When Outcome and Impact are not synonyms!
Drowsy driving is that scary feeling of conflict between the fear of losing control of the vehicle and the involuntary urge to catch a wink while driving. The India wicketkeeper, Rishabh Pant recently had a miraculous escape, and so had I while driving drowsy, 20 years ago. …And now, a week ago we received an enquiry to devise a solution to reduce fatigue-induced accidents by forklift drivers.
Do Outcome and Impact mean the same?
This genuine problem has existed for as long as humans have been driving.
When there is a problem there is always the strive for a solution.
Some time ago, a research institute’s (R&D) team engaged in crafting a solution with a slew of features designed for drivers driving on treacherous hilly terrain. The team’s prototype was tested and the testing culminated with the publication of an award-winning paper as the “outcome”. As the boxes got checked off against the immediate objectives, the momentum for the ultimate pursuit to make the prototype into a commercial success got neglected.
What were the reasons for failing to persevere towards the ultimate pursuit? Maybe the team ran out of grants, or with the publication of the award-winning paper, the limited and acceptable objectives were met, or an industry mentor to help in the product-market fit was not explored. Thus, a potentially life-saving device that could have created an “impact” could not venture out of the laboratory.
Was “Impact” sacrificed at the altar of “Outcome”? Did the ephemeral din of celebration douse the need to go beyond?
Principled opposition or mismatch of objectives?
While reports abound about the need to spur collaboration between industry and academia (or research institutes) the issue disturbingly continues to rankle us.
The Technology Innovation Hubs (TIHs) have been sponsored by the Government of India and embedded within the host institutes of respectable standing. The TIHs have the stated responsibility to actively facilitate the translation and transition of research from the laboratories for adoption by the mainstream industry.
Being fortunate to work for one of these hubs, I have a ringside view of this collaboration in its making.
Three anecdotal observations:
a. A generic drug manufacturing company is willing to engage with academia to standardize the quality control process for its manufacturing bays. The frequent turnover of the contract workers and the constant rotation in the shifts, affect the product quality as the steps to drug manufacturing are precise and many. The technology-savvy senior leadership wanted to try out technology intervention (in this case Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)) to reduce the reliance on the undocumented “tribal knowledge” among its workers.
After the company reached out for guidance, two options were considered. One was to work with a start-up funded and mentored by the TIH, which had a tried and tested system working on a similar application but in a different industry. The other was to work on the specific technology as a research project with a group of research associates.
The tried and tested solution of the first option was selected to get quick results — fail or succeed. Time is of the essence.
b. A consumer goods multi-national is keen to explore the intervention of technology in its Corporate Social Responsibility program across India in skills development for scale, impact, and return on investment.
The initial approach of submitting the “research” proposal based on Social Robotics was proposed. The work would be performed on a limited sample to understand the suitability of the approach. The MNC saw that significant time and cost were involved in the assessment which included collecting data, training, and testing the data to run the right algorithms. The research proposal option was not considered and subsequently, a “business” proposal was presented involving the use of the social robotics-based technology in the existing project to assess the impact.
The MNC is keeping its eyes peeled for ready-to-be-deployed solutions where time, cost, and return on investment (RoI) are rightly the key levers for Go and No-Go decisions.
While serious research proposals are built with Go, No-Go decisions with timelines, most do not have this built-in. Business proposals, typically are built with time, cost, and revenue goals clearly articulated.
c. A challenge is thrown at the research institute from the fragrances industry. The task is to segregate the required herbs from the poisonous weeds and derive the required raw materials. Many attempts at this have been made without much success. The weeds seemed to have an affinity to grow, evolve, and get camouflaged with the herbs. The solution was defined as a prototype. with an ensemble of technologies, namely, Computer Vision, Generative AI algorithms, and robotic arms with automation. To make the process steps work in tandem, a pilot was recommended in the industry setup.
Questions were brought up as to how the pilot would be expanded to a large scale and supported. Next, the question of intellectual property (IP) ownership came up for discussion.
This is an example where the institute was invited to tackle a hitherto unsolved problem, best done by the institute’s research team. Once it is addressed, the follow-on ownership, the large-scale deployment, product delivery, and support became the critical questions to be addressed.
These three anecdotes highlight that industry and academia may be intrinsically designed to be mismatched in their objectives. To be fair, the conflict is not based on principles but mostly based on understanding what constitutes RoI (Citations vs Revenue). Latency in research may not be acceptable to the time-bound, and bottom-line needs of the industry. Finally, understanding where to start and when to end a partnership, along with ownership of Intellectual Property while addressing a problem statement needs to be forethought.
Moving away from being at cross-purposes to being in concert
Fundamental Research vis-a-vis Applied Research:
Grants from the government should be used for fundamental research (Quantum Computing, Operating Systems (BharOS) are good examples). Fundamental research (aka Open Sky, Moon-shot) projects do not follow linear and predictable patterns and are best supported through government grants.
For Applied Research, institutes should have a specialist team to secure industry projects based on select problem statements which are purposeful and based on applied research. This team should have the researchers embedded in the industry on a sabbatical from the institute. The institute should be supportive of this arrangement and encourage the faculty researcher to hone her skills in applied research in the industry environs while not losing her academic seniority.
Grants versus Projects:
Receiving a grant from the government or other governmental organizations versus getting awarded a purchase order from the industry addressing a specific problem statement require different skills-sets. Proposal-making skills for projects need to be honed with this specificity.
Attachment and Detachment:
The TIHs have been constituted to usher in technology translation. While they are under the aegis of host institutes, they are mandated to commercialize the research outputs through the active interface between academia and industry.
To function with objectivity and candour, this arrangement should function with a sense of attachment and detachment. The host institute provides the anchor for the TIH, yet the Hub researchers should have the ability and freedom to work on industry problems, by collaborating with nimble start-ups and be encouraged to be seamlessly embedded with appropriate industry partners.
The TIHs are part research institutions and part start-up incubators. The successful TIH should be able to navigate through the paradigm shift — from a risk-averse academic mindset to a risk-taking entrepreneurship one. Easier said than done.
To foster radical experimentation at the intersection of R&D, skills development, entrepreneurship, and industry collaboration using the unique talent base of research scholars is key. In a stress-free environment, with active and involved mentorship to take on complex, real-world challenges without the fear of failure, this talent has to be selected and nurtured for research outcomes to become impactful!
This week we celebrate in honour of the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, which should lead to the creation of wealth through the blessings of the goddess Lakshmi.