India won’t be Atmanirbhar without collaboration between Industry and Academia

Last updated on December 7, 2020

The timeline to curb carbon emissions globally is growing disturbingly short and India will have to play its part as one of the biggest developing countries in the world. However, in order to continue lifting millions of people out of poverty, we will need to transition towards fossil free energy sources at the earliest. To achieve this, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has set out an ambitious goal of reaching 175 GW renewable energy capacity by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030. This target will not be achieved by the government alone and will require research institutions and renewable energy companies to collaborate with each other to drive innovation and growth. Earlier this month I released my debut book ‘Fossil Free: Reimagining Clean Energy in a Carbon Constrained World’ that analyses the last two energy transitions that the humanity witnessed and emphasises how the third energy transition is crucial to protect our planet from the green house gases. The book, in fact, presents a playbook to investors, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and common people alike to adopt clean energy technologies that are business positive and carbon negative.

ReNew Foundation, as part of its Thought Leadership programme, recently organized a webinar discussing the ways industry and academia can enrich cleantech innovation and adoption. It was heartening to engage with green leaders from across the world like Dr. V. Ramgopal Rao, Director, IIT Delhi; Dr. Sally Benson, Co-director, Stanford’s Precourt Institute and Director, Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project; and Ms. Vaishali Nigam Sinha, Chair, ReNew Foundation. The webinar was expertly moderated by Mr. Vinay Rustagi,Managing Director, Bridge to India. So much progress has already been made on solar and wind energy in India, but more research & development on alternative energy sources is still required in India. It is the social responsibility of clean energy companies and academia to find ways to achieve this by partnering in and outside the field to increase the quantity and quality of research. The expert panel provided many valuable insights on how this academia-industry synergy can be achieved and India can move towards a fossil free future.

The entire webinar can be viewed here –

Atmanirbhar Bharat

COVID-19 has amplified many existing trends globally that are seeking correction. The webinar opened up with a discussion about how the pandemic has disrupted supply chains across the world and pushed countries like India towards self-reliance, as can be seen with the atmanirbharta policy. I couldn’t agree more, and one area where this independence is vital is the renewable energy sector. India is good at applying renewable energy technologies created in other nations – we adapt them well but are not good at coming up with innovations ourselves. This is partly a mindset problem and hopefully, the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in will provide sufficient impetus for change. It is also hoped that the government’s push towards autonomy will help address India’s poor track record in exporting technology. Because we are not supplying the rest of the world we have a relative lack of investment in the R&D required for product development and innovation. But if we are to reach the targets set by the MNRE by 2022 and 2030 without relying on others, we will have no other choice but to increase research, which should lead to a competitive advantage on the global stage.

A Historic Lack of Manufacturing

The reason why India has not been good at either exporting technology or investing in R&D is that we do not have a strong manufacturing base. Increasing manufacturing efficiencies and inventing new products are but a few of the benefits of R&D that any manufacturer recognises. Companies, much like people, tend to operate on whatever is in their interest, and the historic lack of manufacturing capacity in India has meant that R&D has not been incentivised long enough for an innovation culture to grow. Transitioning towards research will not be easy because the ROI is not immediate, and despite the long term approach that most promoters in India take, Indian companies tend to undervalue the worth of R&D.

The Role of Research Institutions

This is where academia comes in. Knowledge generation is one of the fundamental goals of educational institutes. Dr. Rao shared that IIT Delhi ranks extremely high globally on this front using traditional metrics like the number of citations their research papers accrue, but the end goal of research in Indian academia is often just publication and not innovation. This is partly because most research funding comes from the government, which is content with knowledge generation in fundamental research, and does not have the vested interest that the industry has in applying findings in the field. He felt that the disconnect between academia and industry could be addressed by professors becoming entrepreneurs but bemoaned the rules and regulations that prevent them from doing so – IIT Delhi now gives professors 3 years leave to become entrepreneurs. However, startups are now providing a good conduit to incentivise students to take research to the field and innovate.

How the Twain Shall Meet

The ecosystem of research and industry has started converging more than ever now. Students leave their institutions armed with the know-how to contribute to the industry and over time come back to their alma mater and give back. Dr Benson is a member of Stanford, one of the pioneering research institutes in a country renowned for its vibrant academia-industry partnerships, An expert on global best practices, she clarified that it is a system that gets built over decades and generations, and that it is important that all participants, from a governmental, corporate and faculty level, become strategic about the end goal of collaboration. Execution of this will be key, and peer review and competitive forces will help, but more importantly dedicated time and resources need to be invested. People working on industry-academia collaboration should view it as their core job and not a perfunctory add-on. Ms. Sinha added that this comes from the top and the role of leadership in prioritising the collaboration is vital.

One point that all the panellists agreed upon was that it is important to identify the research areas for collaboration. Research institutes are especially good with fundamental R&D while the industry, with its assets on the field and technical know-how, is good at the application of that research. As such, the timing of when an industry becomes involved with research is crucial – if the industry steps in too early, outcomes take too long for its involvement to be financially appealing and the government has no incentive to work on deployment unless it becomes part of the industry. The identification of appropriate research areas takes time – the ReNew Power Centre of Excellence, IIT Delhi required significant discussion to come up with areas of research that appealed to everyone involved.

What About the Government?

The analogy of ‘love affair’ that Dr. Rao shared while talking about the role of the government was amusing yet correct. Given that industry investment in academic research has remained stagnant at 10% for half a century, perhaps it is now time for an ‘arranged marriage’ where the government steps in and plays the role of matchmaker. The government can help establish more formal structures of engagement, not just between industry and academia nationally but also across borders. One such structured approach could be the creation of independent organisations that facilitate relationships between industry and academia on a national and international level, and prevent individual companies and institutes the hassle of finding viable collaborations.

There is Hope

One needs to pause and take stock of the situation, how things are shaking up, especially where the environment is concerned. This discussion was extremely heartening, and there is scope for transforming the renewable energy sector through vibrant industry-academia partnerships. I see three key takeaways that increase the likelihood of these partnerships being successful: In the age of startups, disruptive technologies and big data, R&D has never been more important – signaling a change in the way that it has historically been undervalued in India. This shift in mindset will be a true game changer.

Identifying areas of research for companies and research institutes to collaborate will be crucial; otherwise, neither side will provide value to each other.

There is a need for strategic intent from both sides to foster meaningful relationships that may not always immediately yield results, but will benefit everyone in the long run and play a strategic role in carving out a fossil free world.

0