Let’s Do It This Way

Let_s Do It This Way

Winston Churchill once wrote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Ironically, Churchill’s observation applies, if anything, most profoundly to our system of professional education today. Professional colleges sit at the apex of India’s system of ‘higher education’—one of the largest in the world. A network of around 18,000 universities and colleges churn out in excess of 15 million students a year; third only to the United States and China. Only a tenth of this number takes up a professional degree, with a vast 70 per cent of the college population opting for vanilla bachelor degrees (BA, BSc and BCom).

So we might reasonably expect the engineers, doctors and scientists, who constitute the creme de la creme of this enormous mass, to be of exceptional calibre. The truth, however, is less than palatable. A recent survey by HR professionals estimated that less than one in four engineering graduates from over 1,400 engineering colleges were employable by industry, irrespective of the demand. These and several other reports have all repeatedly cited a serious shortfall of both knowledge and application in engineering and medical graduates, combined with poor English language skills.

A syllabus—and ‘portions’—dominated instruction, the stress on rote memory over understanding and theory over practice have reduced our professional colleges to little more than an extension of our disastrous primary and secondary school system. What can then be done? I am going to propose an idea: radically de-school and re-skill professional education in our country. Cut the theory elements significantly in favour of applied work and training, with each taking up equal weight in the entire curriculum. The results can be surprising.

Let me give an example from my own experience. I run a company that carries out, among other things, applied R&D in certain types of composite materials. Many of the products we work with are in markets traditionally dominated by large companies with established R&D teams. Yet, in these very same areas, we have over the years developed products that can be truly termed ‘firsts of their kind’ globally. Remarkably, many of these developments have emanated in our company from people who have either a basic science degree or just a high school science education—some of them from the local villages and small towns around Mysore.

How is this possible? The answer lies in a passion for experimental learning. Over the years, these boys have conducted thousands of experiments in countless permutations and combinations of our basic building blocks—polymers, chemicals, fibres and the like—in their pursuit of new composite materials. Lest this be mistaken for pure grunt work, let me add that such experimentation is always informed by basic theory, whether gleaned from books or from the academic world.
The result is a deep intuitive feel for the behaviour of these materials and their interactions which, when combined with lateral thinking and the creative impulse, leads to some startling innovation. The team that recently developed a breakthrough battery separator material in our company—the first of its kind globally—was headed by a man with just a diploma, assisted by two others with high school science qualification.

It is no one’s argument that such a model is applicable universally to all fields, but at the very least it points to the power of practice, and of the thoughtful application of such practice to the workplace. It also points to a solution: involving potential employers in providing the practice, through an apprenticeship of two years built into the typical four-year programme. The visionary architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “I’m not a genius. I’m just a tremendous bundle of experience.” The mandarins who direct our education system would do well to reflect on his words. It is time to de-school and re-skill our professional education.

Article Link : http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/lets-do-it-this-way/265852

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Fledgling Flight Path


Last month a retired IIT professor asked me to meet a youngster he was mentoring. The boy had just graduated from one of the NITs in Assam and was convinced he had developed something exciting in the area of self-healing materials. These are polymer matrices with the ability to repair themselves when ruptured, and, as one may expect, are currently at the cutting edge of a host of important applications from medicine to aerospace. He had made a very small quantity of the stuff—less than a kilogram—in the lab and he was excited about taking it to market with his own start-up. As he furiously scribbled polymer chains on his notepad, explaining his concept, I was conscious of mixed feelings. Pride that a college in a Northeast hill state was actually producing passionate students of science and engineering fired up to do something on their own. But also apprehensive about how this bright young man would cross the chasm that has claimed so many would-be entrepreneurs in India-the notorious ‘valley of death’.

This evocative phrase was first used in the US sometime in the 1990s by policymakers to describe a serious problem: how can technology development and innovation in our universities and research institutions be successfully taken to market? It’s an enormously important question for India.
Picking up the business newspapers these days, one can be forgiven for thi­nking that India has pretty much solved the problem. Filling these pages are gushing sound bites of how this or that hot new app or e-commerce venture are pulling in millions of dollars of VC funding (‘rupee’ is not the fashion in these reports). These local dreams are further fuelled by other reports of start-ups less than a year or two old being acquired by Google or Facebook, and the staggering valuations of companies like the taxi service Uber ($17 billion), or our home-grown Flipkart ($3 billion).
This, in itself, I have no quarrel with. Who is to say these numbers are just spin by dream merchants out to raise fresh rounds of capital from other investors? And these start-ups surely have their place in the new economy towards which urban India is transitioning. But I do have an issue with a troubling side-effect of their dominating the business press: it takes the eyes of the government and public away from the very different problems innovation start-ups face in the ‘real’ economy.

To place the problem in perspective, take the youngster above. He needs to locate scale-up equipment, re-engineer it, spend many anxious hours on product and process trials, and invest in downstream processing and quality testing machinery—some of which can be very expensive. Product development at some point will likely require multi-disciplinary teams from areas such as mechanical engineering, chemistry, polymer processing, and so on. This is the lab-to-pilot-to-commercial scale problem so central to ‘commercialisation of technology’ (COT) world over. His only hope is an innovation-friendly, multi-disciplinary environment only an academic institution can provide. With the help of ropes provided by others (usually members of his college faculty), he is inching his way slowly to the valley floor.

Let us say he is lucky in his choice of college and that he manages to reach the bottom. He is exhausted but elated (though sobered by the sight of dead bodies of those that didn’t make it). But hardly has he taken a few more steps than he sees before him a big, fast flowing river that fills the valley floor. This is the river of market risk: one of the most treacherous waters to navigate.

He has made a product, perhaps even a great product, after enormous effort and expenditure of creative energy. But can it be offered at a cost that is viable to a customer? How to establish the value proposition across a vast array of industries and applications? How to even get a foot in their door? Let us not forget that customers will put the product through their own—often extended—evaluations. How will he support himself through this period? VCs will find such a business model either of too long a gestation or too risky or too capital-intensive. Bank funding is there only in name for first-time entrepreneurs. And the actual process of obtaining a loan are now so tortuous and the terms of repayment so stringent as to be practically useless. This, then, is that part of the valley where the poor chap needs help the most. But he is now almost completely alone.

The valley of death looms for IT/ITES start-ups too, but to a much less extent. Infrastructure needs are limited-equipment mainly to computers-and the regulations far less taxing. The ecosystem of urban India provides talent and angel investors to back them. But it is in manufacturing and product innovation that we have a huge untapped opportunity in rural India. With a massive population in excess of 500 million in the employable age, we face an employment challenge of huge proportions, for which the solution cannot lie in IT.

I recently attended an expo inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan grounds in Delhi where an astonishing array of innovations from rural India were displayed: low-cost tillers, soil-health diagnostic kits, fruit sorters using low-cost digital imaging, and so on. The innovators were from modest backgrounds, educated at local schools and colleges, who had somehow struggled to get through the first descent. If they succeed in crossing the valley, they will likely employ those who most need productive employment opportunities: rural and semi-urban youth in their local areas.

This is exactly what I have done in Mysore, where my company does research and innovation in special composites. We have built a shop floor that is boundary-less, with a seamless integration between R&D and production to minimise time-to-market for new products. Crucially, almost all our talent pool in R&D and manufacturing is from neighbouring towns and villages. These people do not speak fluent English, but are bright and technically very capable, and anchored in the locality. In other words, perfect for a company like ours. But it has taken time and patie­nce to build the company and I have to say I have been luckier than most. India desperately needs a long-term approach to capacity building in COT.

Only the central and state governments acting in concert to a well-defined COT policy framework can do this. Of course, the Department of Science & Technology (DST) does try to do its bit to support grassroots innovation, but to put matters in perspective, their total budget for 2014 is Rs 3,500 crore, of which support for COT forms only a small fraction. Needless to say, this is a drop in the ocean for a country of our size and the hopes and aspirations of its thousands of potential entrepreneurs. The DST programmes are also are of limited use in assisting the start-up in the final phase of spinoff, where commercial factors are paramount.

There is a bit to go before bridging the chasm. Till then, our real economy start-ups will be doomed to ride into the valley of death with cannons firing all about them.

Article Link : http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/fledgling-flight-path/292052

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The PM gets four sage lessons in governing India


The PM was at his desk at midnight, when a chill wind gusted and a figure materialised on the chair opposite—a man in dhoti and angavastram, tanp­ura in hand. It was Naradmuni.
“Prabhu!” The PM saluted reverentially.
“Who designs these things?” The sage shifted crossly. “If you can’t get even your chairs right, how will you ever ‘Make in India’?”
“Holy one, please guide me,” said Modi humbly. “I feel my path is blocked by enemies whichever way I turn.”
Narada’s gaze became spiercing. “What is this path?”
“My path for the country.”
“Hmm… And where does it lead?”
“Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas,” Modi said without any hesitation at all.
“Shabash!” The sage clapped his hands. “Call it SKSSKV. How much time do you need to achieve it?”
Modi paused. His brain was swamped—the farm crisis, jobs, industrial recession…. “Ten-fifteen years,” he said hesitantly.
“That’s two elections,” Narada laughed. “How many voted for you two years ago?”
“Prabhu, 31 per cent,” the PM con­ceded reluctantly.
“And now?”
Another moment of truth. Support was dropping. Some opinion polls were even showing a small surge for the Congress. Narada had read his thoughts. “What of your Congress-mukt Bharat?” he asked sarcastically.
“It’s not fair,” Modi said bitterly. “My enemies….”
“But I’m not one of them, Narendra,” Narada said. “When you took your oath on the Gita, no one was more hopeful than me. But your party seems to be your worst enemy. At this midnight hour, it is still possible for you to awaken, to deliver SKSSKV. But only if you understand the Four Principles.”
“The Four Principles?”
“The first is the Arjuna Principle. When aiming his arrow, Arjuna saw nothing but the bird. So must you hold SKSSKV in your sight, animating your every waking moment, your every action.”
“But that’s what I have been trying, prabhu!”
“And how?” asked Narada. “By banning beef and hurting the poorest? By allowing your lieutenants to sow discord and fear among our Muslim brethren? Sab means all, Narendra. Have you observed that those who speak the loudest do the least? But they drown out whatever good you achieve.”
Before he could reply, Narada said, “Now, the Second Principle. Have you read Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War? He’d said, in your kind of one-liner: ‘The less you fight, the more you win. Pick your battles, Narendra. Bharat is full of problems. Why pick on Kanhaiya? Unbelievable!”
“But onward to the Third Principle. When Alexander the Great entered Gordium in 333 BC, he saw an ox-cart tied to a post by a knot so complex no one could untie it. Do you know what he did? He took up his sword and cut it. Now, what is your Gordian Knot?”
Modi realised this was no ordinary conversation but a deep Upanishad. He stilled his mind and the answer formed itself.
“The Indian bureaucracy, O sage.”
Narada nodded. “Exactly. I’ve wan­dered the three worlds, Nar­e­ndra. Nowhere have I seen a creature like it. If you do not cut through it, forget 15 years, you will not achieve MGMG even in one yuga.”
“MGMG? What’s that?”
“Minimum government, maximum governance.”
“But how?” Modi burst out. “I work them day and night….”
“Narendra, free your mind. Could Alexander have succeeded with a cricket bat? A bat can never be a blade, even if it is Tendulkar’s.”
“You follow cricket, holy one?” But the PM saw the sage frown, and added hastily, “But what’s my sword?”
But Narada had risen to his feet. “And now the Fourth Principle, the one above all.” He plucked at a string of the tanpura. A note of inexpressible power filled the room. “And that is love. Love of this land, its people. In that alone is your redemption.”
Modi sat transfixed. “But Lord, you leave me with so many questions.”
“Yes,” said Narada. “Rahul said the same thing.”
The PM leapt to his feet. “Rahul? Rahul Gandhi? But, holy one….”
The sage held up the tanpura. “A strong enemy is your best ally. Sun Tzu again.”
And with that he was gone.

Article Link : http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-naradayana/296873

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