What should be done to turn research projects into products that are commercially successful? A look at the steps needed to take technology from lab to shelf.

Nirmala Balwalli thought her doctoral research on polymers had great potential. She could not take that beyond the thesis level. She had to move on with her career. Now, with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, she is part of a team that is setting up incubation centres in life sciences and materials on IISc campus. “There are hundreds of research projects that can be developed as products and commercialised successfully but they all remain on paper,” Ms. Balwalli says.

When the British Minister of State for Universities visited Chennai along with Mike Nithavrianakis, British Deputy High Commissioner in Southern India, they were amazed at the low carbon devices produced by the IIT-Madras students that could make a difference to millions of rural lives. But they are yet to be rolled out. “India's human capital is amazing. British expertise could unlock and unleash this potential,” says Mr. Nithavrianakis.

Commercialising research is a concept that haunts academicians and industries alike. Not just in India but in most of the world. “There is much misunderstanding (not only in India) about the relationship between publication in academic journals and commercialisation activity,” says David Secher, co-founder, PraxisUnico. Mr. Secher, based at the University of Cambridge, and Lita Nelsen, director, Technology Licensing Office, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the two best known institutions in the world to have succeeded in commercialising research, founded Praxis Unico, a non-profit organisation.

In an intensive three-day training session with the incubator managers at Udhagamandalam, the PraxisUnico team imparted the fundamentals of technology transfer to their Indian colleagues at a time when the concept was rapidly developing in business incubators, many sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology.

In Tier 1 institutions, academic publication is imperative and technology transfer should be arranged in a way that takes this into account. This means that systems for patenting new inventions need to be in place such that publication is not delayed. In Tier 2 and 3 institutions, inventions and business activity may have a higher priority and in those cases a delay in publication may be more acceptable, says Mr. Secher.

Academic publication of research will always be the main criterion for promotion in Tier 1 institutions, but commercialisation (generation of socio-economic impact from research) may also be taken into account, he emphasises.

At one of the sessions, the incubator managers identified the major impediments to commercialising research which were similar to other countries — lack of institutional and government policies, the emphasis on academics and no reward structure for commercialisation, lack of funding for developing prototypes, research in isolation without the knowledge of market needs, no networking among technology transfer offices, the bureaucratic tangles and more.

As Mr. Secher and his team had not spent much time in the country, they were unable to give an authoritative answer on industry-academia collaboration. The team suggests an annual survey to measure industry-academia collaboration. “Three things are essential for commercialising research — excellent research universities, a growing and vibrant market and entrepreneurial talent. India has it all,” says Ms. Nelsen.

Sharing his thoughts on licensing technology, Mr. Secher says it depends on having an active system for filing patents and most Indian institutions are at the early stages of implementing such a system. Factors like developing appropriate institutional IPR policies, a suitable legal framework, and institutional endorsement for industrial collaboration are critical.

Often too much focus is given to patenting and licensing at the expense of other models for working with industry. In the UK, contract and collaborative research, consultancy, continuing professional development and access to facilities and equipment are all more important (in financial terms) models of working with industry. Academic institutions need to develop their own policies that reflect their strengths and their overall mission.

Governments should ensure a legal and administrative framework allowing universities and other academic institutions to work freely with industry, continue to make funds available for technology transfer offices, and for proof-of-concept projects, recognise, publicise and celebrate academics who pursue an entrepreneurial career, whilst also maintaining a top-quality academic research record, Mr. Secher says.

After the training-the-trainer session, the incubator managers and technology transfer officers from IITs, IIMs, CSIR, DRDO and national labs have now formed a network among themselves to match the expertise of British and American technology transfer offices.