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Universities and Innovation

By Prof. Achuthsankar S Nair, Director of Quality Assurance andDirector of Technology and Business Start-up Centre, University of Kerala | Thursday, 06 Jul 2017, 13:44 IST

During the last two decades Universities in our country have been increasingly glued to the concepts of quality and excellence and innovation. Most Universities lack of a clear working definition for innovation and therefore its promotion is consequently compromised. The term innovation is seen to be used inter-change ably with applied research, translational research, patenting technology transfer, student start-ups and incubation. All these are intimately related to innovation, but clarity and big picture view are required for effective planning and action.

India has declared 2010-20 as the “Decade of Innovation”, and established a National  Innovation Council. Science, Technology & Innovation Policy of Govt. of India (2013) says: Scientific research utilizes money to generate knowledge and by providing solutions, innovation converts knowledge into wealth and/or value. Innovation thus implies S&T- based solutions that are successfully deployed in the economy or the society. Wikipedia says innovationis producing “effective products, processes, services, technologies or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society”. Another generally agreed notion isthat an innovation ultimately creates wealth,through economic, social or environmental activity, by creating value, solving problems, creating jobs, etc. These definitions are S&T centric and ignores that innovation can happen social sciences, arts and humanities too.

Almost every thing we use or see in dayto-day life was at one time an innovation that had revolutionary effect on life of the time.Clothes, wheels, toys, tools, food, building materials etc., indeed almost every thing human-made that we use today, are evolved forms of great innovations of the past (indeed social innovations like family, ownership, religion etc are also noteworthy).  Inirtimes, life-saving drugs, IT gadgets and services (Facebook, Google and Whats App), LED lights and a bunch of techy  products and services have become the face of innovation. In India,CSIR is the undoubted leader of innovation at the national level and has almost 1800 inventions in the last 10years of which about 400 have been licensed for commercial use. It is touted as the ‘largest publicly-funded industrial R&D system in the world’ The CSIR innovation that really ‘touches’every one is the indelible ink developed by it, which is put on the index finger of voters during polls. Other CSIR inventions include technology for production of natural Strep to kinase,a life-saving thrombolytic drug and its successful commercialization and the unique herbal formulation, ASMON, used for treating asthma. The Sree Chithra Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST)in Kerala transferred the technology of its heart valve to TTK Health Careand about 100,000 patients live withthe heart valve produced by the Sree Chithra Institute. The first patient who used it, survived for 25 years.

Universities generate new knowledgeinvolving invention of newtechnologies, materials, processes orideas. The new knowledge is often reportedin a thesis or a journal (very rarely, results also appear in a patentapplication). When the invention isput to successful use by the Universityor another agency (Industry, Governmentor the society), then it becomesan innovation.

We could say, INNOVATION =INVENTION + ECONOMICALLYOR SOCIALLY SUCCESSFUL USEAs far as Universities are concerned,innovation proceeds in approximately3 phases.

Phase A: Generation of use fulide as: This phase can be promoted by the Universities by having an effective policy and action plan. Research guides and students may be trained and encouraged to generate ‘useful’ knowledge instead of generating unplanned academic new knowledge. Universities should compile requirements of industries, organizations and business houses and make the same available to research community.This way, when research efforts produce solutions for real problems,its adoptions by the industries will be automatic.

Universities must take extra care to handle innovative idea generation. Fear for bad ideas and failure, can stifle innovation. Teachers who adopt a traditional fault finding critical attitude may switch off less confident innovative thinkers.

Phase B: Communicating ideas to potential users: Researchers and students need to be given effective awareness about patenting and the benefits it offers in transferring technology.  Their academic requirement for publication is not affected by patenting, since as soon as patent is filed, they can publish also. OurUniversities do not have an impressive record of patenting. Once the research community recognizes patents as proud achievements, the culture will spread fast.

Phase C: Adoption by potential users: If a knowledge generated by the university is found useful by a potential user, then if patent isin place, a licensing can be negotiated. Initially, the quantum of income should not be the focus, as most Universitieshave not many technology transfers to claim. Yet another option is that the researchers and students should be encouraged to launch studentstart-ups in the campus with support from the University.

Innovation by all

In addition to academic-centric activities to promote innovation, there needs to be efforts to create a general eco-system for innovation. For this, teachers, students, researchers and  administrative  staff need to be brought under the innovation umbrella. Universities to hold  frequent “Ideathons” open to all. This will create an all-round sensitivity to innovation.

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