s) can reside in these incubators from four weeks to three years with extension of up to one year.

Interestingly, apart from running E-cell, many institutes organize events that instill practical training skills. While Kashmir University’s EDC has an edge in food and fruit processing, flora and fauna; RV College of Engineering Bangalore (affiliated to Visveswaraya Technological University) conducts fairs to get real-time market experience including Experior - a popular internship fair that helps start-ups at RVCE get pocket-friendly interns.

Poyni BhattPoyni Bhatt

Chief Operating Officer, SINE, IIT Bombay

Mere physical infrastructure is rarely sufficient to nurture start-ups. Support such as business mentoring, advisory assistance on legal, accounting, administrative matters and seed fund support are very critical for an early stage venture


Dr Anita GuptaDr Anita Gupta,

Director NSTEDB, Department of S&T

In India, entrepreneurship is not considered as embedded and integral part of the institution. Typically academicians say that it is not their forte

The spin-outs mode

Among the traditional modes of knowledge transfer that comprise licensing and patenting activities; revenue generation is highly dismal as compared to institutes such as MIT and Stanford and that too, it is restricted to very few Indian institutes. In consultancy projects, the premier institutes have only managed to draw a comparative figure. However, the upcoming mode is the start-up route, where firms are incubated and allowed to germinate and grow. Many universities have created facilities and are working proactively in developing the innovation ecosystem (see Table). The first five IITs (Kharagpur, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur and Delhi) today collectively have close to 250 spin-outs – not a small number–given the fact that in 1990s one could actually count them on one’s fingers. 

 

Indirect spin-offs

About two percent of India’s population—21 million people—live abroad, where they earn the equivalent of two-thirds of India’s GDP. Many non-resident Indians are keen to contribute to their alma mater. While some institutes have a system in place, more universities need to have mechanisms so as to effectively tap India’s overseas talent which is able to support a larger diaspora network, build on existing groups that communicate the specific needs of an institute and help in aggregating the talent and capital for use in the country.

 

University Innovation Clusters

Recently five universities: Anna, Panjab; Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad were chosen as UICs. Drawing examples from established entities such as Silicon Valley adjacent to Stanford University and Cambridge cluster, the UICs stand to gain from (1) the ecosystem comprising unparalleled human capital (2) the range of professional services including accountants, patent attorneys, angel investors and (3) the presence of formal and informal learning avenues.

 

Banking on information

Even though India’s connectivity is far less than that of China, Korea, the United States, and most of the European Union countries, there are enormous prospects. India takes pride in being the world’s fastest growing market for mobile phones, with the number of wireless subscribers hitting 881 million. However, disparity persists between rural and urban areas. Thus academia that is willing to connect ‘knowledge dots’ will gain by linking inclusive and grassroots innovations and will be investing in IT infrastructure.

Problems and overcoming them

In India, the aggregate domestic R&D spending has never exceeded 1 percent of GDP, and 75–80% comes from public sector. The contribution from universities on R&D has been dismal which shows the immense opportunity that can be exploited. All is also not well, when Indian institutes are subjected to global comparison. There were 26 spin-offs in 2011 at MIT alone. Oxford University’s Isis in 2013 had 10 spin-outs including 6 software start-ups.

The key problem according to Dr Anita Gupta, Director NSTEDB lies in the notion that “In India, entrepreneurship is not considered as embedded and integral part of the institution. Typically academicians say that it is not their forte”. Poyni Bhatt, the Chief Operating Officer at SINE, IIT Bombay says, “Support such as business mentoring, advisory assistance on legal, accounting, administrative matters and seed fund support are critical for an early stage venture.” According to a World Bank’s report titled ‘Unleashing India’s Innovation Potential’ (2007), the cumulative start-up capital provided for seed financing in India is estimated to be $25 million–$35 million—enough for 75–100 start-ups, but a lot fewer than the 450–600 start-ups needed. So, more early-stage funding is required. Actions to spur academia-spawned R&D could include consolidating and expanding early-stage technology development programmes, and developing a policy and action plan to foster innovation as well.

 

Harnessing the potential     

India has the benefit of a dynamic young population with more than half of the country’s population under 25 years. So there is an imminent need for universities to aggressively harness their innovation potential through their research community, some of who are brimming with ideas that are commercially viable. It is time we saw Indian universities making a decisive contribution to the national system of innovation. 

 

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