Amit Paranjape’s Blog

‘वसंत व्याख्यानमाला’ (Vasant Vyakhyanmala- Spring Lecture Series) – A Great 144 Year Tradition

Posted in Current Affairs, Pune, Uncategorized by Amit Paranjape on April 19, 2018

I had written an article about this great 144 year tradition few years back, and I am reproducing a version of that below. I have also included the schedule for this year’s lecture series (click on the images at the end of this article). Do try to attend as many lectures as you can! Do note, many of the lectures are in Marathi (a few are in English). Please use the hash tag: #VasantVyakhyanmala or #वसंतव्याख्यानमाला when you tweet about these lectures.

This year’s schedule covers a series of topics including politics, defense, governance, history, music, literature, technology and many more. Good line up of speakers this year with a variety of different experience. (See detailed schedule below).

Some of the interesting speakers to look forward to, over the next 30 days: Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Prof. Seshrao More, Sunil Deodhar, Dr. Suhas Palshikar, Dr. Madhav Chitale, Dr. Madhav Godbole, Girish Kulkarni, Hon. Minister Suresh Prabhu, and more.

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(blog-post from 2012 about Vasant Vyakhyanmala)

In recent years, TED and TEDx events are getting quite popular. They do a great job of presenting ideas from various experts and thought leaders. The first TED India event was very well received and many TEDx events have been held in various cities in India over the past year.

But did you know that an event similar in concept, but covering a broader range of topics, has been going on in Pune for 136 years! The great tradition of the ‘Vasant Vyakhyanmala’ (translation: ‘Spring Lecture Series’) was started by Justice M.G. Ranade in 1875. The idea was to present a variety of lectures, across various topics to the people. In those days, newspapers were in their infancy (Kesari had not yet started) and live lectures were the most effective medium for knowledge transfer.

Since the 18th century Peshwa era, Pune has always been a center of knowledge and education. Post the fall of the Maratha Empire in 1818, Pune city witnessed a tough period lasting for a few decades. The city’s economy was in shambles. Many scholars and learned experts left the city. Things started to improve towards the later half of the 19th century, under visionary leaders such as Justice Ranade (and later on Lokmanya Tilak).

Ranade, Tilak and other leaders of that period clearly saw the value of ‘Information’. The citizens had to be educated and informed. The Vasant Vyankhyanmala initiative was born out of the need to disseminate information and create awareness. Justice Ranade delivered the first lecture in 1875 in English. Over the years though, most lectures have been delivered in Marathi. Through its rich 137 year history, there have been very rare occasions, where the series had to be cancelled. For many years,  the Vasant Vyankhyanmala was held at Hirabag and Belbag. It has been held at its present venue – Tilak Smarak Mandir, for many decades. Today, this series covers wide ranging topics such as Culture, Arts, Economics, Science, Health, Governance, History, etc.

While I have followed this lecture series over the years through media coverage, this was my first year attending it.  The event format and the organization was very good. The only negative in my view was the number of attendees (probably less than 500). In the pre-independence era, 1000s attended these lectures. Today, there are many other media sources for getting information, but an informative and thought-provoking live lecture is still a very powerful source. If you are in Pune, you should definitely try and attend at least some of these lectures, over the next 3 weeks. The lectures are virtually free to attend (Single lecture ticket costs Rs 5 and the season ticket is Rs 100).

There is a need to get the word out regarding Vasant Vyakhyanmala. More media publicity and social media presence will definitely help. I do hope that in the next few years, this great tradition that started in 1875 will continue to thrive, and reach much bigger audience.

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Schedule* for the 144th Vasant Vyakhyanmala

(* Schedule is subject to change)

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Israel – ‘The Startup Nation’, Lessons for India

Posted in Current Affairs, Information Technology by Amit Paranjape on February 11, 2018

I recently returned from an interesting visit to Israel – the ‘Startup Nation’, as part of a delegation invited by the Israel government. The goal of the visit was to learn more about the Israeli startup and innovation ecosystem, and improve startups level contact between India and Israel. It is quite impressive to note the progress Israel has achieved since its creation in 1948. Its growth and innovation in a variety of sectors: agriculture, water management, defense, cyber security, information technology, semiconductors and others, provide great learning examples. During this short trip, we were able to visit startups, co-working spaces, maker-spaces, venture capitalists, incubators, universities, and supporting agencies. We also attended a couple of industry conferences (Cybertech 2018, Tel Aviv and 2018 OurCrowd Global Investor Summit, Jerusalem).

In the packed agenda, we didn’t get to see a lot of this country’s tourist attractions – but the brief tours of Haifa, Old City of Jaffa, and the historic city of Jerusalem were very interesting (I will write about this in a separate article). Suffice to say, Israel can be a great travel destination for the Indian tourist. This small country has a lot to offer: great history & culture, diverse nature, nightlife, good food, and a chance to meet with great people.

Israel is a small country, with an area of around 20,000 sq km (just a bit bigger than Pune District), and a population of 8.5 million (less than half of Mumbai). Faced with multiple geopolitical, climate and geographical challenges, it has made tremendous progress in building a world class innovation and startup ecosystem, over the past few decades. Today, Israel has over 7,000 startups, over 350 VC Funds, and over 300 corporate R&D centers. There were over 100 startup exits, worth $23 billion in 2017. This was a big jump from $10 billion in 2016 – largely driven by the huge acquisition of Mobileye (Computer Vision, Machine Learning Tech – for self-driving cars, other applications) by Intel for $15 billion, in August 2017.  The Mobileye exit is a great case-study and success-story for Israeli startups. Historically, U.S. has been the biggest market for Israeli tech startups and companies. Today, Israel has the 3rd largest number of NASDAQ listed companies (following U.S. and China).

What drives this startup and innovation miracle? In this article, I will attempt to highlight some key attributes and reasons. I will also summarize some lessons that could be learned and applied to the Indian ecosystem. For detailed reading on Israel’s startup ecosystem, I would recommend an excellent book: ‘Startup Nation’ by Dan Senor and Saul Singer (a bit old; published in 2011 – but still quite relevant).

There are three primary factors that have helped in laying the foundation of the Israeli startup and innovation ecosystem:

  1. Culture & Education (Scarcity of Natural Resources, Tough Environment, Military Service, Networking)
  2. Role of Government (Support for Universities, Incubators, Strategic Focus on R&D)
  3. VCs, Multi-National Corporations, and the Corporate Ecosystem

 

Culture

Israel has faced a tough environment (nature and geopolitics) since it was created in 1948. A large part of the country is desert, with very limited water resources. Israel has fought multiple wars with its neighbours over the past 70 years, and national security is a top priority. These necessities have driven the need to innovate in agriculture, water management and defense sectors, and has driven a culture of ‘problem solving’, with constrained resources. The culture promotes ‘Okay to Fail’ and a ‘Challenge Everything’ attitude.

Military service is mandatory in Israel after age 18. Students enter a three-year program and are trained in a variety of different skills. Depending on their capabilities and openings, they are assigned specific departments and roles. They learn military and other hard-skills in various tech and non-tech areas. They learn important soft-skills such as leadership, discipline and team-work. They also learn about tough decision making, especially in uncertain situations. They build great networks, which often last them a life-time, and are very useful during their startup/corporate life.

Israel is a small country, and is highly networked. A popular saying, we heard multiple times during our visit – “Everyone is connected to everyone else with a maximum ‘one degree of separation’”. These networks are critical in entrepreneurship to help recruit the right people, get the right early customers, raise funding, etc.

One example of the military service training and its direct connection to successful entrepreneurship and startups is the ‘8200 Unit’. We heard about this in multiple presentations during our visit. The ‘8200 Unit’ is one of Israel’s top military intelligence unit, involved with a variety of cyber-security, cyber warfare related initiatives. This unit usually ends up recruiting the top engineering and mathematics students during the military service. These recruits are trained by the top experts and work on challenging projects. The alumni of this unit later on end up studying at the top universities, working with the corporates and starting key startups (especially in the cyber-security, data analytics and related areas).

Education

For a country of just around 8 million people – Israel has 8 top ranked global universities and over 50 colleges. It has 12 Nobel Laureates. The country is among the top in the world in R&D spending (combined government and corporate) as a percentage of GDP at 4.3%. (For comparison – India spends less than 0.8%).

Israel is also benefitting from ‘brain gain’. Top Israeli PhD students who have studied in U.S. and other top global universities are moving back to their country, after gaining top academic research and corporate R&D experience.

On a related note, it is worthwhile to mention that Israel has started attracting a good number of Indian students in higher education (Now at about 1,000 – still significantly smaller than the number that goes to U.S…but rising).

The Israeli education system encourages a culture of risk taking and asking questions, right from the early years.

Government support for startups and innovation

The Israeli Government also plays an important role in the startup and innovation ecosystem, both directly and indirectly.

Directly, it supports many entrepreneurship programs, funds, and incubators (total of 19). The incubators provide the risk capital, facilities and mentoring. Many incubators are connected with the universities. This helps the university students with their startup ideas, and also enables access to professors and other experts for mentoring.

As mentioned earlier the government also plays an important role in funding the universities as well for various research projects.

Another indirect way in which government supports the startups is through funding strategic R&D projects in agri-tech, water management and defense. As discussed earlier, these are key priority areas, and availability of funds and pilot projects (government is the customer) also helps startups.

In 1993, the government helped start the Israeli VC industry, by backing the Yozma Fund. Tax reforms for the corporate sector have brought corporate tax down to 10%. In addition, the Israel Innovation Authority provides direct R&D funding for projects.

Role of corporate sector

Many large and medium sized tech multi-nationals have a strong presence in Israel. Over 320 R&D and Tech centers of multi-national companies are located here. These include Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, TI, Samsung, Oracle, SAP … (just to name a few). Around half of Israel’s tech workforce is employed by these multi-nationals. Many of them are based in Israel’s high-tech hub, Haifa. In fact, Haifa reminds you of Silicon Valley for multiple reasons. The city is located by the sea and has Israel’s most important harbour. Major part of the city is located on the hills next to the sea. Haifa is home to many tech companies and also one of Israel’s top engineering universities, Technion. The sea, the drive through the hills, the tech company campuses in close proximity, the university all remind you of the San Francisco Bay Area.

A good example is Intel (which has been here for over 30 years). They are doing world class high-end R&D here, comparable with the best in the world (e.g. Silicon Valley). The earlier mentioned book ‘Startup Nation’ has a great case-study on Intel Israel’s work on the power saving chips.

These large multi-national companies have invested in Israel due to two main reasons: 1. Availability of top science & engineering talent (from universities and startups). 2. ‘Brain Gain’ phenomenon.

People who have worked in these companies have excellent global exposure to not only the latest technology, but also to markets. Many hi-tech startups in Israel are founded by the alumni of these multi-national companies. Some of these startups also get good exits, with these multi-nationals buy them out. Following the exit, the entrepreneurs move onto newer startups, and also become VCs – thereby further continuing the cycle of further development.

Lessons for India

There are many lessons applicable to India, which can be learned from Israel’s startup and innovation ecosystem. Some of these lessons maybe more relevant than the ones from Silicon Valley. These lessons can be categorized across culture, education, role of government, and role of corporates.

But before we get into those, it is important to note that there is a widespread myth that most entrepreneurs and successful startup founders are fresh undergrads or college drop-outs. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are big exceptions, not the rule.

Experience is a key factor for successful high value IP (Intellectual Property) driven startups. The average age of startup founders in the Silicon Valley and Israel is closer to 40. A typical startup founder is someone who has completed higher education (MS/PhD) and worked further in research/development for some years. This experience is not only useful for gaining deeper domain knowledge, but to also gain a good network of potential co-founders, employees, pilot customers, partners and investors.

While it is important to teach entrepreneurship to undergraduate students and giving them opportunities to build on their ideas – it is unrealistic to expect many breakthrough startups to come out of undergraduate colleges.

Culture & Education

Culture is difficult to emulate. It’s a more fundamental thing. Yet there are some aspects of the culture that are common across the two India and Israel (e.g. ability to do more with less, with constrained resources). These abilities in India need to be encouraged and rewarded. Of course, there is a right way of doing things and doing a total ‘Jugaad’. Need a right balance.

Indian education system discourages asking questions and challenging the authority – quite opposite of the Israeli system. Changing this is a huge task.

At the higher education level, a significant shift is required. India’s investment in R&D is very low across the board, and this also reflects in our funding of our higher education and research institutes. This needs to change. Of course, the efficiency and utilization of these funds also needs significant improvement.

We need to focus on improving our Masters and PhD level programs. We need quality, not quantity. We need to focus on relevant, market-ready IP creation. Today, our institutions like the IITs produce some of the best undergraduates in the world. However, the same cannot be said about our Masters and PhD students. Some of our best undergrads end up doing MS/PhDs outside India (mostly in U.S. and in Europe, Japan, and other countries). This is a key issue and needs immediate attention (will need a separate article to discuss this in detail). The Indian government is taking some steps in this direction (like the recently announced PhD scholarships), but a lot more needs to be done. We need to track and improve the number of IIT, IISER, IISc B.Tech/MS graduates, who do PhDs in India.

Since we don’t produce many world class PhDs, the multi-national R&D centers don’t recruit them here. This is one reason good students are not doing PhDs in India, since there are very few good corporate R&D job opportunities. This is partially a chicken and egg problem. The cycle can be broken by upgrading our research facilities and PhD programs and improving the supply.

In some aspects IITs and the new IISERs are comparable with the best in the world. But they need a long way to go, before we could count some of these in the top-50 global universities. The quality vs. quantity argument is valid here too. Yes, we need more institutes; but we also need sustained focus (and resources/funding) to get at least 1-2 of the old IITs to world class level.

To further improve the quality of PhD programs in India, we need more university to university collaborations. These need to move forward with concrete programs at the department levels – and not just stay at signing ‘MoUs’.

Role of Government

As discussed earlier, the government has to play a key role in improving higher education (Masters and PhD programs). In conjunction, it is also critical to improve our basic research & development capabilities. We need large investments and great execution (like ISRO). As mentioned earlier, our R&D spend as a percentage of GDP is way low at 0.8% (compared to 4.3% for Israel, and 2.5% for China).

Government also needs to fund creation of Incubators that provide funding, support and mentoring for deserving startups. Here again, quality is more important than quantity. As mentioned earlier, Israel has less than 20 incubators. We need more startups with good solid IP; not yet another ‘me-to’ incremental e-business innovation, that too copied from a U.S. startup idea. We need more startups in cyber-security, agri-tech, energy, AI, healthcare, biotech, advanced manufacturing, materials, etc. and less in e-commerce.

A good example of successful (yet low profile) incubator in India, which supports startups with high value IP, in the areas of biotech, materials, energy, is the Innovation Center at National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. We need more startups founded by PhDs and senior R&D professionals, who have created some new, non-trivial IP.

Third and important long term area for government support is exploring the ‘DARPA’ (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA model from U.S. Israel follows a similar model.

DARPA is a U.S. government agency that funds strategic projects in the area of defense and national security. A good portion of this funding is received by the private sector. DARPA provides strong program management and oversight (by its own program managers) on these projects, executed by the private sector. This ensures good execution and efficient usage of the R&D dollars. The Program Managers from DARPA are industry veterans and are experts in specific domain areas.

In U.S. and Israel, the offshoots of defense related spending on strategic projects (through DARPA and other agencies) has resulted in many dual use products and technologies. These technologies are later commercialized or built upon by established companies and even startups. In many respects such agencies provide a basic R&D foundation (much like state supported universities), and help the overall innovation and startup ecosystem.

In India, the DRDO model is mostly all government (public sector). We need to understand, evaluate (and adapt as required) the DARPA model for India as well (Note – a detailed discussion around DARPA and other similar approaches will need a separate article.)

Role of Corporates

Indian private sector companies in tech and other sectors also need a strategic product/IP vision. Today, along with the government, the private sector too contributes to a significantly lower R&D spend, compared to their international peers.

In the IT space, India has been largely focused on the Software Services. Some of these large companies are sitting on large cash piles. The IT Services market is ripe for disruption with cloud, automation and other structural shifts. Now is the time for these IT Services companies to start investing more in product R&D and IP creation. They can also allocate more funds for their venture capital arms, which can in turn drive funding of IP driven product startups.

Closing Comments

We need to progress in multiple areas simultaneously, if we want to build a good, high-value IP driven startup ecosystem. Israel provides some good learning examples. We needs to move to a ‘product’ and ‘solution’ mind-set. ‘Make in India’ should not just be about manufacturing, but also about IP creation, core R&D and import substitution in strategic areas. We need to improve startup to startup and university to university level contacts and close collaborations with Israel, U.S. and other countries. The Indo-Israel Joint Innovation Fund announced last year during PM Modi’s visit is a good start. The Indian market is important for Israeli startups, and joint IP development should be explored. Lastly, we need better alignment between defense driven R&D and funding with our universities, corporate R&D and startups.

(This article is also being republished on Swarajya https://swarajyamag.com/ )

‘वसंत व्याख्यानमाला’ (Vasant Vyakhyanmala- Spring Lecture Series) – A Great 143 Year Tradition

Posted in Current Affairs, Pune, Uncategorized by Amit Paranjape on April 20, 2017

The 143rd edition of  the month long ‘Vasant Vyakhyanmala’ (Spring Lecture Series),starts April 21 at Tilak Smarak Mandir. This lecture series was originally started by Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade in 1875.

I had written an article about this great 143 year tradition few years back, and I am reproducing a version of that below. I have also included the schedule for this year’s lecture series (click on the images at the end of this article). Do try to attend as many lectures as you can! Do note, many of the lectures are in Marathi (a few are in English). Please use the hash tag: #VasantVyakhyanmala or #वसंतव्याख्यानमाला when you tweet about these lectures.

This year’s schedule covers a series of topics including politics, governance, history, civic issues, music, literature, healthcare and many more. Good line up of speakers this year with a variety of different experience.

Some of the interesting speakers to look forward, over the month: Former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, Mayor of Pune, Mukta Tilak, Dr. Madhavrao Gadgil, Pramod Choudhari and many more.

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(blog-post from 2012 about Vasant Vyakhyanmala)

In recent years, TED and TEDx events are getting quite popular. They do a great job of presenting ideas from various experts and thought leaders. The first TED India event was very well received and many TEDx events have been held in various cities in India over the past year.

But did you know that an event similar in concept, but covering a broader range of topics, has been going on in Pune for 136 years! The great tradition of the ‘Vasant Vyakhyanmala’ (translation: ‘Spring Lecture Series’) was started by Justice M.G. Ranade in 1875. The idea was to present a variety of lectures, across various topics to the people. In those days, newspapers were in their infancy (Kesari had not yet started) and live lectures were the most effective medium for knowledge transfer.

Since the 18th century Peshwa era, Pune has always been a center of knowledge and education. Post the fall of the Maratha Empire in 1818, Pune city witnessed a tough period lasting for a few decades. The city’s economy was in shambles. Many scholars and learned experts left the city. Things started to improve towards the later half of the 19th century, under visionary leaders such as Justice Ranade (and later on Lokmanya Tilak).

Ranade, Tilak and other leaders of that period clearly saw the value of ‘Information’. The citizens had to be educated and informed. The Vasant Vyankhyanmala initiative was born out of the need to disseminate information and create awareness. Justice Ranade delivered the first lecture in 1875 in English. Over the years though, most lectures have been delivered in Marathi. Through its rich 137 year history, there have been very rare occasions, where the series had to be cancelled. For many years,  the Vasant Vyankhyanmala was held at Hirabag and Belbag. It has been held at its present venue – Tilak Smarak Mandir, for many decades. Today, this series covers wide ranging topics such as Culture, Arts, Economics, Science, Health, Governance, History, etc.

While I have followed this lecture series over the years through media coverage, this was my first year attending it.  The event format and the organization was very good. The only negative in my view was the number of attendees (probably less than 500). In the pre-independence era, 1000s attended these lectures. Today, there are many other media sources for getting information, but an informative and thought-provoking live lecture is still a very powerful source. If you are in Pune, you should definitely try and attend at least some of these lectures, over the next 3 weeks. The lectures are virtually free to attend (Single lecture ticket costs Rs 5 and the season ticket is Rs 100).

There is a need to get the word out regarding Vasant Vyakhyanmala. More media publicity and social media presence will definitely help. I do hope that in the next few years, this great tradition that started in 1875 will continue to thrive, and reach much bigger audience.

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Vasant Vyakhyanmala 2017 - Schedule

Vasant Vyakhyanmala 2017 – Schedule

Vasant Vyakhyanmala 2017 - 2

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Finally, Some Good News On The New Pune Airport Front!

Posted in Current Affairs, Uncategorized by Amit Paranjape on October 8, 2016

New Pune Airport – Critical Need for Supporting Infrastructure… Facilitating Development of South Pune Region

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A view from the majestic fort of Purandar (image credit: wikipedia)

After waiting for more than a decade, we finally have some positive development on the Pune airport! This week, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra announced the final site for the new green-field airport.

The need for an independent civilian green-field airport has been identified for a long time. With a population of over 6 million, the Pune Metro Region is the 7th largest in the country, and growing fast. The population is expected to touch 10 million in the next two decades. The present Lohegaon airport at Pune is a defense airfield and this places numerous restrictions on commercial flight operations (number of available flying hours, adequate land for passenger terminal expansion, lack of a longer runway, lack of two parallel runways, etc.)

Many projects for the new airport were proposed since the last decade, but with no progress. It was a long wait. Some old timers on twitter will remember my regular tweets (since 2010) about the new Pune airport progress (or lack thereof).

Multiple sites in the Chakan-Rajgurunagar area (North Pune) were considered, but rejected due to land acquisition and other constraints. Finally, this last week the Maharashtra Government has finalized on the site near Purandar. The ‘Chatrapati Sambhaji Raje Airport’ (as it will be called) will come up near the Pargao-Memane villages, located to the South East of Pune, near the town of Saswad and the Purandar Fort. A big thanks to the CM Devendra Fadnavis, the Pune MP Anil Shirole and other authorities for pushing through this long pending critical project!

An aggressive 2019 deadline has been proposed. This is great, but will need extremely good execution.

This new airport can be an excellent catalyst to drive the development of South and South East Pune Region. Over the past two decades, a lot of the manufacturing and software/IT growth of Pune has been concentrated in the North West/North/North East corridors. This new airport will act as a magnet to attract development on the South/South East side. This is good for the long term balanced growth of the Pune Metro Region.

It is critical that a 5-10-30 year plan is created for this area. I believe this area (and development planning associated with it) will come under the newly formed PMRDA (Pune Metro Regional Development Authority). There are many lessons that can be learned from other areas development in Pune, as well as from other cities.

First and foremost, it will be critical to build a good road access to the new airport. At present, the accessibility of this area is not great. The routes through Dive Ghat, Bobdev Ghat and via Katraj Ghat – Khed Shivapur are all not ideal, given the current condition of these roads. The Ring Road project for Pune is another long pending project, and completing this project (at least certain sections of it) before 2019 is imperative for good access to the new airport. A ring road connection from the NH4 near Khed Shivapur to the new airport would be a good first access point.

Here we need to learn from the Bangalore and Hyderabad examples of the past decade. The new Bangalore airport was built in 2008, however the access road (widening the highway, flyovers, etc.) took a long time to build. Hyderabad on the other hand built good road access to the new airport from early on. The goal should be to have excellent road access infrastructure ready before the airport completion deadline.

Looking at the next few decades, it is also important to consider a good fast rail connectivity to this new airport, from the city center. Rail connectivity (public transport access) to the airport is critical.

As I mentioned earlier, the new airport will act as a prime catalyst to develop South/South-East Pune. Proximity to the airport will drive many businesses, industries, education/research institutions, tourism centric facilities to locate to this area.  The long-term plan for this area should include setting up new IT/Software, Business and Research Parks in this area. The existing manufacturing areas (MIDCs) at Jejuri, Shirval/Khandala (Satara district) need to be expanded. This airport will have good proximity to Satara and Baramati as well, and manufacturing infrastructure in these areas can be boosted. A Delhi Aero-City type area should also be planned to locate hotels and businesses near the airport complex.

One important infrastructure piece that is lacking in Pune today is a good international standard expo and convention center. This should be ideally build near the new airport as well.

In addition to Pune, Panchagani and Mahabaleshwar will have very easy access from this new airport (less than 100 km). Similarly, the majestic forts of Purandar, Rajgad, Torna and Sinhagad are also nearby. If a good plan is developed, this airport can drive more tourism in the Pune region (including neighboring districts).

Pune has been lagging behind all the other metros on many of the key infrastructure projects (Airport, Metro, Ring Road, etc.). We have a lot of catch up to do, and fast execution is going to be of paramount importance. Whether that happens or not …. it remains to be seen. But at least as far as the airport is concerned, I am more optimistic this week, than I was at any point in the past 10 years!

We need more ISROs, and more government led strategic R&D investments

Posted in Current Affairs, Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2016

Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, spoke at the 5th Foundation Day of Pune International Center in Pune this Saturday. It was an excellent lecture, covering many details around ISRO’s great progress and achievements, and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in R&D led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out in my mind during the lecture was the extent of private industry participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.

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PSLV (image credit: ISRO)

Dr. Radhakrishnan mentioned that 80% of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the ‘Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’ (PSLV) comes from private industry. (Note – the PSLV is one of the most reliable space launch platforms in the world, with 34 successful launches in a row – at one of the lowest launch cost per payload weight).

These private industry contributions for building the PSLV come from over 120 large, medium and small companies. ISRO acts as the designer and system integrator, and assembles the final rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota. I had known about the industry participation, but the 80% number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space program. ISRO is thus not only delivering great rockets and satellites technology, but also helping build an aerospace R&D and manufacturing ecosystem in India. This is critical. Over the past 50 years, NASA has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in U.S. The advances made in space tech around materials, propulsion, guidance, navigation and other areas have many direct and indirect technology benefits in other sectors. ISRO should follow a similar example.

For the ‘Make in India’ initiative to succeed, we need high quality R&D investments in the public and private sector. R&D investments as a percent of GDP is an important metric and has a good correlation with the overall strength of the economy. South Korea (highest R&D/GDP in the world) is a great example. It invests 4.3% of its GDP in R&D. U.S. invests 2.7% (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1%. India invests only 0.85%.

Government led R&D is an important component of the total R&D spending in a country. Let’s look at the U.S. example. Here is a recent tweet by Bill Gates.

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The tweet references a link from U.S. Department of Energy (www.energy.gov), where Bill Gates is drawing attention to this:

“Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.”

While we regularly talk about the R&D in private sector U.S. companies such as Google, Apple, etc., what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the U.S. government in this area. NASA and U.S. Department of Defense are excellent examples. Another one is the agency that funds important research in U.S. Universities – NSF (National Science Foundation). Many of today’s great technologies and innovations were built on this R&D Foundation laid by the U.S. government R&D investments. Perhaps the best example of such an innovation is the ‘internet’. Just like U.S., France too has made many strategic R&D investments in areas related to aerospace & defense, energy and computing technologies.

Often government led R&D is also driven by a country’s strategic interests. This is very much applicable to India as well. This is one more important driver for government led R&D investments (and a topic of a separate article).

As discussed earlier, private R&D and manufacturing can build on top of the government led R&D initiatives. Yes, there are examples of wasteful expenditures, especially in the public sector. For one successful ISRO, there are counter examples as well. However, this should not deter the policy makers from allocating more R&D investments in strategic areas. It is important to study what has worked at ISRO, and then to institutionalize these processes in other R&D organizations. (This was one process related question, I wanted to ask Dr. Radhakrishnan yesterday, but we were short on time at the lecture).

ISRO represents one of the best examples (not just in India, but in the world) of effective and efficient R&D. The Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’ is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project for a fraction of the cost (around 10%) of what NASA spent on a similar project.

India’s goal should be create more ISRO like organizations in other areas – R&D driven organizations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build a private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them. As a product/technology matures, the role of the private sector can grow. Where possible (in terms of tech capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.

 

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