Science Research takes place in a Vacuum

So I finally sat down one day while I was in Trivandrum and wrote about things that I love- Genetics and Science Policy.

One was this article for the Hindu Business Line about a topic I have strong feelings about. Science policy is my passion and I hope at some point, I will be able to contribute more effectively. Within the larger context of science policy lies Technology Transfer and commercialization. Technology transfer is a key area where I think we lack as a country, and a systemic structural change with clear incentives is likely to bring positive change. Or at least I hope so….

Science research takes place in a vacuum

Every once in a while, I meet a brilliant scientist who has done some incredible research, but shies away from working with commercial companies. On the other hand are companies that have tried to work with academia but couldn’t get past the first few hurdles and decide to stay away. The result is negative energy that prevents the formation of a collaborative scientific ecosystem.

The reasons are rather complex. The scientist loves to work on the problem and the culmination of that is a ‘paper’ and sometimes a ‘patent’. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on patents and creating IPR, but clearly there is something amiss.

While one may argue that we need not replicate a Silicon Valley, we are yet to produce an Indian equivalent of an ecosystem that encourages and sustains science and technology. The missing element is a strong technology transfer department in each university or central lab.

Indian science lays strong emphasis on a national lab structure like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) or Department of Biotechnology (DBT) for large-scale projects — as against universities — to fund much of its R&D spend.

But neither CSIR nor DBT has a true tech transfer department with trained staff. So the onus of creating IPR is on the scientist. While we have pushed for more patents and that is a wonderful thing, the reality is that less than 20 per cent of patents secured by government scientists finds a taker. It appears to me that we are pushing the wrong levers.

The job of making a patent work commercially cannot be left to the scientist. Hence, the importance of strong tech transfer system which ensures that patents are transferred to the commercial world.

Tech transfer department

Technology transfer is a time-tested mechanism and has created sustainability and entrepreneurial energy around universities and academic labs, so why shouldn’t we go for it? If less than 100 universities in the US can create greater than $36 billion in product sales, then isn’t a systematic approach to technology transfer a good thing?

But naming a department will not suffice. It will need staff that understands technology transfer and its associated legalese. It will need competent personnel that can evaluate technology on its commercialisation merits and a business development staff that can market it to potential suitors. Sometimes, these technologies can be acquired by large and current companies, others may need a brand new team to push this forward.

In recent years, I have seen the rise of a large number of incubators that connect to other forms of investment vehicles such as venture capital or private equity. If we can get the tech transfer department to work with these incubators, it may be worthwhile for everyone involved.

And then marketing

Each time I dare to open a website somewhat related to science and technology that is run by the Government of India, I shudder. It appears like they were created decades ago and exist to remind us of an era when websites were static.

And then comes the step where one actually searches for information. In the age of social media and massively improved web tools, a massive makeover is possible in the land of IT services companies.

I often wonder why government sites look the way they do, while their Western counterparts are simple, appeal directly to the audience and social media, and are designed to engage better. Why is it that our scientists don’t tweet, blog or post what they do? Doesn’t that contribute to the perception problem that haunts our scientific community and the quality of inventions and discoveries they make? In the last few years of working as an entrepreneur in genomics (Ocimum Biosolutions and Mapmygenome) and recently also as a governing board member of the CSIR, I came across several brilliant scientists. But, close though I was with the community, there were things I did not know of.

So if we are to inspire an entire generation of scientists and technologists and create a sustainable ecosystem to develop, nurture and create science-based businesses out of India, there is a strong role that a technology transfer department can play. And yes, don’t forget the marketing.

The writer is the CEO of Mapmygenome


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