Friday, September 20, 2013

IIT-Bombay & Australia's Monash University focus on projects relevant to Indian companies like Thermax, P&G & Intel

Late last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a major doctoral fellowship scheme - which pays students as much as Rs. 45,000 a month - aimed at fostering relationships between universities and private industry. The first set was awarded last month to 23 PhD students around the country. Six of these students were from a fledgling institution in Mumbai, a Section 25 company called IITB-Monash Research Academy. They are working on cutting-edge projects of interest to companies like Thermax, Piramal Life Sciences, Proctor and Gamble and Intel.

IITB-Monash Research Academy was set up three-and-a-half years ago as a 50:50 partnership between IIT-Bombay and Monash University in Australia. Monash University was the prime mover, led by its dean of engineering Tan Sridhar, one of the most influential academicians in Australia. IITB-Monash Research Academy is expected to work on areas of interest to Indian and Australian companies, bringing a developed country work culture to industryacademia relationships in India. "In the West, universities have a more holistic relationship with industry," says Sridhar. "We want to bring this knowhow into the academy."

The academy has 130 students working towards a PhD, to be increased to 300 students by 2015. About 30% of them are supported by private companies, a figure that is set to touch 70% in the future. According to its officials, the academy students have already published 72 papers in top journals, of which 82% are in the highest-rated ones. Private companies and industrial organisations in India and Australia have together committed to sponsoring well over 100 PhD students over the next four to five years. "Industry-academia partnerships do not work if you leave it to individuals," says Sridhar. "You need an engine room for partnerships."

Right from inception, IITB-Monash had tried unusual methods for an institution based in India. It tried to get the best people at the top. For its research council, it roped in Infosys Co-founder NR Narayana Murthy as the chairman and former Director General of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), RA Mashelkar, as vice-chairman. Murthy took a serious interest in the working of the research council, and has attended 13 meetings out of a total of 16. The academy signed up several industrial partners, including Infosys, Reliance, TCS and JSW Steel in India. It gave high stipends and considerable freedom to students, with an eye on attracting the best.

It got a well-known academician as CEO: Mohan Krishnamoorthy, who was Associate Dean of Engineering at Monash University. Krishnamoorthy encouraged students to take up challenging problems. "We focus on problems that need to be solved and not on those that can be solved," says Krishnamoorthy. Monash University was used to working regularly across intellectual disciplines and geographical borders, and had a sophisticated way of looking at industrial problems. "The Western research ecosystem is a lot more evolved when compared to India," says Subu Goparaju, head of Infosys Labs and product R&D.

Infosys had been attracted to the concept of a three-way partnership, between a private company, Indian academic institution and an Australian university. "It will help to merge the quality of an international ecosystem with Indian costs," says Goparaju. For the students, the availability of facilities in Monash University is a big attraction, as they spend approximately nine months in the Australian campus near Melbourne, which is equipped with advanced equipment not easily available in India. For example, Indian students almost never get to use the synchrotron, invaluable for studying biological structures, as the country has only one machine in a defence lab. Monash students can use the synchrotron next to its campus.

Private companies normally do not support PhD work in India. In IITB-Monash, Piramal Life Sciences is supporting a student to study biological protein structures, Thermax supports a project to study energy transport in fluids, and Reliance Life Sciences is supporting students to study algae. All of them have important commercial applications.

Access to --- or lack of --- research equipment is a common problem across all institutions in India. In IIT-Bombay, where the academy students work, students have to give an application and wait for weeks. When the permission comes, many facilities are open only from 9 am to 5 pm. Things are much simpler in Australia, where the labs are available 18 hours a day and procedures very streamlined. There are few distractions to work as well. It is no wonder that students and professors accomplish more in overseas campuses.

Source: The Economic Times (Online Edition), September 20, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive