By Prof Samar Agnihotri and Dr. Renu Rameshan
The need for industry-academia interaction cannot be overemphasized for the sake of the advancement of science, technology, and productization for the sake of social welfare and economic growth of the nation. Over the last few decades, there have been successful stories wherein academic knowledge has been adopted and commercialized by the industry. However, there have been only a handful of such stories, driven more by the passion of the persons involved than processes in the concerned organizations.
There is a need to revisit the fundamentals of industry-academia collaboration to understand what a symbiotic relationship would entail.
Most for-profit industries cannot work on blue-sky research or explore open-ended fundamental research even if it may lead to successful products or technologies as there is no assurance of making a profit. Therefore, the industry normally does not take up development below Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5. However, the industry can invest in academia to work on such problems.
Firstly, because the academia is well-equipped to work on such problems and produce efficient technical solutions; secondly, the academia is not-for-profit so even the negative results are accepted and celebrated as long as they lead to gaining some fundamental insights into the problem.
Most of the time when academia is not working on fundamental problems, it is working on ones that it perceives to be relevant to the industry and the society. However, the involvement of the industry with academia can help sensitize it about problems that industry and society are really interested in. This may help academia channelize its resources and efforts toward solving those in-demand problems which may lead to products and technologies with social or economic benefits, or both.
One of the key responsibilities of academia is to create a readily and gainfully employable workforce, imbibing both technical know-how and best professional practices in the students that it churns out every year. Again, academia mostly attempts to impart what it perceives to be relevant to employers. However, involvement of industry may help academia providing its students the technical know-how and practices which the industry expects from them, thus making them readily employable, and eliminating, or at least cutting down, on retraining efforts and costs of the industry.
How should industry and academia interact with each other?
With government support, research parks were established at IISc and eight of the IITs. They act as a common ground where the two meet: the research potential abundant in an academic institute gets translated to solutions for industry and, the presence of industry brings in real world technical challenges to the academic community enabling them to expand beyond problems set in a very controlled environment. The national mission on interdisciplinary cyber-physical systems has set up 25 technology innovation hubs (TIH) across several institutes in India with focus on diverse areas like AI & ML, quantum technologies, technology for finance, to list a few. One of the objectives of TIH is to strengthen the link between academia and industry.
However, the research parks and TIHs together contribute only a miniscule fraction considering the dense distribution of academic institutes in India. Industries which need research are sparse in India. In addition to this, except for a few, many of the technology giants have their research team functioning from outside of India. The chasm can be narrowed only if the two parties accept the need for each other and consciously create platforms where they can work together.
In the industry setting, it is unusual to spend more than a year on solving a specific problem, since it needs fast solutions to address the requirements of a fast changing market. Nevertheless, problems do arise which need a longer investigation time either in the nascency of a project or even in the product design phase. With sufficient planning and coordination between academia and industry, these problems can be taken up as research topics by academia and their outcomes can be productized by the industry. This is a win-win situation for both the parties. Such models of collaboration are rather rare in India and it needs patience and dedication on both sides to get the model running.
The industry should offer projects to the academia for the research problems which have prospects for developing into successful products or technologies, but are too risky or open-ended to be taken up by it. Similarly, for the solutions which are ready for industry level validation and further productization, it should offer consultancies to the academia.
To take care of industry’s constant complaint that the graduating students are not immediately employable because they lack relevant technical know-how and professional practices, industry, itself, should get involved with the students much before they graduate. It should offer short- and long- term internships to research and other students to train them to work on the problems of industrial interest as well as to provide them an exposure to the industrial practices. It may also offer short-term courses and seminars on best industrial practices. Further, industry should participate in curriculum design to help students learn what is relevant to industry, and then its personnel should be involved in pedagogy.
To engage fruitfully with industry, academia must create opportunities and incentives for its faculty and students to encourage them for such interactions. Faculty may be required to have regular industrial stints of various durations and collaboration with industry should also be recognized, even if it does not lead to research publications, as long as it has significant translational research. Curricula of various programs should be so designed that both, short- and long- term, internships can be taken up by the students and enough credits are awarded to such industrial work.
However, the industry operates in challenging and fast changing scenarios and prioritizes products and profits, while academia operates in scenarios which are assumed to change slowly over years, and focuses on education and basic research. Therefore, while engaging with each other, both industry and academia must have reasonable expectations from each other as well as awareness and sensitivity towards each other’s priorities and operating environments to ensure a win-win partnership.
That such initiatives are happening can be seen in the recently introduced sponsored M.Tech program by an industry in an academic institute. Under this initiative, selected MTech students get to work on real world problems (at TRL 5) for two years and are financially supported by the company. The faculty members at the institute and researchers at industry work together to create viable solutions for problems of mutual interest. This gives an opportunity for the academic community to work on live projects, and the industry in turn gets benefited by the research strength of the academia. These are, of course, short term interactions, where the academic community fits into a part of the product. However, the scope of interaction is not limited to such short term partnerships. Long term research is also promoted by the sponsoring of research programs like M.Tech (Research) and PhD.
It is hoped that this model will encourage other partnerships of similar nature and become a model for industry-academia partnership in the country to seamlessly integrate the academia and industry.
(Prof. Samar Agnihotri is Associate Professor, SCEE, IIT Mandi (Former Chairperson, SCEE IIT Mandi) & Dr. Renu Rameshan, Lead Research Scientist, Vehant Technologies)