The untold story of a silent revolution

Tamil Nadu has 751 R&D institutions as of 2021 and 2,742 patents were filed in 2017-18

January 21, 2022 01:53 am | Updated 01:53 am IST

A silent revolution in the research and development (R&D) space has been on in Tamil Nadu in recent years. Industry captains say the State’s progress has remained an untold story, and there is potential to make it a hub for innovation.

According to statistics from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, Tamil Nadu’s R&D spend stood at ₹668 crore in financial year 2017-18, accounting for about 9.5% of ₹7,264.81 crore spent in India. This was the second highest, after Gujarat, which accounted for 10.9%.

The State has 751 R&D institutions as of 2021 and 2,742 patents were filed in 2017-18 accounting for 17.6% of the 15,550 applications filed by Indian nationals. Only Maharashtra, with 24.6% of patents, was ahead.

French glass and building materials maker Saint-Gobain explored at least four different States where it had a manufacturing footprint to set up an R&D centre. “Finally we zeroed in on Chennai, first because of the talent pool, second because of the IIT Madras Research Park ecosystem and the fact that we can have an R&D facility right in the heart of the city. The attrition levels are also lower,” says B. Santhanam, CEO Asia-Pacific, Saint-Gobain.

The company set up its R&D facility in 2012 and moved into a permanent place at IIT Madras Research Park in 2016 and has done 120 patents, including 26 filed last year. Another success story is the Mahindra Research Valley (MRV) set up in 2012, 60 km from Chennai in Mahindra World City. “In 2005, we decided to relocate our R&D set-up from Nashik and create a facility near Chennai. It was a bold and difficult decision to make since that was the team that developed our successful product — Scorpio,” says R. Velusamy, chief of Global Product Development, Automotive Division, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. The XUV 500, All New Thar and XUV700, developed at MRV, have seen robust bookings since launch. MRV has also filed 1,591 patents.

Mr. Velusamy says the vast talent pool in Tamil Nadu, which produces two lakh engineering graduates annually (35 of its colleges are in the top 200 in India), has created a vibrant ecosystem and is playing a leading role in the success of many companies in India and globally.

The roots of R&D go way back to the establishment of Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai in 1948, as a constituent laboratory of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-CLRI). “While many are talking about academia research and industry collaboration in recent times, in 1948 itself we had the trio of the University of Madras, CLRI and the leather industry working together,” says K.J. Sreeram, Director, CSIR-CLRI. He says the aim was to convert the trader-oriented industry into a technology-oriented manufacturer of leather products.

CLRI’s future initiative will include footwear research. It has undertaken an all-India foot sampling survey to collect over a lakh samples from different age and gender groups and finalise a report this year. This will ultimately lead to India having its own foot-sizing scheme.

“The R&D investments have by and large been in areas where there is also industrial activity within the State. Tamil Nadu is among the first three positions in India in automotive, auto components, general engineering, space tech, software, wind energy, healthcare, cotton spinning and readymade garments. Many of these sectors are becoming highly competitive and there is a significant role for R&D to add value,” explains Srivats Ram, MD, Wheels India, and president, Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In the automotive sector, the government, the industry and the academia could collaborate to improve the quality of R&D such as software engineering, Artificial Intelligence, cyber-technologies, electrification of vehicles involving new battery technologies, he says.

Mr. Santhanam says the State’s R&D story isn’t only about automotive sector. There are companies in engineering and construction which have set up their R&D capabilities.

Naveen Unni, managing partner, Chennai, McKinsey and Company, says his firm has studied at least 10 countries known to have a strong R&D presence. These are in two groups: the first with long established ecosystems like Switzerland, Norway, the U.S., the U.K., Sweden and Japan; and the second is a recently developed R&D ecosystem like South Korea, China, Singapore and Ireland. The key takeaway for Tamil Nadu could be to make leadership in R&D a priority, identify the sectors and channelise the funding to create a favourable regulatory framework.

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