Why big givers like Kris Gopalakrishnan are stepping in to fund areas of science and technology

Hari Pulakkat, ET Bureau Oct 7, 2014, 02.27AM IST

Observers of Indian science would have noticed this. About a year ago, Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan did something unprecedented in Indian science: he gave the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Rs 226 crore to set up a brain research institute. It’s not the first contribution by a philanthropist towards scientific research in India, but it is by far the largest.

It’s why Gopalakrishnan seems to have brought to the centrestage an activity that had started to happen slowly in Indian science and technology research: philanthropic contributions. In the decade immediately following economic liberalisation, the Indian research establishment was starved of funds. But no more. Starting with the Vajpayee government, research institutions in the country received such generous funding from the government that their infrastructure improved by leaps and bounds.
At the moment, if you ignore some highly-expensive facilities like particle accelerators, India’s research infrastructure is world class in most areas. Scientists now struggle to use up their allotted funds towards the end of each financial year, but it doesn’t mean that Indian research laboratories do not need any more increases of funding. Certain areas of science and technology are conspicuous by their absence in India, and all of them are important to the future health of the country. Brain research is one such area.
Cancer research is another. A third area would be renewable energy. It is not that research does not happen in these areas — India has, for example a dedicated brain research institute in Manesar, Haryana — but it lacks the complete ecosystem that can perform cutting research in sufficient scale, while also taking the fruits of that research all the way to the market. Now, philanthropists are beginning to chip in with their contributions in areas specific to their intellectual interests.

Paying It Back
Consider brain research. Dementia is one of the major problems of old age, and the disease is increasing its prevalence in the country. But it is also among the most poorly-understood of health problems, especially in India. Gopalakrishnan’s contribution would bring together imaging specialists, geneticists, epidemiologists, data scientists, clinicians and neuroscientists to work towards a common goal. IISc has set up the new Brain Research Centre as an autonomous society, which gives it full freedom to operate free from government rules and regulations, while also drawing on the intellectual and physical facilities of the institute campus.
Indian research institutions covet this financial and operational freedom, and so far the government has not obstructed their path. Some IITs, for example, are well on their way towards setting up facilities that are funded and operated differdifferently from regular campus laboratories. The IITs are fortunate in one way. They have an enormous network of rich alumni who are only too willing to help their alma mater. The older IITs are thus tapping their alumni to fund research in a number of ways, and their contributions are rising.
At IIT Bombay, the class of 1975 funded a Rs 2-crore tinker lab, where students can go and build whatever they want, free from restrictions of the class curriculum. At IIT Madras, alumni have made contributions that are making a big difference to the institution. The Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre, which develops healthcare technologies, has now started attracting funding from alumni and other philanthropists. Several of its technologies have now found their way into the market, and it is raising its ambitions. “Alumni funding helps us stabilise the corpus and aspire for bigger things,” says Mohanasankar Sivaprakasam, assistant professor, IIT Madras.

IITs and Research
IIT Madras has seen other significant contributions too. Philanthropists Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta, neither of whom is from IIT Madras, kickstarted the department of biotechnology there and
continue to fund it. Kishore Chivukula, founder of the Bangalore firm Indo-US MIM, gave Rs 1.5 crore for the IIT Madras satellite project. Its Silicon Valley alumni have set up a $1 million incubation fund for start-ups. Its 1981 batch set up a Rs 80-lakh fund for faculty and students to start companies, and the 1984 batch has given a similar amount for a centre for social innovation and entrepreneurship.
“I think we will see more of this in the future when institutes develop the capacity to absorb money,” says R Nagarajan, professor and advisor at the office of alumni affairs at IIT Madras. Most alumni are interested in funding transformational research, for which both IIT Madras and IIT Bombay have managed to draw some big money as well.

Over the next three years, Kris Gopalakrishnan will give IIM Madras Rs 45 crore to set up three chairs on brain research. At IIT Bombay, alumni and Syntel founder Bharat Desai gave Rs 5 crore to found a centre for entrepreneurship. Over the next five years, entrepreneur Romesh Wadhwani will give Rs 3 crore every year for a centre for bioengineering to IIT Bombay. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust gave IIT Bombay Rs 95 crore to work on technologies for the bottom of the pyramid.

Such contributions have helped IITs do things differently. “Certain activities are very difficult to do with government money,” says Ravi Sinha, IIT Bombay professor. This includes providing special salaries to certain individuals or inviting experts like Nobel Laureates to the institution, as they command fees that are beyond the permissible limits of government rules. Sometimes, they go towards enhancing compensation and other activities of an institution. The Infosys Foundation recently committed Rs 30 crore to the Chennai Mathematical Institute, to support the faculty and students.

Big Shift
The occasional philanthropic contributions to science can happen away from big institutions like IITs and IISc. Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, always a campaigner for cancer awareness, gave Rs 40 crore to set up a cancer hospital and research centre inside Narayana Health City. To improve the cancer research expertise in India, Mazumdar-Shaw has also funded two-year fellowships for Indians at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, for which she has committed $2.5 million.
In spite of the rising contributions of philanthropists, the impact of philanthropy in Indian research has so far been minimal, with very little money going towards setting up core research in an area, Gopalakrishnan’s contributions being the exception. In developed countries, led by the US, such contributions have built extraordinary institutions.
Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Lawrence Ellison, David Koch, Michael Bloomberg and many others have made extraordinary contributions amounting to billions of dollars for many institutions. For these billionaires, philanthropic contributions can go up to a few hundred million dollars. For example, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen once gave $500 million to set up an eponymous brain research institute in Seattle.
Philanthropist Eli Broad has contributed $600 million to the genomics centre Broad Institute at MIT. BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis gave $150 million to set up the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in his home town of Waterloo. All these institutions have become worldclass centres in their fields of research. Indian billionaires can take the country on a similar path, and a few seeds have been sown by Kris Gopalakrishnan. Indian science can go up several notches if some world-class institutions come up this way



Varun is a researcher and entrepreneur. He earned his Bachelor of Engineering degree at Delhi University and later dropped out of a PhD program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Masters degree. He co-founded Aspiring Minds in 2008 to drive meritocracy in labour markets. Aspiring Minds is one of the largest employability assessment companies in the world. Varun heads research at Aspiring Minds. His work has led to the world’s first machine learning-based assessment of coding skills and the world’s first automated motor skills assessment. He has published more than 30 research papers and takes pride in the fact that the fruits of his research have improved millions of lives.

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