20th Convocation Address of VNIT, Nagpur – India’s Emergence from a ‘Starting up’ to a Leading ‘Startup’ Nation

Hon’ble Guest of Honour, respected Chief of Army Staff, Shri General Manoj Pande ji, Distinguished Director, Prof. P.M. Padole, Distinguished Registrar, Deans and Chairmen of the Board of Studies, proud graduates, their equally proud parents and teachers, ladies and gentlemen

I want to congratulate the graduates of the day for a great milestone in your life. This is a very very special day in your life. I also want to congratulate your parents and teachers for giving the best gift that they could have ever given you in life, namely education.

Universities can’t build the future of the young, but they can build the young for the future. You are fortunate that your alma mater has equipped you fully with skills and tools to create your future.

I am impressed by the remarkably rapid progress made by VNIT. It began its  journey in 1960 as  a regional engineering college and even then it was able to gift to our nation an illustrious alumnus such as my dear revered friend Dr Vijay Bhatkar. It rose to become an eminent National Institute of Technology and an Institute of National Importance. It has been a remarkable journey.

Making of NITs

In this context, my mind goes back to 1998, when the Government of India set up a committee under my chairmanship. There have been 16 so called Mashelkar committees so far on subjects ranging from national auto fuel policy to drug regulatory authority to IPR. But this was the first Mashelkar Committee. This particular Committee was asked to review the performance of 19 Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs) in India and also make recommendations so that they could move into a higher orbits of performance and delivery. It was this Mashelkar committee that recommended the conversion of Regional Engineering Colleges into National Institutes of Technology.  

And it was not just the change of name. It was the change of fundamentals from funding to governance. This involved moving the funding from the states to the centre, changing the constitution of board of governors, the governance structure, upgradation of infrastructure and several other measures to provide autonomy, flexibility and freedom. The idea was to lift these institutions to a much higher level.

I am so happy that at the dawn of the 21st century, these recommendations were accepted fully by the Vajpayee Government and NITs were formed. That is how Visvesvaraya Regional College of Engineering (VRCE) became Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology Nagpur (VNIT). 

You might ask as to what prompted the Mashelkar committee to recommend the elevation of RECs to NITs. We found at the time that from around 200,000 students who appeared for the IIT entrance examinations then, only around 2000 of them got in but may be 20000 were almost as good. They were left out and where would they go? They all went to Regional Engineering Colleges, Government Engineering Colleges, and so on. Our committee had wide ranging consultations with several stake holders, including the companies that employed these REC graduates. We found that the contributions that were made by the graduates of RECs to national programs such as space, defence, atomic energy and private and public sector industry were truly outstanding. We wanted to give these young people a level playing field. That’s how NITs were born

I am very happy to see that some of the NITs are now appearing in the top ten Engineering Institutes in the country in NIRF ranking, even ahead of the IITs. This makes me particularly happy, as this was exactly the dream of the 1998 Mashelkar Committee.

Building our future

As someone has famously said “I only think of the future. Because that is where I am going to spend the rest of my life.” There is too much of a talk about our past today in India. Of course, we should be inspired by some of our achievements in our glorious past, but we should always constantly think about building our new India of our dreams. And who is going to build it? It is the NextGen that I am addressing today. Not oldies like me. So let’s talk about the future India. But let me begin by recalling a dream for our future that I had portrayed a long while ago, which dream is still valid.

My dream of our future a quarter of century ago

I remember receiving the JRD Corporate Leadership Award on 21 February 1999 at the hands of the then Hon’ble Vice President of India. I had then tried to lay an agenda on Indian innovation movement. I had ended by expressing a hope.

”Finally, 1999 should be the year, where we should launch a powerful national innovation movement to propel us into the next millennium. It is only through the process of innovation that knowledge can be converted into wealth and social good. Through this movement, every citizen, every constituent of India must become an innovator. The I in India, should not stand for imitation and inhibition, it must stand for innovation. The I in IIT must stand for innovation. The I in industry, the I in CSIR must stand for innovation. The I in every individual Indian must stand for innovation. It is only this innovative India that will signal to the rest of the world, that we are not a hesitant nation, unsure of our place in the new global order, but a confident one, that is raring to go and be a leader in the comity of nations”.

I would also add today that the I in our VNIT must stand for innovation and not for imitation and inhibition.

Innovation in an educational system

What is the role of innovation in an educational institution?

Innovation must spread across the university as a way of life in everything we do. It is said that education and innovation are the currencies of the 21st century. I would say that education in innovation and innovation in education are the currencies. The University must build on both. The classrooms will have to be reinvented to the changing times. It is the innovative combination of digital and physical learning that will create the future winners.

Look at the dramatic changes that are happening around us due to advances in Information & Communication Technology. Digitisation, virtualisation, mobilization and personalization are the four new megatrends. All these will lead to game changing co-creative, self-organising, self-correcting, borderless, globally distributed, asynchronous, dynamic and open systems. Data, voice and video will be delivered with the already existing 4G and the imminent arrival of 5G in India. The processes of self-learning, interactive learning and lifelong learning will undergo a sea change with all these paradigm shifts.   

Education, research and innovation must integrate seamlessly. Education disseminates known knowledge. Research creates new knowledge. Innovation converts knowledge into wealth and social good. To become world-class, we at VNIT must excel in all the three aspects.

Indian Innovation on the move

I had expressed a wish in 1999 about about a national innovation movement.Much  in making that dream come true. Just in the following year, the  decade of 2010–20 was declared as the decade of Indian innovation. Atal Innovation Mission set up in 2016 has fuelled innovation across the nation, from Atal tinkering labs in schools to Atal incubation centres for start ups to Atal Community Innovation Centres for the underprivileged, it has created just the innovation movement that I had longed for. One feels gratified.

Incidentally, Prime Minister‘s National Innovation Council operated during 2009–2014. I was fortunate to be a member of this council. One of the important initiatives of the council was the formation of state innovation councils. Our own Maharashtra State Innovation Council, which has done such a remarkable job, was a result of that. Right from its inception in 2018, I have been privileged to be a Co-chairman of it.

I am particularly proud of the Maharashtra State Startup Policy of 2018 created by the council. It was one of the most progressive among the states in India. The policy was meant to help Maharashtra boldly LEAPFROG  into a premier start up destination, with L (lighten regulatory compliance), E (E-connect the ecosystem), A (augment infrastructure), P (partner with industry), F (funding start-ups), R (realising human potential), O (organise competitions and events) and  G (governance) as its tenets. It has lived up to this expectation.

The startup movement got a great fillip in Maharashtra with the start up week and startup Yatra. Giving work orders of Rs 15 lakhs to 24 top winners opened up doors of opportunity for the startups, where the necessity of prior experience in the normal tendering process was done away with. This gave the startups real opportunity.


Here is a classical success story. A small startup Sagar Defence was given a work order in 2018 by Pune Chinchwad Municipal Corporation to prove on a pilot scale his unique water surface cleaning drone technology. Today he has grown exponentially and has become a supplier of high end surveillance equipment to the Indian defence.Not only that, recently he even demonstrated one of a kind human carrying drone to our Hon’ble Prime Minister. 

The Prime Minister has to be applauded for his bold startup mission at a national level. Thanks to him, India has rapidly moved from a ‘starting-up’ nation to the fastest growing ‘start-up’ nation. Till 2016-17, India is to have one unicorn (Company with one hundred crore market capitalisation every year). It is setting new record. In 2021, despite the pandemic, India produced 42 unicorns, almost one per week, not one per year.

However, what pleased me most is the following. My own analysis showed that close to 50% of the unicorn start-ups have come from elite institutions like IITs and IIMs and the rest of them from tier 2 or tier 3 cities, and some even dropouts. This is a real democratisation of wealth. I am aware of the wonderful incubation activities of VNIT.I hope that we will see a unicorn emerging from our own VNIT, and sooner rather than later. 

But creating unicorns cannot be all about creating wealth for the founders. While doing well for themselves, they must do good for the society too, especially those, who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Truly inclusive India has to be our dream.That brings me to the next point.

India needs startups in inclusive innovation

India needs growth, but more importantly, it needs inclusive growth, where no Indian is left behind. This means inclusive innovation that creates products and services, that are affordable to all, and not just a privileged few. Can we build startups in this space of inclusive innovation? The answer is yes. Let me share a personal experience.

My mother Anjani Mashelkar brought me up against many odds that a poor, widowed and an educated woman will face.She asked me never to forget our humble beginnings and do science that helps the poor. I created Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award in her name after her passing. The award recognises and awards game changing inclusive innovations that all characterised by extreme affordability and high technology and can be scaled up sustainably with speed. The award honours those who create not just best practice but next practice. Here are some examples of extreme inclusive innovation by five of the awardees out of the total thirteen over the past 11 years. They have been all created by startups.

-iBreast is high-quality but simple breast cancer screening that avoids painful mammography available for every woman, that too at the extremely affordable cost of $1 per scan?

– Sanket is a pocket size portable high-tech ECG machine which can provide accurate reports immediately and that too at the cost of Rs 5 per test?
– SaveMom is a IoT based maternal healthcare solution that monitors pregnancies of poor rural women remotely for one rupee per day.
– OralScan is an innovative optical device that detects oral cancer rapidly and accurately at Rs 250, as against biopsy that costs Rs 2500
-Dozee is an IoT based remote monitoring system with 98.4% medical accuracy, which converts any bed into step up ICU bed in just 10 minutes, the costs being 10% of full-fledged ICU system

As I always like to say science must solve, technology must transform and innovation must impact. These five are brilliant examples of extreme inclusive innovations giving transformative affordable solutions that can save millions of poor lives.

Five Mashelkar Mantras

I want share with you what I have learned in my long journey in my life, not just from my successes, but more so from my failures. 

First, the beginning of your own life is not in your hands, but where you end up is.So remember, your aspirations are your possibilities, and therefore, keep your aspirations always high. You can’t predict your future, when you are beginning your journey.

I was born in a poor family. I studied under street lights. When I was studying Newton’s laws of motion in school, I did not realise that I will sign in the same book as Newton did, while getting inducted in a ceremonial process as a Fellow of Royal Society in London, a top honour considered to be among the top after Nobel prize. I am the only Maharashtrian to sign in that book in the last 360 years.

Second, there is no substitute to hard work for becoming successful. Like instant coffee, there is no instant success.

I have myself worked 24×7, week after week, month after month, year after year and will do so till I take my last breath.

The golden rule is the following. Work hard in silence. Let success make all the noise.

Third, purpose, perseverance and passion matters. Always too early to quit. Quitters are never winners and winners are never quitters. Interpret FAIL as your first attempt in learning. Your best Guru is your last mistake as long as you learn from it.

Fourth, be always a part of a solution, never part of a problem.If you can’t find the way, create your own new way.You will keep on knocking on the doors. Don’t get frustrated if they don’t open. Create your own doors.

Fifth, there is no limit to human endurance, no limit to human achievement and no limit to human imagination, excepting the limits you put on your mind yourself.

Be `limitless’ in terms of your imagination. So every day, when you wake up, no matter how old you are, say to yourself that my best is yet to come and may be today is that day.


My young friends, all my best wishes and choicest blessings will be always with you, when you keep on climbing on this limitless ladder of excellence and bring glory not only to yourself, to your family, but also to our beloved alma mater, our beloved state of Maharashtra and our revered nation, India.