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View from India: Research can generate intellectual value

Quantum theory along with the principles of Newton's Laws has found applications in space satellites. Centuries of epidemiology and decades of basic science have led researchers towards the mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine. If we proceed along these lines, the future will hold even more disruptive discoveries.

The computational wave of Covid has spurred the convergence of technology and science at an unprecedented pace. The outcome, which is a portfolio of vaccines and anti-viral drugs, along with online and app-based applications, illustrates the interconnection between basic science and technology. Scale and inclusivity are the hallmarks of the vaccine drive that began in January 2021. “India has administered more than 117 crore [1.17 billion] Covid vaccines under the world’s largest vaccine drive so far,” the Government of India tweeted. This could well be an example of technology facilitating mass manufacturing.

The future could be about new drugs to combat infections and decode forms of virus. All this has boosted the intrinsic value of pharma companies. We need to take it to the next level. “India has great bio-manufacturing capabilities in the world. But it requires high capital investment. Production-linked incentive (PLI) is essential for bio pharma to progress. With this, it would be great if research-linked incentive also gets a boost,” said Dr Kiran Majumdar Shaw, chairperson of the Government of Karnataka's Vision Group on Biotechnology, at the recent Bengaluru Tech Summit 2021. This is required for non-linear economic growth of biotechnology. Bengaluru is base to one million biologists and chemists. So if we can foster a conducive environment, the city can evolve into a leading biotech capital globally.

It’s not just biotech; overall investment in science and research is crucial. Research growth can happen by incentivising skill and academic development. Research-led initiatives can generate intellectual value to meet unmet needs of society. It requires an encouraging nod from the government. “India spends 0.8 per cent of its GDP (gross domestic product) on R&D, which needs to be scaled up. Investments in material science, chemistry and math are required to meet pressing issues such as sustainable energy, climate change and food security, agritech and plant-based food. The future prosperity of a nation will depend on innovation and not cheap labour,” added Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate, Group Leader, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Past President, The Royal Society.

We are at a juncture when engineering and medicine will collectively form the basis of many applied fields. Diverse verticals such as healthcare, transport and space are projected to benefit from this confluence. Innovation is the next move in this direction which can be channelled through regulatory measures and a strong knowledge base. “An explosive growth in new technologies is projected over the next 20 years. What is more important is the opportunities that Bengaluru can derive from this anticipated growth. The city is the country’s IT, BT (biotech) and start-up capital. Renewed awareness about the critical role that Bengaluru can play in future. What comes to mind is the creation of new jobs and the scope of IT solutions being expanded for India and rest of the world,” observed Kris Gopalakrishnan, chairman, Vision Group on Information Technology, Government of Karnataka.

The scope of IT encompasses space applications, and this sector needs to propel forward. Although India’s space activities began decades ago, it is still seen as a sunrise industry. “Globally, the space economy is $400 billion and India constitutes 2 per cent of it, though space has applications in marine activities and agriculture. The space sector is largely led by the government through the Department of Space. R&D units and development centres employ around 10,000 scientists pursuing space and aviation,” explained Pawan Goenka, chairman, IN-SPACe. The government of India (GoI) decided to open up space exploration by creating a platform titled IN-SPACe. An acronym for Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre, IN-SPACe will open up the skies for private participation.

Space start-ups have sprung up and offer downstream applications and satellite-based activities. Investors are supporting them. Generally, new ideas and do-able ones attract investments. “In order to sustain the investor momentum, it’s necessary to create new business models. Deep tech will drive innovation, wherein inclusivity will be a growth driver. A synthesis of artificial intelligence (AI), synthetic biology, quantum computing and biotech could probably sum up deep tech,” reasoned Prashant Prakash, partner – Accel Partners, chairman – Karnataka Vision Group for Startup. A convergence of technologies, deep tech offers a basket of options for innovation and intellectual property (IP). Data expertise, talent and domain knowledge could be among Karnataka’s hallmarks. It’s understandable that the state has embarked on a mission mode. The thrust could be on bringing in new research and create a market for it. Perhaps it could be accomplished by investing in institutions to harness knowledge and innovation for equitable growth.  

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