Interview of Dr. Ramgopal Rao, Infosys Prize 2013 winner, engineering and computer science.
Dr. V. Ramgopal Rao is the Institute Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Chief Investigator, Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics, IIT Mumbai. He was awarded the Infosys Prize for engineering and computer science for 2013 in recognition of his contributions to micro- and nano-electromechanical systems. I interviewed him over email and asked him some general questions I was curious about. For one, Dr. Rao is an engineer, which puts him in a unique position to understand why there is a rift between scientific research and marketing in India.
Could you tell us why you chose to be an electrical engineer, and specifically specialize in solid-state physics and nano-mechanical systems?
I started my career with Electronics as my branch of engineering in B.Tech. I was particularly interested in electronics as I was told that it allows for a lot of imagination and will always be in demand. I think it is true and I also believe that it is one branch of engineering which is continuously transforming. I then went on to do my M.Tech in Microelectronics and Ph.D. in Nanoelectronics.
I continued to work in this area even for my research. My main area of research for a long time has been Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor (CMOS) devices and technologies—the basic CMOS transistors that are the building blocks of modern mobile phones and other electronic gadgets. We have been trying to integrate novel functionalities into these mobile platforms. By embedding a variety of “sense & interact” functions on these platforms, the goal is to build the future intelligent systems.
The future mobile phones, for example, should be capable of serving our healthcare diagnostic requirements in addition to warning us on the presence of harmful substances in the environment. We have been focussing on the nano-mechanical platforms mainly for this reason. The field has also become highly multi-discipinary and most of my recent publications and projects involve collaborations with bio-medical engineers, chemists, physicists, materials scientists, biologists and mechanical engineers.
What has been the industrial impact of your work?
I have been working closely with industries for the past 15 years. I have done projects for Intel, Infineon, Applied Materials, Texas Instruments, IBM and a few others. We have filed over 10 US patents with them and about 15 Indian patents. We have also licensed many of our patents to industries. The work has primarily focused on understanding & improving the performance of mobile technologies and at the same time maintaining battery life. Based on my nano-mechanical sensors work, a company—NanoSniff Technologies Pvt. Ltd.—has also been incubated at IIT Bombay.
Some of your work has been concerned with developing low-power electronics and low-cost instrumentation. Do you envisage such solutions keeping the Indian market in mind or do you think there is a global demand for such systems?
My goal for the past 10 years has been to develop technologies which have a societal relevance. While every technology will have a societal connection, my work is primarily focused on addressing the growing needs of people at the bottom of the pyramid in a country like India. Much of what I do can be termed as frugal innovation, which is to make high technologies relevant for a common man, who makes less than Rs. 100 per day.
While I publish extensively in top journals in my field, much of what I do has a product focus, particularly for a country like India. For example, at IIT Bombay we are working on a low-cost cardiac diagnostic system for early detection of cardiac problems, a low-cost hand-held explosive detector for security agencies, and sensors for agricultural applications for Indian farmers.
Some of the work we do in security and healthcare areas have a tremendous global appeal. These activities are supported by various agencies such as the National Programme on Micro and Smart Systems (NPMASS) funded by DRDO, the Principal Scientific Adviser’s office, the Department of Electronics & Information Technology & the Department of Science and Technology.
There is a lot of research emerging from India but a conspicuous absence of similarly good technology. Why do you think laboratory prototypes find it so difficult to reach the market?
The absence of manufacturing industry in the country is one of the main reasons. The start-up trend is picking up in academic institutions but technology start-ups need an ecosystem which is missing. Lack of venture capital funding, lack of research infrastructure support and lack of government support for technology start-ups are the major challenges right now.
We also need to create institutions which analyze the IP generated in academic institutions and work with the researchers to improve their technology-readiness levels (TRL). Many institutions are filing more and more patents, but in the absence of any institutional support and marketing strategies, nothing much is really happening right now with these IPs. We are creating more and more academic institutions and the quality of science done in the country is improving by the day, but we need to do much more.
We need to create institutions that convert the science & intellectual property back into money. We need to create institutions that look at the IP created in academic institutions, analyze them and create prototypes out of them. We do not have any such institutions or mechanisms right now for some thing like this in the country. Our neighboring countries, with a much less scientific base, have done this more successfully.
I just hope we wake up to this fact and do some thing. Even for me, it is sometimes frustrating.
The Infosys Prize is a recent addition to the roster of Indian prizes in the sciences. How much of a difference do you think it has made in encouraging students to pursue the sciences?
It looks like there are many prizes and awards in the country, but some of them lack the credibility and the selection process is also not rigorous enough. I am saying it despite winning most of them. Infosys Prize is different mainly because of the nature of jury, the rigorous selection process and finally the prize money, which is indeed substantial. You aspire to get the Infosys Prize after winning all other awards right now. I think they are doing a good job and they should continue to do so.
Could you tell us about the quality and accessibility of research-funding in India, and how much of a bureaucratic process it is? Let’s, say, discuss it in terms of access to funding for a research student.
More than the process, it is some times the amount of money which is a problem. Private sector needs to join hands with government, and it is time we fund the R&D efforts in the country much more than what we are doing right now. Many a time, it is the sub-critical funding which is a problem, more than the funding itself. Since there is so much of demand for research funds, every government committee or a programme starts to set upper limits, and these limits tend to be quite low, by any standards.
Even when there are funds available, it is some times the lack of trust and the attitudes of the people managing the funds which come into play. Technology oriented research suffers because of this sub-critical funding. The funding agencies in the country have also lost the risk-taking ability and often want to fund safe research. Every one is working under the constant fear of somebody, and no one wants to take any risks.
You have been a member of many national-level advisory committees to the Government of India apropos nanoelectronics and information technology. What can you tell us about the government’s engagement with this technology and its goals?
Department of Electronics & Information Technology (DeiTy) has played a major role in strengthening the nanoelectronics infrastructure in the country. They have created these centres of excellence in nanoelectronics at all the major academic institutions and promoting the nano-manufacturing activities quite aggressively. All these initiatives started about 7 years ago, and we are beginning to see the results of these investments now. I am confident we will become an important world player in nanoelectronics manufacturing, thanks primarily to the DeitY initiatives.
How successful has the Government of India been in unifying its national-level goals in science and technology with State-level interests? Are State Governments properly sensitized to the importance of investments in R&D beyond such industries as pharmaceuticals?
While some progressive states such as Karnataka may have taken such initiatives, many other states do not even have any notable S&T policy. Their role is all limited to managing (or mismanaging) the local universities. I am not very optimistic about this anymore.
What NanoSniff technology that you are presently working on? Also, what are your current interests, and how do you plan to take them forward?
While technologies can be developed with support from government, we realized that for the deployment of prototypes and products, we need industry involvement. To address this challenge, along with my colleague Prof. Soumyo Mukherji & a few serial entrepreneurs from IIT Delhi, we incubated a company NanoSniff Technologies Pvt. Ltd. at IIT Bombay. NanoSniff is the first Indian company to offer specialised products around Nano-scale devices, having already commercialized the Microcantilever Sensor technology successfully for academic and research laboratories.
There are 20 people working in the company and the company is located in the IIT Bombay’s Society for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (SINE). NanoSniff Technologies last year won the prestigious Technovation Award from the Indian Electronics & Semiconductor Association in the most promising startup category. Nanosniff also won the Canada Grand Challenges award in the healthcare sector last year and is doing quite well.