Saturday, October 20, 2007
S Kalyana Ramanathan interviews Prof M Kumaravel at IITM; Rediff.com 20/10/2007.
It is almost six in the evening when I rush in to meet Professor M Kumaravel in his office at IIT Madras. But the senior faculty member brushes all excuses of being held up by his colleagues aside, ready instead to talk about his work and his association with former President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.
"I met him early this week along with some American scientists for a brainstorming session on how to place photovoltaic solar panels in space to capture energy from the sun to send back to a dish on earth."
It's the kind of grand plan either a genius or a madman would think up to solve the country's energy crisis, and it's a no-brainer which of those the good professor is.
Still, I joke that we perhaps ought to talk about his work on earth before taking a trip into space, to which he rapidly acquiesces. He shows me a working prototype of a reverse osmosis plant that draws power from solar panels without the aid of a battery.
"It's the first of its kind in the world," he says. Seawater in a 500-litre Syntex drum is made potable using this process.
Kumaravel next takes me to the fifth floor of his office where there is an entire section of the lab illuminated with white LED bulbs placed on silver foiled tubes.
Though these are under observation on test-beds, they are almost as good as the incandescent lights that glow in the rest of his office. It may not look it but these are connected to one of his dream projects of "building integrated photovoltaic" panels.
In layman's parlance, he explains that doors, windows, curtains and every other exposed part of a building can double up as photovoltaic panels to draw energy during the day from sunlight and take care of household energy needs.
A few minutes' walk takes us to another part of the fifth floor, to a few rundown bicycles and workout cycles, the kind you're more likely to see in a gym. Since the professor does not look the kind who hits the gym, I'm mystified.
"You cycle on one for a half-hour and you can get enough power for the next three hours," he explains. "We had sent 12 of these to the Andaman Islands. They landed there on 24 December, 2004," he says sadly.
As if acknowledging my incomprehension over the significance of the date, he explains "Tsunami". All the samples sent to the islands were destroyed by the great wave that hit the Indian Ocean and the project has since been on the backburner.
In spite of living in Chennai for over three-and-a-half decades, this is my first visit to the IIT Madras campus. The stories I had heard about the 632-acre campus so far had more to do with wildlife than any groundbreaking research here.
And any curiosity I might have had to visit had more to do with unconfirmed reports about the availability of, shall we say, stimulants among students than to study the result of their toils.
All this changed when Professor M S Ananth, director of IIT Madras, delivered a lecture at the ICE seminar Connect 2007 hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). It was not exactly in the same league as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, but for an IIT novice, it might well have been.
Ananth, who studied and taught chemical engineering for most part of his life, spoke about the new era in the industry/academia relationship.
In a reversal of the brain-drain that India had suffered for long until the early nineties, it seemed educated Indians now wanted to keep coming back. Not only were the alumni of IIT Madras returning, it seemed that many of those who were studying here were wanting to turn - sacrilege till a few years ago -entrepreneurs.
After two weeks of exchanging mails and phone calls, the director's office finally agreed to give me a guided tour of the campus and let me have access to some of the more interesting projects incubated here.
My 12-hour guided tour proved insufficient to form any meaningful opinion, though what came through clearly was that a lot of the work underway on campus has the capability to make meaningful changes to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people outside.
What was more reassuring was the culture that is fostered here, some of it rather obviously reflected in signage that explains the existence quite simply of "Socially Relevant Projects" or "Rural Technology Action Group" (RuTAG).
Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, dean-planning, also part of the TeNet group, talks about achieving great things in a very short time.
"The idea is to find out how technology can play a role in improving rural GDP. Migration from rural to urban areas in a country like India could be a major problem 10 years from now," he says.
TeNet's mission is to improve rural per capita income from the present level of Rs 3,500 (Ramamurthi's estimates) to Rs 7,000 in the next 10 years. One product of this mission is the setting up of a rural business process outsourcing company called DesiCrew Solutions, run by a woman entrepreneur, Saloni Malhotra.
This small BPO, which currently has 50 seats, provides a handful of services like publishing, digitisation of government records, employee benefits outsourcing and directory building services. The operating software to run this business is a product of the TeNet group within IIT Madras.
Another working model of the TeNet Group is a "rural ATM" machine that can handle soiled notes and costs as little as Rs 1 lakh apiece or just about one-eighth the cost of a conventional ATM.
"Did you know that rural people don't accept mint-fresh notes in this part of the world?" Prof Ramamurthi asks. He doesn't wait for my answer - it's true, though, that I had no idea of their suspicion of new, possibly fake currency.
This innovative cash vending machine is a product of a company called Vortex, developed in association with IIT Madras with support from ICICI Bank [Get Quote]. Not just the capital cost, even the operating cost for these machines are ensured at bare minimum levels.
Given the low frequency in the usage of these machines in villages, the machines are manned by bank staff from a remote location.
For filling cash in these machines, the doors are opened remotely through commands sent over the Internet. These ATMs dispense cash over limited hours during the day, so saving on the cost of security.
Research within IIT Madras, unlike in any corporation, is spread across the entire organisation and is not limited just to a few pockets of excellence.
Departments like Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research (ICSR) work closely with industrial houses for a fee to deliver research output that can be commercialised by the latter. This happens under three groups - research-based industrial consulting, institutional research, and retainer research.
On average, IIT Madras's total revenue from these funded activities is estimated at Rs 15-17 crore (Rs 150 to 170 million) annually. Based on the nature of research, the faculty involved gets a share as a percentage of the income. On average, 60 per cent of net income from such work goes to the faculty and the balance is retained by the institution.
Low cost, lower cost and lowest cost is the very essence of innovation that researchers work on day in and day out. While IIT Madras acts as a catalyst via its research and laboratories, it stays away from the business of selling these innovations as branded products.
Most projects, and particularly those undertaken by RuTAG or the Lemelson Recognition & Mentoring Programme (L-RAMP), is undertaken in cooperation with an innovator and a via-media, usually an NGO. Unlike ICSR, research here is usually honorary, meaning neither the faculty nor the institution make any money from it. A nominal 10 per cent of the cost of the project is taken by IIT towards administrative cost.
Among its more recent successes are low-cost but clinically safe sanitary napkins made out of wood pulp, herbally treated baby diapers, an improved raingun (sprinkler) used in sugarcane farms that saves water and sprinkles water more efficiently, stronger artificial feet (Jaipur limbs), mud-blocks for low cost housing, even banana fibre extraction machines developed in cooperation with the PSG College of Technology.
Focusing on grassroots level innovations is the cornerstone for special projects like L-RAMP.
"The projects we support must adhere to certain conditions. One, the benefit must go to the disadvantaged; two, it must be truly innovative; finally, it must be commercially viable," says Professor R Nagarajan, principal coordinator at L-RAMP.
Most products coming out of RuTAG and L-RAMP are still in nascent stages as far as marketability is concerned. But to cite a case to understand their competitive cost - the wood pulp-based sanitary napkin (branded Relax) is available at Rs 2.30 a piece while commercially available products from famous brands cost Rs 5 and upwards.
With innovations and discoveries on the rise in IIT Madras, the awareness of patentability is also improving. Professor T T Narendran in the department of management studies, whose office helps in the patenting processes, says on average four patents are filed every month.
"Except for math, humanities and management, most departments have patentable innovations developed consistently. Of course, electronics and communications are the most prominent group," he says.
A committee of three members checks out all patentable cases. Based on the branch of engineering, three more faculty members are called on board to sit on judgement over whether a particular work is worthy of patenting or not.
"It takes two-three years to actually get a patent number. Very rarely are patent applications turned down by the patent office," says an officer attached to the ICSR. IIT Madras has retained two law firms to do the paperwork for its patent applications.
Several innovations like the wireless local loop (WLL) technology developed by the TeNET group are operational communication technologies that have reached the masses, mainly in rural and semi-urban areas where conventional technologies are commercially unviable.
Remote diagnostics like ReMeDi allow doctors sitting in district headquarters to take healthcare delivery mechanisms where even mobile hospitals cannot reach.
At the simple tap of a mouse, doctors can see live ECG graphs on their computer screens and hear the heat beat. This kit even allows health workers to measure blood pressure remotely - all of it over regular Internet channels without any broadband.
There is even a video conference system on display that works well on low-band width, as low as 16Kbps, while conventional systems expect downlink speeds in the range of 640Kbps to 1.6Mbps.
The cost of research is an attractive feature that draws innovators and entrepreneurs towards IIT. Though no reliable comparative data is available on the economy of doing research in IIT Madras, insiders would like to believe it is half or less for conducting similar research in a private lab outside the campus.
On the question of the quality of research and how it compares with its Western counterparts, B Subramanian, professor of German studies, is scathing: "The industry and universities in the West have a long history of evolution. You cannot expect this here in a short span of time. We have very good professors and researchers but inadequate support staff in the form of research assistants to facilitate the emergence of distinct research groups doing sustained research."
Yet, there appears to be serious research happening in different branches of engineering, even if they do seem to be working in isolation.
What is less obvious is the fundamental philosophy and the motivation that is shared by these researchers and innovators. Listen carefully, as I did, and you might hear almost inaudible voices murmuring that necessity is the mother of all innovation.
Other interesting products developed in other IITs :
- Smoke free beehive briquettes developed from agricultural waste and popular in hilly areas
- A composite crutch (for the physically challenged) with special features like lightweight and spring-back energy release
- An economy washing machines (target price: Rs 1,500) developed using a household bucket that simulates washing machine action using an oscillatory fan motor
- LPG stove for the blind
- Solid waste management technology using vermiculture
Low cost computer controlled irrigation system
Economical road design using improved bituminous mix design and structural design of the pavement to achieve better economy in material cost without compromising with its reliability
Friday, October 12, 2007
Business schools have become so much the in-thing these days that most employers in India now consider it a minimum qualification for white-collar jobs, fulfilling the same function that the basic graduation degree did in the decades before economic liberalisation.
The huge demand for B-school graduates is amply reflected in the burgeoning numbers of institutes for business learning. Today there are 1,400 B-schools accredited by the All India Council for Technical Education and countless more -- of questionable credentials or otherwise -- that function without AICTE certification. In fact, the country produces almost seven times the number of B-school graduates as the UK.
India is something of a unique market in which an MBA degree is considered a career-starter. In the developed world, in contrast, it is considered a mid-career enhancer. It is an option that a chosen few consider after learning their basic skills in the real world of business.
Yet, here's the thing: ask any employer in India and s/he will tell you that the bulk of B-school graduates have a low employability value. Though rarely articulated, it is commonly acknowledged that outside of the 2,000-odd students from the premium B-schools like the Indian Institutes of Management who clearly skew the market, most Tier-II B-schools face a quality problem.
According to a 2006 survey by RocSearch on the knowledge services market, "only half of the 84,000 graduates from AICTE-approved Tier II business schools can be classified as fit to work in quality-conscious and competitive international companies".
The fact that there is an acknowledged quality gap speaks volumes for the inadequacy of the AICTE approval process, which continues to focus on metrics such as a minimum number of computers and so on as qualifying criteria rather than robust qualitative standards.
But it also says much for the nature of the education system. It is widely acknowledged that a B-school education is not an automatic guarantor of outstanding performance. So why the persistent demand for an MBA degree as a minimum job qualification?
One answer is that this is the corporate sector's way of trying to correct for flaws in the university system. Shackled by state budgets, India's notoriously under-funded universities -- with notable exceptions -- restrict their role to functional teaching shops rather than institutes of creative thought and research. On the other hand, an MBA curriculum by its very nature demands the kind of innovative thinking that crowded and stultifying university curricula rarely encourage -- and there is a lot to be said for the now much-criticised case study approach in B-schools.
Thus in India, we end up with the classic paradox of turning a specialist degree into a generalist requirement. To be sure, this basic flaw is something that those in the education business have begun to understand. That explains the rush for local tie-ups with global universities that leverage technology to provide access to world-class education through distance learning. Investing in quality education is also an opportunity for the corporate world to make a truly meaningful contribution in the corporate social responsibility space. As American businessmen understood long ago, business stands to gain the most by investing in education.
As an aside, it is worth noting that RocSearch has estimated that out of the 3 million people added to the workforce every year across the major disciplines -- MBAs, engineering, medicine, computer techies, lawyers, chartered accountants, college students and PhDs -- about 500,000 can be considered employable in an international corporate workplace. From the employer's point of view, this suggests a major leap in the premium that companies will have to pay to employees who meet the minimum employability criterion. From the employee's perspective, the gravy train just got longer!
In a significant development, Indian engineering degrees will now be accredited in the United States and will be internationally recognised.
This follows India's induction into the prestigious Washington Accord, an international agreement between registering bodies of member countries accrediting academic engineering programmes, at the university level, leading to the practice of engineering at the full professional level.
Arguing the case successfully on behalf of India at the 8th biennial meeting of the International Engineering Meetings 2007 in Washington, DC last month was a delegation led by Prof Damodar Acharya, chairman of the Delhi-based All India Council for Technical Education, who, on July 1, assumed the directorship of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur; Ravi Mathur, joint secretary (technical), ministry of human resource development; and Prof Prasad Krishna, member secretary, National Board of Accreditation.
They were joined by Kamal Kant Dwivedi, counselor at the Indian Embassy and the government of India's point man for science and technology in Washington.
Comprehensive reviews of the Washington Accord are performed at intervals of not more than six years and in terms of the agreement, each registering body accepts the accrediting processes of the other member countries.
The founding signatories of the Accord in 1989 were: Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, USA; Canadian Council of Professional Engineers; Engineering Council, EC, UK; Institution of Engineers of Ireland; Institution of Engineers, Australia; and Institution of Professional Engineers, New Zealand.
Currently, the Washington Accord member countries are: The US, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, with Germany, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan being provisional members.
This year India's National Board of Accreditation of the All India Council for Technical Education was elected a provisional member, along with Russia and Sri Lanka.
The Accord recognises substantial equivalence of programmes accredited by those organisations and recommends that the graduates of accredited programmes in any of the signatory countries be recognised by the other countries as having met the academic requirements for entry into the practice of engineering.
The NBA is the only authorised body in India entrusted with the task of undertaking accreditation of technical education programmes and all programmes on technical education, including those offered by university departments are accredited by the NBA.
The NBA, as criteria for such accreditation, evaluates the quality of these programmes offered by educational institutions from diploma to the post-graduate levels in technical education including engineering.
India's entry to the Washington Accord would necessarily facilitate mobility of engineering graduates and professionals at international levels and the graduates from NBA-accredited programmes would be automatically accepted for education and employment purposes in member countries.
A provisional member is given two years to bring its academic programmes, curricula and syllabus, examination and evaluation system to the international level and revise its accreditation system to make it fully outcome based, with credit system for flexibility and continuous evaluation for improved learning being the basis of such programmes.
This will include and increased focus on design, research and innovation that will be supported by signatory member countries with mentoring programmes and the like.
In this regard, the NBA will also participate in the accreditation activities of member countries, and at the end of the two-year period, India will be accorded full signatory status.
Thus, membership in the Washington Accord is considered recognition of the quality of engineering education offered by a member country and hence an avenue to bring it into the world-class category of other member nations.
Dwivedi told rediff.com: "All thanks go to Prof Acharya and his team of experts for making a superb and convincing presentation of the national profile of technical education in India and the process of quality assessment and accreditation by the NBA, which was catalytic to this landmark achievement."
"It is of major significance and a path-breaking development because now all of our engineering degrees will be internationally accredited," he said.
"Hitherto, when an Indian engineer came over to the US or went to any of the Washington Accord member countries, only a course-by-course accreditation is done and the assessment, etc on whether they are equivalent only follow after this protracted and stringent accreditation."
"But now," explained Dwivedi, "what will happen after India's membership to the Washington Accord is that automatically all of our degrees -- and not only those from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) -- because IIT has become such an internationally renowned brand -- but others like the 20 National Institutes of Technology and the 1,520 other engineering institutions, their degrees will also be recognised."
Thus, he said, the Indian engineering degree from all of these institutions -- and not just from the IITs -- will be held on par with US degree as well as other engineering degrees from the countries that are a party to the Washington Accord "and there would be reciprocity where these degrees are concerned."
"So unlike in the past, all of the protracted and stringent requirements and time-consuming course-by-course accreditation will be done away with," he added.
Dwivedi said, "The really great significance of this is what we call credit transfer and mobility."
"Like in the US, if you do two years at one institution, two other semesters somewhere else and graduate from a different university or college or institution, all of these credits will be accepted by all of the member countries that are a party to this accord."
He acknowledged that "in India, so far, this mobility was not there, but this accord brings into play the mobility and credit transfer."
Q : As the staffing director of Microsoft India Development Centre, what do you look for in students whom you want to recruit for the centre?
A : The core thing we look for is computer science fundamentals. Then we look at their passion for innovation and passion for using technology to see how it can be useful to people. We also look for the ability to work in ambiguous situations. That is because we try to solve customer problems and it is not necessary that you always know what the real problems are. They also should have the ability to take risks. These are some of the things that we want in any student who joins MSIDC.
Q : How successful have you been so far when you interviewed students in India?
A : We have had a fairly high success rate. We have been going to campuses across India.
Q : Which are the campuses you have visited so far? Only the IITs?
A : No, there is a wide spectrum of campuses. Other than the IITs, we have visited over 30 campuses across India. We go to most of the NITs, the Benares Hindu University, MNIT, the PSG institute, Coimbatore, Anna University, Jadavpur University, etc. It's a mixed bag. We are constantly adding new campuses to our list. We are searching for only talent. The entire campus intake is very important for the talent pool of the organisation. The talent in India is exceptional.
Q : Is it based on interview alone that you take students? What is the recruitment process?
A : We have a written test on computer science fundamentals. If that is taken care of, there will be three one-on-one interviews which is basically to assess the skills of the person and what he can do in an organisation like ours. That's it!
Q : Compared to the other IT companies who recruit in thousands, Microsoft recruits only a very few every year. How many do you recruit in a year?
A : Unlike the service providers, we are a product development company. So, we don't hire in those kind of numbers. We also encourage those in the company to move from one product to another. So, hiring depends on this also. Roughly, we hire 150 people for the development centre every year.
Q : Any plans to increase the intake?
A : Decision on intake depends on the product areas we are working on. The way we grow is very considered. So, I will not be able to tell you a number right now.
Q : In order to recruit 150 people, how many do you interview? How tough is the process? Many students say Microsoft is very difficult to please? Are you?
A : I don't think we are difficult to please. But we know what we want. I would tell them to go beyond what they learn in their text books. If you look at software as a means to solving problems of people, then, you are thinking like a person who can work in a company like Microsoft.
For example, an event like Shaastra at the IIT, Madras showcases innovative products. That is what we are looking for. And, that is why we are here at the IIT, Madras; to see innovation.
Q : As far as talent is concerned, do you feel there is a big gap between the students who study in IITS, NITs and other engineering colleges?
A : No. I don't think there is any significant difference in the talent. That is why we are expanding our search to campuses other than IITs, NITs, etc.
Q : Who are the people you generally recruit?
A : We recruit fresh graduates which may constitute 25% of our recruitment. The rest is from lateral hiring; those who have expertise in product development.