Success and Failures

Projects may fail, but Missions do not!

Somjit Amrit

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Preparing a presentation for an annual performance review (APR) of a mission is always tough. Towards this endeavour, between April 6–8, 2023, I (ably supported by my team) was collecting data and squeezing facts and figures in a templatized framework — a tedious task. What to put within the space constraints and yet be differentiating enough would make one rake through his hair, however, few they may be!

A distracted start to a tedious task.

Complicating the matter was the start of the IPL matches on March 31, 2023, a seductive distraction to the above time-bound and important task.

My mind was on the presentation; how to go beyond the template? We needed to share how our Technology Innovation Hub (iHub) was delivering the mandate to usher in the technology translation i.e., the industry adoption of applied research in the select technology area of Human-Computer Interaction.

The tired, multi-tasking mind was trying to find the right channel to get the IPL match on the screen.

While flipping the channels I paused at the Doordarshan Channel. Its eternal signature tune (credit to Pandit Ravi Shankar), wafted through the living room. Then the signature montage of the concentric circles swirling into the logo presented its stark resemblance to the symbol of dualism “yin and yang”. This visual with the accompaniment of the tune rekindled the happy childhood memories -the inclusive family pastime of watching TV together! Unforgettable!

Oh! I am hurtling down the path without providing this in context to the iHub!

Coming back to my “Mission: Impossible” task!

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) under its National Mission (NM) of Interdisciplinary Cyber-Physical Systems (ICPS) has earmarked twenty-five institutes of standing to focus on key technology areas. These areas range from Underwater Technologies to Human–Computer Interaction and Collaborative Robotics. The aim of the Mission is to promote the translation of CPS technologies to bring in societal and economic benefits.

Not surprisingly, any meeting we attend with the NM-ICPS leadership team brings forth the unequivocal message of the dire need to bring research out of the labs into industry adoption — the holy grail of Technology Translation.

The APR of an assemblage of the 25 iHubs dotting India, was conducted in a workshop format over a span of three days. The clarion call was to steadfastly stay focussed within the guide rails of the given mandate in the given technology area while leading the technology translation efforts with purposeful impact.

The organizational structure of iHubs has been thoughtfully designed. The Host Institute has its representation in the iHub to establish its interface with the iHub. However, the iHub formed as a Section 8 company is expected to work as a corporation led by a CEO, mostly with a corporate background.

The Research-Industry gap is expected to be filled by the iHubs.

Could the NM achieve this objective through the identified premier technology Institutes? The answer may not be an unequivocal “Yes!”. The primary objective of the premier institutes is teaching and research. But the crying need of the NM is to work on translational research — the research with an eye for industry adoption. This gap between the research conducted in the institute labs and the need of the industry is expected to be bridged by the iHubs. The objective is to make the research relevant to the industry and this is where the iHub steps in.

One of the eminent speakers at the APR lamented how research in the labs has not expanded its reach beyond the lab prototype. The need to run field trials in rough and real industry conditions, the need for productization, the need for maintainability, and the need to provide after-sales support are not what the researchers may be concerned about. But these are precisely the needs that concern the industry.

Institutionalization of Technology Translation at the iHubs.

TRL is well known, but is it missing a partner?

If you are in research, then you would not be far away from the concept of Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). TRL, developed by NASA in 1974 (as part of planning the Jupiter Orbiter Design) assesses the maturity of a technology. The original TRL had seven levels of development stages, and now its current version has nine levels.

The TRL phases 1 to 3 are considered to be the ideas levels. The basic research has been done, the fundamental concept investigated, and a proof of concept developed.

The TRL phases 4 and 5 are referred to as the prototype levels, the technology has been developed and approved in a laboratory or in some other relevant environment.

In TRL phases 6 and 7, the technology finds itself at the validation levels, with demonstrations of its capacity occurring in a relevant and real operational environment.

The final TRL phases 8 and 9 involve the production levels. The technology is complete and approved and is now proven to work in its operational environment as a shrink wrapped product.

TRL may be a comprehensive guideline, though not the only tool to be used in the research eco-system that runs on grants, with periodic progress-based renewal.

However, when the eco-system is related to the world of industry and the business which thrives on it, we need to see this from the prism of industry and pry open future revenue streams, and not be content with the renewal of grant approvals.

The missions like NM-ICPS which fund, are shifting their focus from stand-alone technology innovation to the development of business readiness of the said output of the research for its adoption by the industry.

The natural world of Dualism.

This shift in focus from depending on grants to generating revenue is a significant yet a natural one.

Most things in life come in twos. Light and dark, positive, and negative, true, and false. Two fundamentals, opposing forces or principles of the universe are always in a constant state of balance while seemingly being in conflict.

Remember, the above-mentioned Doordarshan logo resembles the yin and yang!

The independent opposites that are present in all things, emphasize the need for unifying the opposite thoughts through the harmonious interconnectedness of ideas.

The less-celebrated twin- the relevance of Business Readiness Level(BRL)!

“Grants” are provided out of faith, and “Revenue” is generated out of trust.

Understanding this nuance is important.

When the focus shifts to generating revenues, the importance of BRL comes to the fore. Evaluating the maturity of the business model ought to be in tandem with technology development.

When used in tandem, this would be a valuable assessment tool for innovators to bring out technology that is commercially feasible and financially viable. This is the crux of technology translation — the clarion call of the aforementioned workshop.

As BRL is not as celebrated in the research and technology circles as its better-known twin, TRL; an explanation of this term would be appropriate.

Following the similar nine-phased milestone approach –

BRL phases 1 to 3 work on the business concept — hypothesis, description, potential and competition overview.

BRL phases 4 to 6 focus on the business model of viability — market potential, market positioning, and pricing models, and

BRL phases 7 to 9 bring in the business revenue model through product-market fit, revenue and cost projections, sales and metrics, and scaling of the business.

While TRL defines whether the technology is ready to “Go-To-Market,” BRL suggests whether it is ready to be launched with the “Product-Market fit.”

TRL and BRL complement each other, bringing in a parallel and hand-in-hand run.

Use of the TRL and BRL tools will assure the maturity of commercialization efforts with respect to the business concept, model and strategy, and financial model relating to the cash flow, scalability, and sustainability, beyond the “grant period”.

Parting Note.

Stealing the resounding message of a key leader in the three-day workshop was “Missions Cannot Fail!”. The secret sauce is to make TRL and BRL work in unison, not losing sight of any of them. TRL and BRL are the yin and yang of Technology Translation!

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Somjit Amrit

Business Consulting pays the bills and taking care of Bees in wild calms the nerves