India’s next big task: Turning academic researchers into entrepreneurs

Updated: Dec 04, 2020 7:51 PM

Tech startups have garnered a lot of attention, but only recently are we beginning to see more academicians turn to entrepreneurship. They are keen to turn their research into tangible, real-world impact at scale.

Pune doctors, pune scientists, standford university ranking, top research in medical feild, top researcher in respiratory medicine, Indian doctors rankingAcademic entrepreneurs are bringing cutting edge, scalable solutions to the table, and that makes them attractive to investors. (Representative image) (Reuters Photo)
  • By Esha Tiwary

American biochemist Jennifer Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering research in CRISPR gene editing technology. Their invention could power a test kit that detects the novel coronavirus in just five minutes, compared to the current test, which takes a whole day. From the race to develop a vaccine to producing innovative ventilators and finding ways to speed up testing, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many to search for answers. Scientists and researchers are looking beyond their labs to scale and create impact through their innovations. And to do this, they are looking for marketers and business leaders to help turn research into real-world solutions.

The global pandemic is showing us the power of collaboration as business minds and academicians are coming together to find solutions. As this is not limited to healthcare – the current situation has sparked massive changes in consumer behaviour globally, most of which are here to stay. This has resulted in a host of new problems for researchers and business leaders to come together and solve.

Upending the ecosystem

Entrepreneurs in India have traditionally started out with small-scale business establishments, joining family-run businesses or getting degrees from top B-schools. Over the last two decades, tech start-ups have disrupted this model, making it possible for anyone with talent and ambition to succeed in starting and scaling a company. According to a NASSCOM report, the Indian technology start-up landscape has evolved to become the fourth largest in the world. The total number of tech start-ups in the country has grown to 8,900-9,300, with 1,300 startups being added in 2019 alone. Over 18 per cent of all start-ups in India are now leveraging deep tech (such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, NLP, etc.) which means there are over 1,600 deep-tech companies in India. This number constituted only eight per cent in 2014 and has seen a 40 per cent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the past five years, said the report.

Tech startups have garnered a lot of attention, but only recently are we beginning to see more academicians turn to entrepreneurship. They are keen to turn their research into tangible, real-world impact at scale. We only need to look at the MIT Technology Review’s peer-reviewed annual award and listicle ‘Innovators under 35’ to understand the rapidly changing landscape of market-ready innovations. This year’s innovations range from artificial intelligence (AI) to biodegradable plastic and energy-efficient textiles. While the ecosystem provides opportunities for innovation, powered by new-age tools such as data analytics, machine learning (ML), etc., it’s also important to ensure that market-led discoveries are encouraged at the academic stage in order to remain ahead of the global curve.

Another important factor to be considered is the opportunity to address the gender gap in the sector. In 2015, only 14 per cent of the patent applications listed women as inventors. Academic entrepreneurship offers a level playing field for female researchers, who account for about 40 per cent of the academic talent pool globally.

Also read: Long term recovery for Covid-hit MSMEs to be uneven; hinges on these sectors in 6-12 months ahead

Attracting Investors

Academic Entrepreneurs are bringing cutting edge, scalable solutions to the table, and that makes them attractive to investors. Their deep skills in technological advances enable them to work on new and innovative solutions to business problems, thus differentiating them from other startups. Interestingly, a scientist inherently has several skills that make a good entrepreneur: a scientist working on tech innovations is not deterred by challenges or problems, or the time and effort it takes to solve them. In fact, for many, problems only serve as a steer towards greater impact.

Paving new pathways

The Covid-19 related economic downturn has impacted several higher education establishments across the world. Strained resources, pressure on research funding, and hiring freezes in the higher education sector are likely to further narrow the career pathways for scientists and researchers. In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, universities today are addressing the challenge with innovative courses as well as industry tie-ups to provide the right exposure to their students. The idea is to push for academic success as well as prepare their students for paving new pathways to entrepreneurial success.

As per government data, India has about 6,214 engineering and technology institutions with approximately 2.9 million students. While this presents us with huge opportunities, it also leaves us with a responsibility to upgrade and create market-centric solutions for our engineering and research students, adapting to the rapidly changing ecosystem and the new opportunities it presents to today’s academicians.

What India needs to build today is a culture of academic entrepreneurs who are passionate and eager to take their research to market. Entrepreneurship can empower people and give them the freedom to turn their research into an impactful product used by millions of people. But a critical step in this journey is the collaboration between two sets of ambitious, talented individuals – the academicians or future CTOs and the market-minded or future CEOs of Indian startups.

Esha Tiwary is the General Manager at Entrepreneur First – India. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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