Universities are hotbeds of innovation. Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem within a university is a critical step to commercializing innovations. What is the experience of IIT-Madras in creating a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem? MMA-KAS organised a Fireside Chat on the theme, “Building a Robust Academic Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.” Prof Ashwin Mahalingam, Faculty – Department of Civil Engineering, IIT-Madras, shared his thoughts with Mr V Shankar, Founder, CAMS & Director, ACSYS Investments Pvt Ltd.
Shankar: We are all aware of the terms—incubators, accelerators and angel investors; but we have not heard so much about these in the academic context. That such an ecosystem exists within an academic institution—IIT Madras—is a rarity. Can you speak about that?
Ashwin: I don’t think we have solved the entrepreneurial academic ecosystem puzzle completely. We have made some advances. We have four parts to our ecosystem. The first part is ideation, where ideas get generated. This is a critical part of any entrepreneurship ecosystem because without ideas, we don’t have companies. The second part is the pre-incubation part, where we test the ideas. Not every idea necessarily lends itself into being an entrepreneurial venture. Possibly, about 10 or 15% of good ideas lead to good businesses. Here, we stress test those ideas. The third is the incubation segment. The fourth segment is where we do all the support activities to enable these three segments.
There are a number of research labs at IIT-Madras and a number of faculty doing research. Ideas come out in the normal practice of doing business at IIT. In parallel, we have students who think creatively—sitting in hostels, having conversations with other students and trading ideas. The co-location factor is extremely important. IIT being a residential institute has its own benefits. We also have industrial consultancy and sponsored research cell—which incidentally, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—and which allows us not only to do research theoretically in our own spaces, but also collaborate with industry to do research. At the top, we have the Centre for Innovation CFI).
When we study engineering, nobody likes workshop; but that is where we do something with our hands. The rest of it is all theoretical. Unfortunately, workshops in most engineering colleges are very structured and don’t lend themselves towards innovation and creativity. So we came up with an idea of creating a workshop that would be a kind of ‘by the students, of the students and for the students,’ completely managed by students and where they could do whatever they wanted. This is what we call the Centre for Innovation. Very generously, the alumni of 1981 batch, to which you (Shankar) belong, funded this centre. We now have a laboratory, where the tagline is, ‘walk in with an idea and walk out with a product.’ We have all kinds of equipment and machines available.
There are already existing groups of students who are building race cars and rovers. You can join an existing group or you can start your own group. It doesn’t matter if you’re a civil engineer; you can still join the robotics group. It doesn’t matter if you’re a chemical engineer; you can start making drones. No rules at all. The funny thing is that all the hustle and bustle of activities take place at 3 am. The Centre for Innovation has been a wonderful melting pot of students where they leave all their baggage—like the branch they are in, the place they are from—behind. They have the freedom to do whatever, without the spectre of a grade looming over their head.
In the pre incubation part, we have a program (Nirmaan) wherein students can explore the commercial potential of their ideas. We put them through a one year program and try to see if there is a business behind it. Typically, we have about 10 or 15 teams a year. A team could have two people, three people, etc. They work on the technology and we help them think through the business side of it, to figure out a business model and business plan and to go and speak to some customers. A lot of alumni come in and mentor them. The ideas may work or not. If it doesn’t seem to work, no regrets. But at least, you have clarity in your mind. We hope that some fraction of students that come into Nirmaan will start a business. Some of our more successful startups today have come through this pipeline.
We also have an innovation ecosystem project where we tell our faculty to go beyond publishing a paper. If they are interested in patenting it, we are ready to give them a little bit of funding. We have restarted the MS in Entrepreneurship program. The output here is a validated business plan. You can apply for MS in Entrepreneurship after you graduate. Every six months, we put down a list of projects that faculty have and the kind of people that they’re looking for. Sometimes, they look for people with a technical background, sometimes with more of a liberal arts, economics or management background to work on the entrepreneurial side of the business.
Recently we’ve started the Gopalakrishnan-Deshpande Centre for Innovation named after two of our eminent alumni who funded this. We focus on customer discovery—who your customers are. It’s a seven-week program, where we force you to talk to 100 customers and decide who exactly is your customer and what should your product look like.
Lastly, we have the entrepreneurship cell, which I am currently the faculty in charge of. It’s completely student run and it evangelizes entrepreneurship. Eminent people from the entrepreneurship world give talks to our students. We run competitions, so students can test their ideas and pitch them in front of an audience of VCs.
We have the main incubator, which is the IIT Madras Incubation Cell (IITMIC). Then, we have a few thematic incubators, which are in a sense sub-incubators of IITMIC. We have a bio-incubator that focuses on biotech. RTBI is a rural technology business incubator and it focuses on rural technology. We also have Health Technology Innovation Centre, which focuses on med tech.
The incubation cell provides you some space, a desk, power and internet connection. It provides a little bit of seed funding as a grant and a little bit as a loan. You can hire a few people and get something manufactured or fabricated. IITMIC provides you a brand. It also provides a lot of mentorship from faculty or alumni. We also we have tie ups with legal and HR agencies which can help in getting employees, writing employment contracts, filing tax returns, etc. and you can focus on running your business.
To do this, we have a number of people who support us. Ten years ago, our alumni created the IITMEF—the IIT Madras Entrepreneurship Forum. A lot of support is provided by our alumni. We also have connections with TiE and the Keiretsu forum, which are entrepreneur or angel investor forums, where people interface with us and support our ecosystem. We have all these moving pieces, essentially focused on trying to get ideas, test them, and scale them, so they become successful businesses.
Shankar: We were the batch responsible for funding the IIT Madras CFI. We had our 25th reunion in 2006. When we went to the hostel rooms, we found students just sitting in the rooms and playing computer games. Nobody played any sport. That triggered us to set up the CFI. Today, if you go to the institute, they talk about pre-CFI and post-CFI days and that it has created a massive difference to the DNA of the institute. As alumni, we are proud of that. Now, can you tell us about the challenges you faced and learnings in this whole process.
Ashwin: In the pre-CFI days, research was happening and we had our research labs. Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, an academic with more of a practical orientation and trying to make products rather than just do research, started the RTBI—Rural Technology and Business Incubator. When we set up the CFI, entrepreneurship was far from our mind. We thought that the students were moving away from engineering after graduation. The idea was to get students to innovate so that they would become better engineers.
About ten years ago, our then Director Mr Bhaskar Ramamurthy went to the US to meet our alumni. When they asked him how they could support the institute, he said that he saw entrepreneurship as the future. That galvanized the alumni and what followed was the IIT Madras Entrepreneurship Forum. So at that point, we had an incubation cell, entrepreneurship forum and alumni who were ready to mentor, but we had no startups. Some students were doing innovative, techy stuff in the hostel but these were not getting wrapped up. That motivated us to start Nirmaan and later scale it up. In the initial days, the entrepreneurship cell had just one or two students but slowly the interest ramped up. Now it’s a 200-strong student body.
We realized there was a lot of student energy in entrepreneurship but not as much faculty energy and involvement. We always felt that the faculty oriented startups are probably going to be our long term and more successful startups. That’s when Kris Gopalakrishnan and Deshpande came together and we started a program where every faculty tries to find a student entrepreneur and help them in discovering customers. Then they can be a part of Nirmaan and so on.
Convincing Students and Parents
The big challenges in the beginning were trying to convince students and faculty that entrepreneurship was even an option. In the initial days, when we organised a panel discussion on entrepreneurship and sent out emails to about 550 faculty on campus, nobody responded. Then after our Director wrote a slightly stronger email, 15 people showed up out of 550. Even those who came told me that for getting promoted from assistant to associate professor, people ask only about the number of papers they have published and the quality of the journals that publish them. “Nobody asks me about startups and why should I do this?” they said.
The students said, “I’ve got 20 lakh per annum job offer. You are telling me that I should start up a company where, after struggle, I will make no money. Why do you want me to try this?” Slowly after some success stories and role models came up, the media picked them up and gave publicity. It took a while to convince the students that a startup was not that difficult.
But convincing the parents of students was another issue. I’ve had calls from parents asking me, “Why are you corrupting my son / daughter? I sent him (her) there because they would get an IIT education and make their way up a nice multinational corporation. And you’re talking about entrepreneurship, how dare you do that?” We had to tell them that their son or daughter decided on their free will. Getting the culture built was extremely challenging and time consuming. The only mantra was that we got to keep at it. At one point, the alumni mentors far outnumbered the startups. But they continued to persist.
Slowly, over a period of time, the Institute also did a wonderful job in publicizing entrepreneurship, which I think was very important. Every time there’s a competition, we nominate somebody and when they win, we publicize it. We give credit to people who do things beyond just publishing in a variety of forums. We have pots of money that are available for research that could be commercialized. It has been a tough journey and we are by no means done yet. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Shankar: A couple of startups that have been successful with origins in IITM are Ather and Agnikul. Agnikul does 3D printed rockets and the first rocket takeoff is scheduled for later this month.
Ashwin: Planys Technologies does underwater robots that help fix underwater pipelines and dams. Another startup that I was involved with does modular housing. It builds foldable houses and it turned out to be a godsend during Covid, for quickly setting up some kind of a vaccination facility or a clinic.
I used to teach entrepreneurship class for Tarun and Swapnil of Ather. Interestingly, they both graduated from IIT, went to work, came back and said, “What we were doing in the class was far more exciting than what we are doing at work.” It was in 2013 or 2014. Nobody really thought then that commercial EV was possible. Fortunately, a lot of people threw their weight behind Ather. A number of alumni and faculty supported it. The founders said, “Come what may. We are not going to just develop a technology and sell it. We’re going to build a business.” Not only have they done it successfully but also, they’ve been an inspiration to a lot of other people. Tarun was one of the student presidents of the E-cell when he was here. Not only did he gain from the experience of running the E-cell but also, he gave back by evangelizing all this throughout the institute. A lot of synergies are required. It is not just one intervention or one path that you go through.
Shankar: Now let’s move away from the IITM entrepreneurship ecosystem. Since the new director Dr Kamakoti has taken over about a couple of months back, the emphasis is on democratizing education. It’s not that you can enter an IIT only by clearing the JEE. Along those lines, a number of initiatives have taken place. There is a BSc in Data Science and number of online courses which are available to anybody.
Ashwin: I’m also a firm believer in democratizing education. We opened up several years ago, starting from the time when Professor Anand was the Director. This was followed up by Bhaskar and now Dr Kamakoti, who is trying to really ramp it up. We have the NPTEL platform—the National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning, where IIT Madras as well as other centrally funded technical institutes (CFTIs) put up their courses online. There are a number of ways you can use them. You can just view them or take a course and write an exam and get some credit for it. If you get credit in a few courses, then you can apply for a certificate. There are multiple courses on NPTEL. You can choose a course, the institute and even the professor who handles that. The idea is that this should be accessible to everybody and these courses are free.
The online BSc program in Data Science is a next step. The difference between the traditional program and this is that you can take it at your own pace. You can drop out after a year and probably get a certificate or drop out after a couple of years and get a diploma. If you complete the four year program, you get a BSc degree from IIT Madras. It isn’t free for all. There is a qualifying test but it’s far easier than the JEE. There are many heartwarming stories of people who have taken this course. Now we are working on offering Civil Engineering online. There’s a lot of infrastructure being built and people who are in construction learn on the job. They would love to go through an IIT curated six month program, to understand a bit more about concrete, construction technology and so on. We’ve also launched a program on electric vehicles.
Democratizing Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
Shankar: What are you doing to democratize entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Ashwin: We help colleges to setup CFIs and E-cells. The E-cell has a campus ambassador program, where we have students in a number of campuses all over India. We talk to them and they, in turn, try to evangelize the cells in their campuses nationwide. CFI also does something similar. It is a bit more tangible because there is a workshop there. In parallel, the incubation cell is also trying to connect with incubators in other colleges.
On the one hand, we are happy to partner with people and just transfer knowledge. On the other hand, we’re also happy to go and incubate. Perhaps, they don’t have all the facilities required to successfully incubate. So we offer space or technical support, whatever it is. We have tied up with 12 colleges in the south. Some of them include Crescent Engineering College, Sona College and Madurai Thigaraja Engineering College.
We had the research culture to start with, without which none of this would have happened. It is very important to have research and innovation culture. Part of it is the faculty writing proposals and doing research. The other is restructuring the curriculum to make it a bit more open ended, doing more group projects rather than examinations, so that both faculty and students learn by doing something.
The second learning, in my personal view is that we wouldn’t even be at 50% of where we are, if it had not been for our alumni. There are valuable skills that the alumni can impart. It is very important for colleges and universities to start channeling their alumni.
Shankar: Education is ripe for disruption. There are people commercially trying to do it. But I think as a centrally funded institution, IITM has taken the responsibility and is executing it using technology. How does a typical professor’s time look like in IIT?
Ashwin: When I tell people that I’m a professor at IIT, they assume that I teach. I do teach but roughly, on an average, three to four hours a week. That’s not just me, most of us teach one to one and a half courses a semester. A course is about three hours a week. We’ve got teaching assistants.
In the early part of my career, about 70% of my time went into research, because I was trying to build up a research stream, research lab, research, pipeline and all of that. And, in places like IIT, we do a little bit of administration. We are on various committees. So in the early part of my career, it was 10% teaching, 70% research and about 10% on projects with companies and administration.
Of late, the amount of time I’m able to devote to research has come down. Though I still like to put in about 30 to 40% of my time into research, it is becoming difficult. More time goes into working with companies—more on the consulting side, which is not basic research but applied research. I am also setting up systems at IIT. It’s not just me. There are dozens of other people who have contributed towards this picture. I’m trying to set up a new School of Sustainability at IIT. There are a number of institute building activities that we end up doing. My teaching now stays at 10%; Institute building and outside facing activities at 25% and research occupies the rest.
Shankar: What are your sporting interests?
Ashwin: I am a sports fanatic. I play tennis. The reputation I have with some of my students is that it’s easier to catch me on the tennis court than in the institute premises. I used to quiz quite a bit as well. One of the top quizzes in the country is the Saarang Lone Wolf quiz, which happens at the open air theater at IIT. Incidentally, it’s now the 25th anniversary of when I won the quiz. The quiz traditionally starts at midnight and goes up till sunrise.
Q: What kind of startups do the people who work in IIT generally go after?
Ashwin: They take an idea that they liked and worked on and then try to push that forward. In that process, they discover whether it’s an import substitution or if it’s an existing market that they’re trying to disrupt.
Q: What is the approximate timeline for a startup in IIT?
Ashwin: It depends on the type of startup. A biotech entrepreneurship sometimes takes decades, because you have so much of research involved. Apps, for instance, can be up and running in three months. Ather Energy was one of our first startups. My colleagues who are experts in non-destructive testing of drones, robotics, etc. started up a few companies, which we call deep tech startups. For these, it roughly takes anywhere between two to three to five years, depending on where you are. Although the incubation agreement we sign is for 18 months, the support we commit to, is often far beyond this.
Q: How can we commercialize our patents?
Ashwin: The process of commercialization is reasonably well laid out. There are various stages you go through at IIT. We have an IP cell with some people who have techno legal background. The paperwork is done by the cell and the research is done by the faculty. But it’s going to probably cost you more to maintain the patents than the revenue you may generate out of the patent. There’s the myth that once you have a patent, companies will just come and buy it from you. The onus is on the faculty to take it forward and without commercializing the patent, you really aren’t pushing the entrepreneurial envelope far enough. Patents are a good start because that means somebody is doing something creative. But we can’t be satisfied merely because we have a patent.
Q: What entrepreneurship options are there for Tier two and Tier three university students?
Ashwin: Every year, IIT Madras holds an E Summit—Entrepreneurship summit. It’s an intercollegiate entrepreneurship festival, just like Shaastra, Any student from any college can register. I think it’s in March or early April this year. Students from tier two and tier three colleges interested in entrepreneurship can register for this summit, come and spend three days on campus and listen to a bunch of talks, day in and day out. There are a number of workshops that they can register and participate in. There are also competitions for people with various levels of maturity. If you have an idea, you can pitch it in a competition. If you don’t have an idea, we’ll give you a hypothetical situation where you can put yourself in an entrepreneur’s shoes and try to strategize as an entrepreneur. The second step might be to become a campus ambassador in their college, affiliated with our entrepreneurship cell.
Q: The entrepreneurial ecosystem has to be established independent of the curriculum. Now the course content of our institutions is so tough. How can we integrate the entrepreneurship system with the course curriculum to make the students aware of and get involved in the entrepreneurial journey?
Ashwin: It’s a problem we also dealt with. Some universities offer independent credits when you affiliate with a professor on a project. That’s one way of doing it. In some cases, the final year project that everyone has to do can be oriented more towards entrepreneurship. It’s also important to start offering entrepreneurship courses in the curriculum.
Q: It may be easy for IIT to attract companies to incubate. What can Tier 2 or 3 colleges do to attract research and innovation work in their institutions?
Ashwin: One is to build some expertise in a particular area. I see more companies who want to work local rather than travel over hills and valleys to come to an IIT. The university or the department must have a vision to strengthen in some core areas. As a civil engineer, if I want to strengthen myself in concrete technologies, I must start recruiting some faculty and push some research in that area. Build that capability, then slowly start working with the cement manufacturers and start building outwards from there. You must align with local industry. That’s the way to start.