Professors Entrepreneurs

During my school days, my grandfather used to talk about Dr. PC Roy and his Bengal Chemicals. Prafulla Chandra Roy was perhaps one of the first professors in India who was also a successful entrepreneur. I don’t know why many did not emulate his examples. Perhaps, it was because India was not free. Somehow professors consider themselves great by saying they don’t worship the Goddess of wealth. Another reason might be the investment needed rather lack of funding for all these years even for good ideas. One had to be from a rich family to start a business.

While I was n USA in 2005, I came across a story of a reputed scientist who had established one of the largest commercial research laboratories in US. It is immensely interesting that Dr RA Mashlekar, the former Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in his article, ‘The art of being World- Class‘ in Business Outlook’s Independence special with ‘India- Making of a Superpower’ as main theme refers to two professors who are also two of the greatest living scientists-cum-successful entrepreneurs: Professor George Whitesides from Harvard University and Professor Robert Langer from MIT.

Whitesides is the highest-cited living scientist in the world today. He has scaled the highest peaks of excellence in fundamental scientific research. At the same time, he has floated companies based on his research, whose combined market capitalization is about $20 billion. Langer from MIT has over 700 scientific research papers and over 400 patents. His pioneering research has earned him the Fellowships of the US national science, engineering and medical science academies-the only individual to achieve this feat. He too has floated a number of companies. He recently won the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize, considered the Nobel Prize in technology.

What is so special about Whitesides and Langer? Both Whitesides and Langer have done great science; have created great applications, which, in turn, have created great jobs and wealth for their country. In India, we seem to treat Saraswati and Lakshmi differently. We need to learn to see the route to Lakshmi through Saraswati. Academics from research-led universities lay the foundation of this route.

MIT has been a pioneer in commercialization of scientific innovation. ‘One laptop for every child’ is a product coming out of MIT, and there are many. Interestingly, I came across another story of an Indian couple who have helped creating a new MIT organization designed to aid engineering faculty entrepreneurs: The Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. ‘A $20 million gift from Jaishree and Desh Deshpande launched the center in 2002. Desh Deshpande, who is a member of the MIT Corporation, is revered in New England’s high-tech circles as a cofounder of Sycamore Networks and Cascade Communications, two of the most successful telecom startup companies ever. By funding the center, Deshpande found a way to connect his affinity for spurring technology to market with MIT’s wellspring of innovation. Deshpande hopes that the center’s support will help MIT faculty and researchers address the growing “innovation gap” by moving more technology to market.’

As reported, in a move that would transform knowledge professionals into entrepreneurs, the Indian government plans to allow professors and research scholars to set up commercial entities while being employed in academic institutes. Academics will also be allowed to invest their knowledge and skills to pick up equity stakes in companies. For instance, a scholar may offer his skills and knowledge to a company to pick up equity in it.

I used to visit IIT-Kharagpur till Rakesh, my eledest son was there. A number of times, I went into dialogue with the professors in Mechanical Engineering Department requesting them to interact with industry more closely and make the problems of the industry their subjects of research and innovations. Some how I found them indifferent. They were happy with their computer generated long mathematically loaded papers. I may not know about many professors who have helped product development. As I write this paper I remember only of two professors- Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT- Madras and Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmedabad who are helping commercialization of the innovations.

Why can’t the professors research, innovate and commercialize some products that can create employment and also wealth for them as well for the country? With many products and services in area of technologies not demanding huge investment and presence of many venture capitalists available for funding good ideas, many professors could have joined the bandwagon of entrepreneurs. At least they could have headed institutes of excellence in education sector as doctors such as Devi Shetty are doing. It is unfortunate that the entrepreneurs behind most of the country’s private engineering colleges are hardly from education background. However, I can’t forget at least one enthusiast friend, Dr. Kailash Narayan Singh and his rice mill in Kichha. Kailash after almost whole life in education endeavoured for that entrepreneurship. It may not be a great business, but the zeal requires recognition.

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