This month, the U.S. tech company Apple reached the $3 trillion-mark in market capitalisation. This made it wealthier than most countries. The question is: can or will India be able to produce a company like Apple? The answer is ‘no’ — not until we turn our university campuses into powerful economic accelerators. But how? This will require an understanding of how innovation works. For that, we need to get into how a research- and development-driven economy works and the universities’ indispensable role in it.
Innovation requires establishing ecosystems, which requires building institutional frameworks and research infrastructure. To build ecosystems, we should start by connecting institutions nearby. Facilitating easy access to tools and equipment for each others’ students and faculty, creating an open, inclusive atmosphere, and encompassing each other’s strengths should follow that. Building research infrastructure should be envisioned for an ecosystem rather than an institution. Such a system will use optimal resources. The initial funding to build large research infrastructures needs to come from the public exchequer. Government funding is the initiator of turning ideas into workable solutions in science and technology-led innovation. Once kick-started, the start-up companies need to be financed by private investors, like angel investors and venture capitalists. Fostering innovation goes beyond making the physical infrastructure and providing access. It includes having excellent tech transfer offices, access to legal counsel and law firms, funding opportunities outside the government, and most importantly, having world-class faculty members.
Tech transfer offices and incubators play a vital role in commercialising technologies. Their part is to make sure that the universities are incentivised while providing a physical space with technical and legal help for individual faculty-driven innovations to get commercialised. To do this, they need to build independent mechanism(s) for their governance, funding, and a competitive process of licensing inventions to third parties. University incubators need the freedom to operate and to establish linkages with funders, both government and private, to raise funds to support start-up companies within their ecosystem. They need to draw mechanisms to be incentivised back too. Finally, the tech transfer offices need to formulate clear guidelines regarding ownership rights on inventions coming out from the universities.
Proper legal frameworks are needed for university-driven innovation to mature. After consultations and modifications, Parliament needs to pass the Protection and Utilization of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill (PUPFIP), 2008. Although there are other policies and guidelines, making PUPFIP a law will help formulate a clear and uniform set of rules and remove the universities' lack of clarity on intellectual property rights to commercialise inventions from government-funded research programmes. Apart from infrastructure, funding, and legal help, the innovation ecosystems need early adopters to risk their time and energy to take products and solutions to the broader masses.
A broader reach
While STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects will lead innovation out of the university campuses, it is essential to broaden the reach to cover all streams within the liberal arts. Universities need to engage a broader group with integrated curricula incorporating all disciplines' best practices. Additionally, the university curricula need to get away from focusing exclusively on awarding degrees on broad subjects to providing vocational training towards developing students' skills for a specific task. Focusing on innovation must not take our minds away from problems in fundamental sciences or other streams. Funding for applied sciences should not be at the cost of fundamental sciences.
With the market caps of many technology-driven companies ranking in the top 20 of global GDP alongside the nation-states, universities can play a significant role in fostering the economies of all nations. The time has come for the universities in India to provide value outside of their traditional niche of creating knowledge and teaching. Sustained public funding to build world-class research and development infrastructure and hiring the best faculty in our university system are the first steps to realising this dream. Equally important is encouraging and providing the faculty the freedom to dive more into the space without sacrificing critical thinking. This will propel ‘innovation quotient“ to be used as a defining parameter for ranking universities rather than parameters like the size of the graduating class and faculty-to-student ratio.
Binay Panda is a Professor at JNU, New Delhi