US is not lagging in innovation, but India is buzzing, says Kesh S Narayanan of National Science Foundation of the United States.
US is not lagging in innovation, but India is buzzing: Kesh S Narayanan of National Science Foundation of the United States
NEW YORK: Engineer and inventor Kesh S Narayanan who has five patents under his name is a classic example of what keeps US innovation humming. He is the director of the office of industrial innovation at the National Science Foundation and helps dole out over $100 million to scientists on the brink of big ideas who are still too risky for venture capitalists to support with seed money.
Narayanan also helps scientists make the bewildering switch from science to business. He is deeply involved in efforts to ensure the US stays ahead in the innovation race by minting startups as well as by investing in risky research at established small businesses.
“In 2005, we had about 2,000 proposals and we funded 250 feasibility research awards over six months to a year,” said Narayanan who relies heavily on inputs from external peer reviews. “The program officer makes the cut but I have the final call and would look at it from the perspective of broad impact on American competitiveness.”
The foundation conducts workshops aimed at scientists and engineers to train them to become business men and women. Once they get past the first phase at the end of six months they are encouraged to come up with a two-year research proposal along with a plan to transform the research results to commercial practice.
“Two people in a garage may require help on the commercialisation plan whereas an established business may require coaching for specific business areas such as intellectual property landscape or competitive market analysis,” Narayanan told DNA.
Narayanan who runs the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program then ropes in venture capitalists and marketing directors to help companies get off the ground. “The SBIR program in the US is unique as we do not ask companies to pay us back even if they go on to mint millions. We look at it from a larger perspective — successful businesses generate jobs, taxes and expand the economy.”
Along with Europe, India has sat up and taken notice of the work done by Narayanan and his team at the independent, federal-funded National Science Foundation. “In January, we were invited to participate in a panel in Delhi which looked at innovation and competition,” said Narayanan, who graduated as a silver medalist in metallurgical engineering from IIT, Mumbai.
“I would encourage India to adopt a pilot project on the lines of our SBIR program,” said the man who unerringly spots hugely beneficial technology.
Narayanan came to Carnegie Mellon in 1974 as a science and engineering Ph.D student. In the 1980s, he headed up research in Norton when it introduced a slew of products widely used in industries spanning aerospace and ship-building.
“When I graduated from IIT, Mumbai in 1967, nearly 80 per cent of the class moved to the US and Canada. Now this is changing. The opportunities thrown up by places like Bangalore did not exist. The climate for graduating engineers is rich in India now,” said Narayanan as he chuckled over a story about how his bright niece in Bangalore had thumbed down an overseas job to work in India.
Narayanan said Bangalore and other “pockets in India” had an innovative spark. “Bangalore today is what Silicon Valley was 20 years ago. It is a hotbed of innovation in information technology and people from all over the country are taking advantage of its environment. It is the kind of place where inventors bump into entrepreneurs in small cafes and mingle — this is healthy ferment.”
Narayanan backed President Bush’s bold 136-billion-dollar, 10-year plan to boost R&D to keep America competitive. “If you look at the funding level for science, math, physical sciences and engineering it has been flat in the US for the last five years. This is the base of innovation and has to be nurtured and grown.”