Food Cafe: ‘Batteries are the new oil’, IIT Madras Director Bhaskar Ramamurthy explains how India needs to catch missed buses in technology

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New Delhi | Published: November 19, 2018 3:55:46 AM

The director of IIT Madras—which is entering the diamond jubilee year—shares with Sushila Ravindranath that, in this era of GST, it is easy to figure out where the value-added lies, and anything that is value-added should be made in India. He explains how, towards that, the IITs can contribute.

food sector, food industryPortrait: Shyam Kumar Prasad

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras is entering its 60th year. It has been ranked the top among the engineering institutes in India for three consecutive years by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). Bhaskar Ramamurthi, the director of IIT Madras, says, “We have taken great strides since our golden jubilee in 2008 in every parameter by which one may choose to measure our institute’s growth and performance. As we enter the diamond jubilee year, we are confident that we will accelerate even further and scale newer heights in research, teaching and innovation.”

Prof Ramamurthi is himself a product of IIT Madras from the year of 1980, with a BTech in electronics from the institute. He earned his MS and PhD in electrical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. After working at AT&T Bell Laboratories for a couple of years, he returned to his alma mater as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1986. He took over as the director of IIT Madras in September 2011. His areas of specialisation are communications and signal processing. Ramamurthi, in fact, is one of the pioneers of wireless telephony in the country.

“Let’s grab a bite at our food court,” says Prof Ramamurthi, when I suggest lunch to talk about the strides taken and the future course. It is very difficult to get anybody in IIT to come outside the very green campus for lunch or coffee.

The director’s office is about 2-km from the entrance and the spanking new food court is a five-minute walk from his office. Appropriately called Food for Thought, it has several eateries offering a variety of cuisines, ranging from Tibetan momos, Chinese and Italian to health food and fruit juices and milkshakes.

We serve ourselves orange juice and vegetarian momos, and take a table. “The mandate of the IITs, as stated in the Sarkar Committee report, is very clear. We are a research university. We do research in the areas of engineering science and technology. We began with taking undergraduate students and research. IIT Madras is technology-oriented,” he says.

The institutes came out with good publications in the early years as well. “The papers were good, but the numbers modest. During my student days in the late 1970s, when I was assisting my professors in research, it was very expensive to send even five copies of the paper abroad. We have come a very long way since then. We had to evolve naturally. IIT Madras was the first one to set up a research wing, the Hans Wagner Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research, way back in 1973. The trend has continued over the decades,” Prof Ramamurthi adds.

We opt for pizza margherita from the Italian counter, and settle down again. IIT Madras’s achievements over the years are too many to recall here. All the IITs now are associated with institutions such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). “We, too, have made significant contributions to the defence and space sectors. To give you an example, for GSLV launches, we have worked on dissipating heat, reduction of noise and vibration in a far more cost-effective way than what NASA does. IIT Madras has been a cog in the wheel for many new developments at ISRO,” he says.

Soon after he was appointed in September 2011, Prof Ramamurthi initiated the ‘IIT Madras Strategic Plan 2020’, where quantified targets for all key pillars of the institute were chalked out. These include a flexible curriculum suited to the aspirations of today’s youth, high-quality faculty, and a thriving research environment.

I ask Prof Ramamurthi about working with industry, and interaction between institutions. “We set up the country’s first university-based research park, and a highly active startup ecosystem with over 130 companies having been incubated. We started incubating startups and began mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs in the 1990s. The term ‘incubating’ wasn’t much heard of then. It’s a different story today,” he says.

He adds that, a few years ago, people were worried that the IITs are simply churning out programming machines which are going abroad. “The number of startups getting incubated in our cell has seen an increase of 18% during 2017-18, with the cumulative funds raised by these companies going up to `8 billion. It has generated a cumulative revenue of `1.35 billion during the year. Young people are willing to dirty their hands.”

The professor has to rush to another meeting. I persuade him to have coffee and tell me about the latest breakthroughs. IIT Madras researchers have designed and booted up India’s first indigenously-developed microprocessor that can be used in mobile computing devices, embedded low-power wireless systems and networking systems, besides reducing reliance on imported microprocessors in communications and defence sectors. The microprocessor developed here can be used by others, as it is on par with international standards. The ‘SHAKTI’ family of processors was fabricated at the Semi-Conductor Laboratory of ISRO.

“We have missed several buses in the field of electronics. Our electronic import bill is huge. It is now very difficult to catch up. We offer no particular advantage for big electronics fabrication units to come up in the country. We have been wrapping our heads to find solutions to crack this issue. Developing a microprocessor is not impossible. But to use it, we need an ecosystem, which we sadly lack,” he says.

IIT Madras is a founding member of the open source foundation RISC-V. This is the first ‘RISC-V Microprocessor’ to be completely designed and made in India. Prof Ramamurthi adds: “We now get exposure to the global ecosystem and that opens up a lot of possibilities. We have to have a proper strategy. We have to figure out how to add value in India. We have to do what South Korea did with DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) chips.”

He says that India has to pull in skills in various fields to become a global power. “In this era of GST, it is easy to figure out where the value-added lies. Anything that is value-added should be made in India. China imports $100 billion worth of electronics from Taiwan, and exports $300 billion worth of goods. In electronics, traditional models don’t work. We have to find the next opportunity.”

As we are about to leave, I ask him where does that next opportunity lie? “Here is where startups fit in, to crack some intractable problems. Batteries are the next oil. We have to get in at the right moment. We are working on this. Also, the next ballgame is 5G. Millimetre technology is in its infancy. Let’s climb into the ground floor.”

“We will enter our diamond jubilee addressing technically-missed buses,” says Prof Ramamurthi, returning to his office brimming with optimism. I get back to the crowded road, trekking 2-km.

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