27 July 2017

Bilateral catalyst

Dhananjay Kumar Tiwary

American cooperation in science, technology and innovation will help India’s start-up ecosystem

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the U.S. is likely to deepen bilateral ties in multiple strategic areas. Among them, science and technology, a key driver for innovation and job creation in both countries, needs to take centre stage.

The shared values and interests of both the countries provide the essential underpinning for future collaboration. Besides, India has the advantage of enjoying bipartisan support in the U.S. in this regard. Over the years, knowledge and technology have become central to most of the bilateral agreements and strategic dialogues between the two countries. Bilateral agreements such as the Partnership to Advance Clean Energy and joint participation in mega projects in the areas of fundamental science such as the High Intensity Superconducting Proton Accelerator, the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory and the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar Mission will have a far-reaching impact. Going forward, we can reap higher pay-offs if collaborative engagements are focused on sector-agnostic technologies, such as information technology, nanotechnology, and gene-editing technology. This will have positive impact on all spheres of collaboration such as education, economy and trade, defence and homeland security, energy and climate, health, agriculture and space.

The science landscape

To further strengthen the existing system of collaboration and help initiate new ones, we need to understand the science, technology and innovation (STI) landscape in the U.S. Learning the best practices on grant management and science administration from key American federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be a good starting point for India’s science departments and research institutions.

Knowledge generated through science and technology needs to be capitalised in order to fuel the process of innovation and the creation of an entrepreneurial class which can help find solutions for the society at multiple levels. The American system provides one of the best models for this. The core components of our innovation ecosystem need to be supported by enabling systems and practices to transform technologies and inventions into products. Learning from U.S. institutions the practices of the innovation value chain — ranging from ideation to prototyping and business-friendly incubation of the prototypes and the fostering of a proper legal and investor-friendly milieu — will make a visible difference on the ground. Second, an innovation does not necessarily have to be of the cutting-edge kind. The right solutions should be need-based and affordable.

Where required, we should model our institutional system to enable our scientists and engineers to pair up with business mentors to make the successful journey from the laboratory to the marketplace. The ongoing efforts to promote innovation and entrepreneurship through initiatives like the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund, the Stanford-India Biodesign Programme and the Khorana Technology Transfer programme should be strengthened to enhance the efficiency and productivity of our emerging innovation system. Integrating American technologies with products of Indian grassroots innovations will enhance the value of the latter and make them scalable, affordable and marketable.

Deepening of ties

A database of U.S.-based inventors, their inventions and technologies relevant to India needs to be created. Further, the existing collaborative partnerships and student exchange programmes between research institutions and universities in both the countries need to be strengthened at various levels — including university-to-university, university-to-industry, industry-to-industry, and consortia-to-consortia levels. Joint incubators, to enable Indian start-ups to introduce products in the U.S. market and to facilitate U.S.-based start-ups to enter India with inflow of technologies, mentors and best business practices, should be set up.

Finally, the knowledge and skills of the successful Indian diaspora and Indophiles in the American administration should be leveraged to not only support the Indian start-up ecosystem but also to raise funds for programmes that will help India achieve inclusive development. India’s pledge to manufacture locally, create more jobs and stay ahead of the competition can be redeemed to a great extent by marrying the Indian skills of low-cost innovation, for example in launching satellites and in space exploration, with the American prowess in science and technology.

The author, a Ph.D. from IIT Delhi, is currently a senior scientist in the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. Views are personal.

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