Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala is a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) and in-charge, IIT Research Park.AJ is an innovator, leader and mentor in the electric vehicle (EV) space, telecom, rural development, solar power and has been incubating and nurturing entrepreneurs. He believes India must first exploit the technical knowledge of its engineers to designing battery packaging and then look for opportunities in manufacturing cells when indigenous resources expand.
The Don drove me from the multi-storeyed car park of the IIT-M Research Park to the sprawling campus of IIT-M through the industry-academia bridge. It could not have been more appropriate as Ashok has been the bridge between industry and academia for innovating and commercialising technology. He is clear: “there is no point in technologies sitting in the laboratory. It has to be commercialised. Only then, innovation will flourish.”
You can now connect the Marwar-Jhunjhunwala business acumen in Ashok. A few decades ago, Jhunjhunwala innovated a new application in wireless technology. He found an answer to the last mile hitch in telecom by innovating connectivity through radio waves, resolving the frequent disconnection suffered due to the cable ruptures. The revered innovator told me of a valuable lesson he learnt during that phase: that innovation happens when we bring together three sets of specialists. The first is an experienced leader who knows the industry inside-out including how to make and market a product. Next is the academician who has extensive knowledge and bubbles with ideas. Finally, you have the young graduate who never says, “I don’t know; it cannot be done. It’s 5 p.m; I have to leave for home.” The point is simple. When someone doubts something on its being doable, innovation stops. The youth has the energy to persist with efforts to get around bottlenecks.”
SARASWATHI AND LAKSHMI WORK TOGETHER
At the Research Park, the mandarins tried to put these three groups of people together by providing the needed infrastructure. The Park took care of the creative comforts of the youth. “We make the workspace liveable. While building the new battery centre, someone suggested a mezzanine floor where a relaxing zone could be housed. We are providing this. The scientist can just climb up and chill!”
Jhunjhunwala believes that projects should not depend on government grants, subsidies and doles, but should be economically viable on their own. He pointed out that the Park, set up the cost of over Rs. 600 crore, had only Rs. 100 crore mobilised from grants, donations, and government contributions. What attracted industry, academics, and students was the sheer strength of the idea. While eight years ago, only 10 per cent of the academia had tie-ups with the industry, today this has increased to 50 percent. Academicians have started to run their own companies alongside industry. We find Saraswathi and Lakshmi working together,” says AJ.
Jhunjhunwala drove me in his electric vehicle (EV) that was designed and produced for him three years ago by Mahindra & Mahindra. The ride was smooth and noise-free. The professor explained the substantial work done on EVs at IIT-M, including battery packs being built at the Park. He pointed to a lot of work done in this field in the US, Europe, Japan and China and India entering the EV technology late. “We have to do it as quickly as possible. I expect a breakthrough in two-wheeler and three-wheelers this year. We will crack four-wheeler EV technology next year. EVs for buses will take one more year.” The scientist, who has several patents to his credit, expressed confidence over developing the technology indigenously. Not for nothing did he, in his stint at Delhi with the Power Ministry for a couple of years, establish a close rapport with policymakers and is confident of getting his projects cleared fast.
PURDUE AND IIT-M PARK
Last year, I visited the sprawling Research Park of Purdue University in the US. Over the years, the university has incubated hundreds of innovative projects that have evolved into commercial successes. Several large companies have been provided space for continuing with their research and innovations. The IIT-M Research Park has grown in a short time into such an institution. It’s gratifying to see talented leaders of our country working on similar pursuits in such quick time. Within the campus, I drove the battery powered auto rickshaw (three wheeler). It was easy to operate, and its technology is continuously upgraded. Battery development is a significant factor that would decide on the success of EVs and its cost assumes importance.
Innovative approach to battery design
I met with Tamaswati Ghosh, Prabjhot Kaur, Jaya Umadikar, Akhila, Vijaykumar and several other young scientists and researchers who are thoroughly inspired and impacted by the passion and spirit of Jhunjhunwala. They explained the innovative approach in designing batteries:
“India does not have commercially viable cell production plants. So we imported the cells and make battery packs out of these through effective use of the knowledge available in electrical, mechanical and thermal management. We focus on all the segments – two and three wheelers, cars and buses. EV manufacturers who have been importing the battery packs have now tied up with us to develop these. We already have tie-ups with 25 companies.
“Cells are being produced in several countries. Imports are possible at competitive prices. Cell manufacturers across the globe look at India as a potentially large market. Thus importing these is feasible. We take care to grade the cells and address the quality and safety concerns. The Park is working closely with OEMs, battery manufacturers and charger companies. Leading Indian battery manufacturers have been working with us on R&D of lithium-ion batteries,” they said.
Jhunjhunwala approaches the battery issue with elan and differently from conventional thinking. With the large population of two and three wheelers, there is an intense focus on this segment. Statistics show that 90 per cent of the two-wheeler rider has a daily run not exceeding 60 km. He reasons that the need is to focus on smaller sized batteries that would reduce costs. Since building the battery as part of the vehicle adds to costs, his scheme envisages separating the battery from the vehicle business and then lease and swapping the batteries with charges related to usage. This obviates the need for the expensive network of charging stations. Here, one can just swap the battery and do the charging at home during nights.
I asked Ghosh on the challenges at the Park. She explained:
“Physical infrastructure is never a constraint for startups. We provide these at the IITMRP. Far more significant challenges relate to the early validation of their achievements, their understanding of the markets, interaction with the customers, etc., which would help in quicker graduation into a successful venture. In niche areas like life sciences, access to high-tech equipment will be needed; even this may not be a big challenge.”
China’s success has been built on large volume production. But scaling up requires resources. Can we do this? I asked.
Ghosh pointed to several Indian startups that have scaled up quick in time. eg., Freshworks, Flipkart and Ola. But large companies come to startups for solutions. “They come to get answers for their future growth and not for scaling up production. Startups have transformed the traditional way of working with their innovative ideas. Startups help reduce the R&D time for the biggies. These give futuristic solutions at far lower costs and help the biggies sustain in a competitive market. In some sectors India is at par with the US in terms of startups. Ghosh added: “if you look at the IIT faculty, you will find many of these were recruited from abroad. They bring with them the knowledge and expertise in applied research and commercialisation.”
It all started with a rural technology incubator…
IITMRP has been enabling its faculty and students to interact with specialists in industries and research institutions. The young scientists explained:
“Twenty years ago informal incubation started when a rural technology incubator was launched. The focus was on supporting startups involved in rural and social space. The critical areas focused were agriculture, education and skill development. The number of faculty-student groups graduating from IIT-M interested in starting their own ventures was growing. Thus the need for a formal set up to incubate these new ventures was felt and six years ago an incubation cell was established. Then came the biotech and medtech incubators. Today, there are four incubation cells, each acting as a nodal body for coordinated work. Incubation support like shared office space, business support services, training and networking events, investors meet… are common to all startups.
Leading to startups, thence to commercial vehicles…
“Senior alumni formed the IIT-M Entrepreneurship Forum to help startups. Each week three to four startups signed up and a couple of mentors were made available to guide them. Funds were also provided to incubators from Rs. 5–10 lakh to Rs 35-40 lakh. Soft loans were also offered, and help was given in availing government schemes. The park provides incubation for 18 months. After this, the project is tested for sustainability, the ability to earn revenues quickly; the assigned mentor enabled them to attract needed investments. Then we connect with angel investors and venture capitalists. We also connect them with external set of advisors to assist in their early stages.
“Today 184 companies are being incubated. Fifty of these have graduated and there are approximately 20 closures. 90 to 95 per cent are strong technology companies. Some of these also specialised in data analytics, AI and machine learning.
IIT-M Research Park has its own board of management. The vision is to encourage industry to set up its R&D centres in the park and closely work with IIT-M faculty and research scholars. For instance, Saint Gobain has set up its global R&D centre here. Hundreds of incubators and startups are also located in the research park.”