Mapping An Industry-Academia Collab Via Tech Clusters

A brainstorming session with various industry heads was held at IIITH recently on challenges that exist in industry-academia partnerships, and the scope of technology clusters in dealing with them. Here’s a brief summary. 

Not too long ago, universities worked on their own churning out research and academic papers that oftentimes had little relevance to the real world. Similarly industries relied on their own internal labs for innovative research rather than tapping into academic institutions engaged in similar pursuits. But all this is changing now. The importance of an industry-academia partnership that will fuel growth and innovation in the country has been recognised by no less than the Centre itself. One of the first major initiatives of the government has been the establishment of the National Mission on Interdisciplinary Cyber Physical Systems (NM-ICPS). With its aim of catalyzing translational research and accelerating entrepreneurship in the IT sector, the Mission has established 25 Technology Innovation Hubs at the IITs, IIITs, BITs Pilani, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata, and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. This unique model of having technology clusters in institutes to bring about strong collaboration and co-ownership among industry, academia, and the government in research clusters seems to be the way forward.

Clusters at IIITH
In early October this year, the International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad (IIITH) organized a roundtable meeting with senior leaders from the IT industry to deliberate and seek inputs specifically on amplifying industry-academic collaboration through such technology clusters. IIITH itself is no stranger to an industry engagement, being one of the first academic institutes to formally productize research from its various labs. In fact long before the establishment of a technology cluster like the iHub-Data Centre under the NM-ICPS, a ‘Product Lab’ was set up to translate research and innovations into products, and services for both commercial gains as well as societal good. Similarly, leveraging the core strengths of deep tech and IoT, the institute established a Centre of Excellence on IoT for Smart Cities in 2019. This centre set up with the support of the India-EU project runs a Smart City Living Lab that focuses on tracking and analysing data collected on parameters crucial for improving the human quality of life such as air quality, weather, water supply and quality, energy consumption, monitoring of crowds and so on. The iHub-Data centre, as the name suggests, focuses on being a centralized data repository that can provide a platform for tech-based startups and entrepreneurs. Smart mobility and healthcare have been identified as the current focus areas of this cluster. More recently, in order to solve grassroot challenges, the Raj Reddy Center for Technology and Society has been set up at the institute. Its aim is to take a bottoms-up approach, leveraging technology and research especially in the area of education – a domain close to Prof. Raj Reddy’s heart.

Discussion
With the aim of the roundtable discussion centred around increasing industry-academic collaboration, there was an exchange of views on what the industry expectations were, in general, from academia and how the pandemic in particular had changed these expectations. There was brainstorming on how technology or solution area-based clusters could be made more relevant to industry and if they could more directly address industry needs. Since technology alone cannot sustain marketability of a product, the need for partners to contribute equally with infrastructure and other resources for building solutions was evinced. A safe platform between companies and academia for sharing data as well as the latest in emerging technology would help both parties in creating viable solutions. There was general consensus among industry participants to have an ongoing interface for sustained engagement with academia. A model for various levels of engagement with the institute was mooted where a level zero (L0) would mean the industry is getting exposure to the various domains, level one (L1) would signify a narrow engagement where the industry begins a collaborative effort with the identification of a single problem, going up all the way to level three (L3) which showcases a deep engagement like the one currently displayed by Intel with IIITH.

Emerging Models of Industry Engagement 
Interestingly enough, non-traditional ways of industry-academia collaboration, those that go beyond the old-school internships, exist at IIITH. For instance, there is a Corporate Research Immersion program. It is a year-long partnership meant for tech companies to connect with research on campus through dialogs and workshops. Plus, the company gets to nurture a lab in the chosen area where research students can be supported in the form of internships. For a 2-way exchange of knowledge, regular quarterly meetings are held with the designated faculty member and company leadership. And then there’s a 6-month-long Deeptech Innovation Immersion program. Intended for mid-level leadership, the experience helps them to work on an idea from the ground up with workshops, ideation camps, mentoring and connecting with research. The latest is an industry-specific 2-year Masters program – the first such that focuses on working professionals looking for a unique blend of Product Design and Management.

Road Map
Noting the concerns of the delegates at the roundtable about fostering a more fruitful partnership with academia, the institute has committed to a more provocative research orientation in line with market needs along with the real time research that is routinely carried out. The suggestion to hire consultants from industry to interface with academia on a regular basis is also being seriously considered. In order to collaborate with the solution clusters, one of the most important suggestions that came out was to identify the right set of problems from various domains, build pilots with the right solutions and eventually scale them.

Panelists
The participants of the roundtable were as follows: Shankar Kambampaty, DXC India; Ramesh Kaza, State Street; Col Hani, Edgeforce; Jayaram Valliyur, Uber India; I Raj Kumar, Opentext; Tanay Kediyal, Allstate; Lalitmohan Sanagavarapu, Wellsfargo ; Sridhar Chunduri, Wellsfargo; Meher Nori, Broadridge; Santanu Paul, Talent Sprint; Ambuj Chaturvedi, IKP Knowledgepark; Murali Talasila, PwC; Prateek Khare, Fidelity; Venkatesh.narasimhan, Silicon Labs; Sudhir Subburaman, CGI and Udaya Dintyala, AT&T.

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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