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Industry academia research partnerships a powerful way to upgrade talent base

Posted: 30 Apr 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share


The experience of the semiconductor industry in the US indicates that university research has been one of the key factors of the industry's growth. Although in India there are instances of industry-academia research linkage, these however take place in discrete pockets, and are not widely prevalent. However, during the past one year or so, there have been growing instances of research collaboration between industry and scientific, engineering and research institutions in India. Yet, these are so far confined to India's premier institutions.

Observers of India's industry and the academic world, who shared their views with EE Times-India, are expectant, even hopeful that this vital yet missing link in India's R&D make-up will soon be addressed.

There is near unanimous agreement within industry circles that academic research brings in a longer term research focus to industry's R&D initiatives. This is viewed as a potentially advantageous augmentation of industry's research and development capability, given industry's shorter term concerns, owing to budgetary and performance-related compulsions.

"This provides an avenue for industry to get into research areas that academic institutes are into, and prepare the base ground. By the time, the development is commercially exploitable, there is already a base platform of prototyped technology available for industry, which can be commercialised, perfected, and engineered by the industry," observed Rajendra Khare, chairman of India Semiconductor Association (ISA).

Two, it provides industry a single-point access to cross-functional, multi-disciplinary knowledge and capability. This is a crucial capability given the interdisciplinary nature of applications of semiconductor technology.

"More and more, we find that the technologies that we are involved in, are getting into markets that are as diverse as medical electronics, communication, motor control, and industrial control," affirmed Sham Banerji, Texas Instrument India's director corporate business.

"When industry works with an academic institution, it works not just with one professor or one department, but a whole ecosystem of multi-disciplinary knowledge and research support," Khare pointed out.

Academic institutions also have the innate capacity to expand the talent base for research in a cost-effective manner, by involving academically brilliant students pursuing doctoral studies in the research programmes.

Industry, on its turn, would lend the much required focus to academic research, apart from introducing an element of accountability in the research.

One way it would provide the focus is through precise definition of the research problem, drawing from its fund of experience with markets and their requirements. This will ensure sure that the research done is useful, relevant, and applicable in real life.

"Industry can also productise and commercially exploit the technology developed, and take benefits of research through the design-to-production chain," noted Amit Patra, professor of electrical engineering, IIT Kharagpur.

"Earlier, even if a faculty member developed a chip, which was a good one, at best he would go up to the proof of concept stage, and that would be the end of it," Patra reasoned. "With industry partnering in the research, there is someone who is working with the faculty member, making sure that what he does is more useful. And, then they would carry out work to productise the development, taking the research to its logical conclusion."

Industry could also provide the invaluable support of resources that are either lacking or deficient, to steer the research in the correct course. These could include augmentation of research fellowships disbursed by academic institutions to their researchers, research infrastructure, equipment, and tools, and meeting research related expenses.

Mentorship of research projects by industry representatives could by far be industry's most significant contribution to the partnership, as it can go as far as to augment an institute's research capability, observed Patra.

"Through mentorship of research projects, many top notch people in industry can actually play an auxiliary role, even while they are working in a company. They can exercise their research acumen, and also bring knowledge of markets and their requirement, to contribute greatly to the research environment in the country," Patra pointed out.

"With pressure on academic institutions, given the proposed additions to university seat capacity, there is a potential risk of academia slowly going out of bandwidth. Mentorship of research projects by industry, and student internship programmes in industry, can augment its research capability."

Models for collaborative research

A variety of models are in evidence worldwide in the existing forms of industry-academia research collaboration. These can be broadly classed as one-one model of engagement between an industry and an academic institute; and the consortium approach that unifies a group of industries or institutes on a single platform.

There are over a handful of examples of one-one research collaboration in India. Institutes such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Indian Institutes of Technology at Chennai, Mumbai, Kharagpur, and other prominent institutes have all deployed that model in areas of interest to the semiconductor industry, and have ongoing research engagements with companies in various industries on a one-one basis.

IIT Kharagpur and the TeNet (Telecommunications and Computer Networks) group of IIT Chennai are arguably the earliest to have deployed the consortium model. The AVLSI Consortium at IIT Kharagpur is focused on advanced VLSI research.

There can be several interesting variations within the consortium model of collaboration. For instance, Semiconductor Research Corporation, a semiconductor industry consortium in the US funds multiple universities in multiple areas of research. SRC is a university research management consortium that aims to solve technical challenges facing the semiconductor industry, and develop technical talent for its member companies.

Another interesting form of collaborative research comes under focus in the initiative by certain academic institutes to incubate start-up firms. A prime and successful example of this, as mentioned before, is the TeNet group of IIT Chennai.

Going one step further along that line, is a network of premier academic institutions in India to help incubate start-up firms, called National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). NEN, founded in 2002, is a not-for-profit initiative, whose goal is to develop the next generation of high-growth entrepreneurs in India, and help launch thousands of new entrepreneurs. NEN has been co-founded by five of India's premier academic institutions—IIT, Mumbai; Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; SP Jain Institute, Mumbai; Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB), Bangalore; and Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani.

Large scientific research institutions such as the IISc have an illustrious history of collaborative research initiatives with industry, and are known to have deployed multiple models of collaborative agreements.

"We have gone through partnerships of generic support with our industry partners, where our partner specifies the area of research. We have also gone through what you may call collaborative agreements in which we have worked on a series or a number of areas in which industry is interested. We have also gone through very specific projects – one specific project per industry. The models are different depending on the different requirements of the industry," highlighted HP Khincha, professor, department of electrical engineering, IISc Bangalore.

So what looks the most effective model for the Indian R&D system? Many in the industry seem to believe that the consortium model would be the answer to that question. The consortium model, in which multiple companies could pool together their monetary and other key resources, would be an ideal foil to the present low level of governmental funding, they believe. To augment the resource pool further, the companies could go a step further and partner with the government to fund applied R&D in the country.

"An example of a consortium model that has worked very well for many years is the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) in the US. The SRC is a separate organisation that has multiple industry and academic members. Cadence is deeply involved with the SRC today and is getting a lot of value from it. A similar model can be explored for India," said Dr. Alok Jain, senior architect, Cadence Design Systems (India).

However, it would be very important to build in certain safeguards in the consortium model. "Within a consortium, you could have various companies which are competing with each other in the market. The key thing is to see that the typical research which is going on, can benefit the industry as a whole, and yet facilitate a differentiation at the company level, with the output of research generated," Harsh Parikh, senior manager partnerships, Infineon Technologies (India) cautioned.

"Basically, we need to come up with a model in which the kind of relationship established with a university, encourages a certain level of research within the university that provides not only the manpower, but also creates an industry-specific manpower within the IIT."

Rather than opting for a particular model, academic institutes should explore different forms of partnership, and settle with what meets their level of comfort most, said Khincha. "It would be difficult to put a finger on which model is the most effective way to go. I think anywhere where we have comfortable levels of working with the industry, comfortable interaction scenarios, and a correspondingly comfortable sharing of the gains that we will have from the research of all types, I think that model looks best for the Indian system," was Khincha's view.

There is no denying the consensus within the industry that it is time the government, industry, and academia in India get together to strengthen the various industry-academia partnership models in action. An important rider is that the collaborations would need to be charted in specific directions, with specific areas of focus, to grow the semiconductor industry up the value chain. The thrust needs to be on building multi-disciplinary research capability, is the viewpoint that emerged with solidarity.

Powerful idea to multiply the research talent base

Industry academia partnerships would establish a rich context for a highly potent idea to grow or improve the quality of research in India, stated Karthik S, engineering director, Analog Devices (India), from a reflective stance.

"There is a wholly different dimension to industry academia research collaboration. Industry can view research as a vehicle for talent generation in India's universities. When universities work on leading edge research, the students in those universities will be exposed to real life problems," Karthik explained.

"Research is also an important ingredient of faculty improvement. Industry can give realistic, tough, cutting edge problems to academia, and guide the institute towards solving those problems. Industry can then safeguard that the solution is not trivialised, by giving academia real life, real world constraints, so that both faculty as well as students raise their levels of research."

"Academia can then get to do cutting edge research, their depth in semiconductors and VLSI will improve, and at the same time, we can produce world class students, who can join industry in India."

- Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan
  EE Times India

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