Imperatives For Indigenous Technology Development In India

The strength and sustainability of the collaborative innovation eco-system will largely depend upon goals set and availability of and the criteria for accessing government funds and benefits.

India celebrates 11th May every year as the National Technology Day to commemorate success of the Pokhran nuclear test that was carried out this day in 1998. The success of the nuclear tests established India’s leadership position in the world in its ability to develop new technology at scale, generate skilled and knowledgeable human resource and garner a whole eco-system around atomic energy. This day has come to signify India’s resolve to be world leader in chosen fields of Science & Technology with commensurate development of human resource, knowledge value chain and supply eco-system inclusive of small and medium-scale enterprises. This day is also marker to motivate young minds to adopt science and technology as career option.  

India has also proven its ability to lead the world in space sciences and technology. Ever since the launch of the nation’s first artificial satellite, Aryabhatta, in April 1975, India has consistently demonstrated its capability in developing new, indigenous technologies in the domain of space sciences. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has sent spacecrafts to the Moon and Mars. Both the atomic energy organization and ISRO have their own universities dedicated to developing appropriately trained human resource and aimed at providing teaching and research opportunities for continuous learning of senior employees. Both the organisations have been able to grow a sustainable eco-system of small and medium scale enterprises for converting knowledge into commercial products.

India is, admittedly, among the top global suppliers of highly skilled researchers and technologists with excellent basic education. The nation needs to improve its ability to utilize such prime manpower for its own strategic and economic benefit. Given the current global geo-political scenario, international trade and industry landscape, it is important for the nation’s government and corporate leadership to provide an enabling environment for researchers and technologists to develop innovative solutions for the societal and strategic needs of the nation.  There is a need to replicate the home-grown success demonstrated with atomic energy and space.

The area of health is a topical example. India has a large, growing population. Affordability and longevity are increasing. As we now know, the nation is starved of health infrastructure on any measure – doctors and hospital beds per million population, primary through to specialized health care per unit population, etc. Nevertheless, over the last two decades, India has become a large global base of manufacture of pharmaceuticals. However, most of the basic ingredients for the pharmaceuticals are still imported. 70% or more of medical materials and devices such as implants and diagnostic machines are imported.  There is a need to develop indigenous capability to manufacture world-class medical materials and devices and make them available to the nation at affordable prices. We need to scale up indigenous intellectual property and bring to bear excellent manufacturing practices to manufacture at world class quality levels. This can happen when academia, R&D institutions, industry and small and medium sectors units work together in focused areas. We need to create an ecosystem of collaboration across the knowledge and supply chains in every domain where we aspire to be world leaders. Government support through tax breaks, subsidies, direct grants and creating market access is vital for stringing together a fruitful collaboration for scaling up and commercializing an innovative solution. 

India has seeds of excellence across academia and R&D institutions in multiple areas. Focused government support and pull from the market and industry will help leverage these centres of excellence and create a virtuous cycle. It is not only important to support academia or R&D institutions individually, it must be realized that more attention and resource need to be given to scale transitions – where lab scale transits to pilot scale, pilot scale to demonstration scale and then to commercial scale. At each scale transition for a new technology, the nature of skill, input and leadership changes. For the lab-scale, university is adequate. A research institution can take forward a pilot or demonstration scale. Leadership from industry becomes essential for the commercial scale. Each scale transition is a potential valley of death. For successful development of new technology, the full development chain from lab-scale to commercialization needs to be foreseen holistically and the collaboration formed accordingly. The valleys of death have to be managed through funded collaboration incentives.  

In general, in the developed world, governments are significant providers of resources for developing ideas into new solutions that address strategic and societal issues. The criteria for public funding encourage collaboration across the knowledge and supply chains.

In Germany, the systems of Max Plank Institutes and Fraunhofer Institutes exist to help bridge the “valleys of death” between the Basic and Pilot stages, and Pilot and Commercialization stages respectively. The Fraunhofer Institutes are comparable to India’s CSIR (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research) laboratories. There are around 70 Fraunhofer Institutes, each specializing in a particular area such as battery development, composites materials, photovoltaics, etc. Typically, Fraunhofer Institutes, are situated inside or adjacent to a university. Usually, senior professional at the Fraunhofer are Professors at the adjacent university, ensuring close connect between research institute and academia and helping bridge on valley of death. Technology development projects are co-funded by the Government, the Fraunhofer organization and industry. In many cases, presence of at least one small-medium scale enterprise is a must for a consortium to bid for public funds. This ensures inclusive development of the national innovation eco-system.

Similarly, the Catapults Centres in UK, are set up to prove technologies at the pilot and demonstration scales. They are usually located inside or adjacent to a university and public funding strongly encourages participation industry with co-funding. UK also has separate funding mechanisms for basic research (through Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council) and for technology development at larger scales (through Innovate UK).

In India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is eminently suited to play the role Fraunhofer Institute or Catapult Centres. The CSIR laboratories carry out progressively increasing quantum of industry-driven research. However, the focus and scope of the CSIR-industry interaction can change and encompass more ambitious projects of national importance. The CSIR laboratories play a key role in the knowledge value chain of technology development. This role can be strengthened by focusing on strategic issues in close cooperation with industry and encouraging development of technologies up to near-commercial scale with matching industry and public funding. 

In India, there are several key areas where we need to focus our technology development efforts. These include production of carbon fibre and titanium at scale for defence, aerospace and medical applications. Development of technology for indigenous sourcing of nickel and cobalt from overburden of mines would be important for reducing import-dependence in materials for electric vehicle batteries. Extraction of germanium from non-ferrous process waste would be important for the electronics sector. India needs to grow its steel output. The technologies we have to develop to enable sustained steel growth are associated CO2 emission. The CO2 capture, utilization and sequestration technologies need to be locally relevant. Simultaneously, technology needs to be developed for generating hydrogen at low cost and without CO2 footprint. To conserve natural resources, technologies need to be developed for utilization of local low grade ferrous and non-ferrous ores and find ways to recycle or use industrial waste. 

India’s Atomic Energy and Space organizations have the advantage of encompassing the different scales of development within the institutions.  It is easier to bridge the valleys of death once a focused goal is identified and resource allocated. In the case of developments that need collaboration among multiple organisations (as is usually the case), the system of collaboration between academia, R&D institutions and industry needs to be robustly built at the national level. The strength and sustainability of the collaborative innovation eco-system will largely depend upon goals set and availability of and the criteria for accessing government funds and benefits.

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