Questions Related to Polymer Industry
1. What according to you are the key drivers of growth for the Indian polymer industry?
In India, we are witnessing a rapid growth in diverse key sectors, such as, automotive, construction, electronics, healthcare, textiles, and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG). All this will contribute to the growth in consumption of polymers. Alongside, polymers are being increasingly used in the rapidly expanding needs in the areas of energy, water, agriculture, health, housing, transportation and communication. Here high level polymer science and its innovative application will continue to be significantly important in India. There will be a great resurgence of advanced polymer materials. The per-capita consumption of plastics in India is way below that of any developed countries. However, with rapidly changing socio-economic conditions, the per-capita consumption of plastics will increase significantly. A major national program, viz. “Make in India” designed to transform India into a global manufacturing hub. It will surely be another driver for the next wave of growth in the Indian polymer industry.
2. What are your thoughts on the patent laws in India? What is the way forward for research in the Indian polymers industry.
Indian patent system has been modified from time to time to meet the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) guidelines. Be it the inventor or the society, I feel Indian IP laws provide a balanced proposition for all its stakeholders. Polymer science research in India has already attained global excellence.
Let me just take the example of NCL. When I was the Director in NCL more than two decades ago, our US patents on solid-state polycondensation of polycarbonate were licensed to General Electric, who had a 40% market share in the polycarbonate market then. NCL polymer scientists had then demonstrated that they can think ahead of some of the multinational giants. These were the first instances of reverse transfer of technology from India.
NCL has moved on. Today, my colleagues at NCL are actively researching on biodegradable polymers from renewable resources, which will pave roadmap for our sustainable future. There is also an effort in developing biocompatible and bio-degradable polymeric based materials which will act as scaffolds for tissue engineering to repair, regenerate, or create tissues and organs by mimicking of natural extracellular matrixes.
Like NCL, there are many centres of excellence that have sprung up across the nation, both in public institution as well as private sector. At Reliance, for instance, some truly breakthrough innovations have taken place.
There are several areas in which polymer research will have to move forward. These include high performance composites, polymeric nanomaterials, specialty polymers for electronics, condensing polymers, stimuli responsive polymers, barrier polymers, supramolecular and self-assembling polymers, biodegradable polymers, polymers that can withstand high temperatures for prolonged periods of time (e.g. in fuel cells) and so on. Besides this, we will have to tailor our polymers for the changing scenario in manufacturing, packaging, separation processes, etc.
Take manufacturing as an example. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is picking up everywhere, be it fashion industry, be it medical and healthcare industry or be it education or retail. Now it is time to explore new materials that can be used in these 3D printers. Polymers will be the largest consumed materials for 3D printing.
3. As regards a global positioning of the Indian polymers industry, what should be the focus areas of the Indian corporate?
As I have mentioned earlier, India’s exponential growth in different sectors such as Auto, Agriculture, Medicals, Packaging, Space, Electrical & Electronics etc. has provided impetus for the development of next generation high performance polymeric materials with different functionalities. Furthermore, alternative feedstocks, such as, renewable and use of biotechnology are creating opportunities for newer polymeric materials. Indian corporates need to adopt multidisciplinary approach involving chemical and biological sciences in combination with engineering & advanced modeling, and effective public private partnerships for driving frontiers of innovation to create new value added products to speed up the development cycle from Mind to Market.
4. Is innovation unaffordable? Your thoughts please.
No, not really. The Mars mission, which sent Mangalyan in the space, just cost us US $ 74 million – not a billion dollars! I and late C.K. Prahalad wrote a paper titled ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’ in Harvard Business Review (HBR) in the July-August 2010 issue. There we discussed as to how the combination of scarcity and aspiration had helped India develop its own brand of innovation – getting more from less for more people. This was called the MLM paradigm, i.e. ‘More from Less for More’. In this paper, we had first analysed the contextual factors that had undoubtedly facilitated the growth of India’s ability to innovate with minimal investment.
The Indian economy didn’t start growing until the 1990s, so local companies were small. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, developed a penchant for undertaking small projects with huge capital efficiency, a good habit developed in bad times, which they have maintained in good times too!
The most important driver happened to be India’s innovation mind-set. Some Indian leaders had the audacity to question the conventional wisdom. The mix of miniscule research budgets, small size, low prices, but big ambitions had created the need to think and manage differently. Indeed it is fair to say that the combination of extreme scarcity and extreme aspiration is a basis of Indian innovation.
5. What according to you is the most exciting aspect of the current generation (innovators and) entrepreneurs?
I would ask a few questions to explain the most exciting aspects of the current generation innovators and entrepreneurs;
• Can we make a high quality Hepatitis-B vaccine priced at US$20 per dose available at a price that is 40 times less, not just 40%?
• Can we make a high quality artificial foot priced at US$10,000 available at a price that is 300 times less, not just 30%?
• Can we make a high quality cataract eye surgery available, not at US$3,000, but a price that is 100 times less, not just 100%?
• Can we make an ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower, not just 20%?
Incredible as it may sound; all such impossible looking feats have been achieved by Indian innovators and entrepreneurs. And this has captured the imagination of the world to an extent that a new term `Indovation’ is beginning to do rounds now! What at first sight looks impossible, namely `affordable excellence’. We normally assume that what is affordable cannot be excellent. And what is excellent cannot be affordable. But Indian innovators and entrepreneurs have demonstrated a special talent to make this impossible, possible.
Let me begin my explanation of the concept of affordable excellence with a personal experience. In my mother’s name, I have created an Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award. This is the fourth year of the award. It is given for designing and developing a technological solution that leads to inclusion – meaning that millions of resource-poor people can benefit from it. But there are two conditions. First, it must belong to the category of affordable excellence. Second, it must be not just the “best” practice, but the “next” practice.
One of these awards was given to a 28-year-old innovator, Myshkin Ingawale. He found that women in villages were dying of anaemia because their low haemoglobin levels were not detected in time. He found out why: many of them were reluctant to give their blood. So he decided to create a non-invasive diagnostic tool, something that has never been achieved before. He used photoplethysmography, spectrophotometry and an advanced software for photon scattering to create ToucHb. This was technological `excellence’ achieved by using cutting edge technology, and not jugaad. Furthermore, he reduced the cost per test from Rs. 100 to Rs. 10. This was `affordable’. So he achieved `affordable excellence’.
ToucHb was a technological innovation. But there are many non-technological innovations. For example, India’s Aravind Eyecare Hospital performs ultra-low cost cataract surgeries with quality that even surpasses the international benchmarks. This is achieved by doing work-flow innovations, with more efficient and innovative use of scarce (and highly-paid) surgeons: rather than having a surgeon perform the entire surgery, each medical personnel performs a specific task during the operation. Aravind Eye care model has spread in 17 Countries now! Similar workflow innovations have been used to perform low-cost open-heart surgeries (at a cost of US$3,000) at the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital in Bangalore with success rates that match their western counterparts. You will soon see the Narayana Hrudayalaya innovation on affordable excellence in a 2000 bed hospital in Cayman Islands near Florida!
I expect India to lead the world in innovation based on affordable excellence.
6. You have been the chair of India’s National Innovation Foundation for over a decade. Please tell us about it.
My friend Prof. Anil Gupta from IIM (Ahmedabad) is the father of grassroots innovation movement in India.
The National Innovation Foundation-India (NIF) started functioning in March 2000 as India’s national initiative to strengthen the grassroots technological innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge. It is based on a fundamental belief that India does not have 1.25 billion mouths, but it has 1.25 million minds! Its mission is to help India become a creative and knowledge based society by expanding policy and institutional space for grassroots technological innovators.
NIF has been able to build up a database of more than 2,10,000 technological ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices (not all unique, not all distinct) from over 575 districts of the country. NIF has till date recognised more than 775 grassroots innovators and school students at the national level in its various award functions. It has also set up a Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab) with the help of MIT, Boston, for product development apart from strengthening in-house research and development facilities for the initial validation of herbal technologies. Pro bono arrangement with patent firms has helped NIF to file over 725 patents (including eight filed in USA and twenty seven PCT applications) on behalf of the innovators and outstanding traditional knowledge holders of which thirty seven patents have been granted in India and five in the USA. It has also filed applications for twenty nine farmers’ developed plant varieties at the PPV&FR Authority. Micro Venture Innovation Fund (MVIF) at NIF with the support of SIDBI has provided risk capital of over Rs 384 lakh to 193 projects, which are at different stages of incubation. NIF has received over six hundred product inquiries from around fifty five countries for various technologies, and has succeeded in commercialising products across countries in six continents apart from being successful in materialising eighty nine cases of technology licensing.
To me, the major activities of NIF comprise scouting and documentation (SD), value addition research & development, intellectual property management, business development and micro venture innovation fund and dissemination and social diffusion.
7. What is the agenda on the Global Research Alliance?
I have been the President of Global Research Alliance (GRA) since 2007.
The GRA is an international network of nine applied research organisations that works for promoting application of science and technology to solve large scale issues facing developing countries. The alliance was formed in 2000 in Pretoria, South Africa. Today, the GRA has access to the knowledgebase of 60,000 scientists across its membership in Asia Pacific, Europe and USA.
Our vision is for a world where the application of innovative science that serves the society, technology that transforms innovation that impacts. We do this through collaboration and co-creation, delivers access equality, improves lives, and solves global development challenges.
The GRA uses the best science and technology to solve some of the biggest problems in the developing world. These global issues span borders, cultures and religions and require a cross-boundary response. We address these problems by:
– mobilising the creative energy of our globally and culturally diverse researchers to address global development challenges through innovation
– sharing the breadth and depth of our science and technology resources and uniting with local partners, communities, industry and collaborators
– generating and implementing appropriate, affordable and sustainable solutions with positive and lasting impact
The GRA implements these solutions through partnership-based projects. The GRA also delivers technology workshops in developing countries and advises governments of developing countries on their national innovation systems.
8. We know Mashelkar as a polymer scientist, as a researcher, as a science leader, and indeed as a thought leader. Could you tell us at the end as to who had the biggest influence on your life? Who were your mentors? Who were your Gurus?
Well, I have talked about this often in the past, written about it in my book ‘Reinventing India’ (reinventingindia.com), it is available on my website (www.mashelkar.com), it gets reflected in my twitter (@rameshmashelkar), it gets reflected in my speeches. But for the readers of Polymers Communique, let me go through it again.
My greatest guru was my mother. Although uneducated, she understood the value of education. Despite our hardship, she kept on pushing me to do higher and higher level of studies. Shortly before she passed away, I had received my 25th Honorary Doctorate. He said, now I am satisfied. Now I can go.
My second great guru was Principal Bhave in Union High School. He taught us Physics. Because it was a poor school, I remember, it had to innovate to convey to the young students the message of Science.
I still remember one of the interesting experiences when, on a Friday afternoon, Principal Bhave took us out into the sun to demonstrate to us as to how to find the focal length of a convex lens. He had a piece of paper here, a convex lens here and he moved it up and down and there was a point when there was a sharp focus and a bright spot on the paper. He showed the distance between paper and the lens and said that this distance was the focal length. But then the paper started burning. For some reason, he then turned to me, and said, “Mashelkar, if you focus your energies like this, you can burn anything in the world.
From this I got two lessons- first the philosophy of my life that if we focus, we can achieve anything. And the second about the power of science. It was so powerful. I thought to myself why don’t I become a scientist. It left an indelible mark in my mind.
By the way, if you think carefully about that story, it also tells you about the new model for the society and for the nation. What is the experiment? You have the lens. And what does the lens do? It takes the parallel rays of the sun and then lets them converge. And what is the property of parallel lines? Parallel lines never meet. Parallel rays never meet but the lens actually makes them meet. I call it “convex lens” leadership by the way – leadership that brings people together.
The third teacher who made a huge difference for me was Professor M.M. Sharma. He had returned from Cambridge at the young age of 28. He took up the position of a Professor in University Department of Chemical Technology. He was incredible. I was among the top rankers in Chemical Engineering. I had a number of offers of scholarships from the United States of America and Canada for doing research for my doctorate degree. I had always done things which were different, by the way. I thought where could I get a better Guru for me and decided not to go abroad and worked in University and did my Ph.D under young Prof. Sharma, a man with enormous value systems. All his research was ‘idea based’. With barely Rs.10,000 per year as contingency grant, i.e. less than 1000 rupees per month, we did research that was published in top international journals. He has remained a teacher. I am the third Engineer to have got the Fellowship of Royal Society in the 20th century. Prof. Sharma was the first by the way. Ours is a rather unique combination of Guru and Shishya both getting Fellowships of Royal Society!
And the fourth Guru was Bharat Ratna Professor CNR Rao, who came in my life a little late. Prof. Rao is the most celebrated scientist in the country. The interesting thing is that he is past the age of 80 now and he still works 25 hours a day! Not 24 but 25. And that too day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. He is really my role model and an icon. Except the Nobel Prize, he has received all the major awards. I am sure he will get that too, and sooner rather than later.
What he did for me was very interesting and there is a lesson for you to take home. Anytime I got any honour and I went to him expecting him to appreciate and applaud. You know the only word he would use would be- Not Bad! I became a Fellow of Royal Society FRS, It’s a big honour. In fact, I remember receiving a letter from another FRS, who said `only two greater things can happen to you in life now, One is Nobel prize and other is death. One is certain and the other is uncertain’.
When I went to Professor CNR Rao and told him that I received FRS, he said Not Bad! Then I became Foreign Associate of U.S. National Academy of Science. It was established in 1868. In 140 years or so, only seven Indians have got this honour. Sometimes you get a Nobel Prize first and that honour later, like Sir Harry Kroto, who got the Nobel Prize first and five years after that he got this honour.
I thought surely now Professor CNR Rao would be impressed. So, I went and told him look, I got this honour. He said,’ Not bad’. I was really frustrated. So I asked him directly what will make him satisfied. Then he defined for me what is called a limitless ladder of excellence. He said, “there are no limits to the ladder of excellence”. You should continue to climb on this ladder of excellence for ever and ever. ‘Your best is yet to come.’
So in the end, I would simply say that this lesson of keeping on climbing on the limitless ladder of excellence is what I would carry with me till I breathe my last.