Building an Innovation Ecosystem in the Chemicals sector through Successful Industry-Academia Partnerships
Dr Rahul NabarAdj. Assoc. Professor,
Dept. of Chemical Engineering,
Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay

For building a robust innovation ecosystem in India, a talented and motivated workforce is a crucial factor. The Chemical Industry in general, and the Specialty Chemicals in particular, is a sector where substantial innovations can drive the Indian industry. And towards this aim, going ahead , Industry - Academia interaction is a key factorial. This white paper is based on the sampling study, with a qualitative and narrative approach, to adopt the best practices from other international frameworks to overcome the hurdles. This white paper has prioritized the issues of applied research - different structures, concerns, and solutions for basic and longhorizon foundational research.

Historically, one of the key prerequisites for a flourishing industrial sector has been the plentiful creation of innovations produced by a very close relationship between industry and academia. The chemical sector is no exception to this correlation. This relationship is evident in the western economies, such as the US and German industry-academia collaborative ecosystems. In recent times, there are reports that the Chinese ecosystem has also bloomed and started producing such collaborative fruits of innovation.

India has seen a resurgence in manufacturing capacities in the chemical sector and more specifically in the Fine-and-Specialty chemical sector. A part of this resurgence was induced by systemic, structural problems in the Chinese industrial system; but there have been other important factors as well. Many experts consider that we, in India, have a unique window of opportunity, for expansion in these industrial segments of Fine-and -Specialty chemicals; but unless we act rapidly and decisively, there is a danger that we may miss the bus and the opportunity will pass us by. Some aspects of the Specialty Chemical sector are somewhat different from the Chemical industry in general, and that creates certain unique challenges for innovation: e.g. relatively smaller industry sizes with limited ability to handle all functional areas with in-house resources and labs, large portfolio of products with smaller revenues per product, limitations to in -house process development due to investment limitations, difficulty in attracting talent, need to depend on external service providers and labs, pooling of resources and instrumentation, relative lack of economies of scale, etc. These aspects require to be addressed specifically in a structure for successful industry academia collaboration for the speciality industry.

A key success-ingredient is the development of close co-operation between the industry and academia, and the demonstration of a critical mass of success stories. There has been interest in exploring this theme in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering at IIT-Bombay and some of our industrial collaborators and academic colleagues in other institutions. The authors have been working on this problem for the last one year. This project included informal discussions with stakeholders on the comparison with the German industrial research ecosystem which is often cited as the gold standard for what success should look like. We had made a short study trip to Germany in June 2018 during which we had the opportunity to get anecdotal opinions from stakeholders, there by the way of visits to institutions and industry as well as interactions at ACHEMA 2018.

The study was meant to be a short pilot/exploratory study (based entirely on informal discussions with stakeholders) into the industry-academia collaboration structure in India and in what ways we could improve it by learning from other ecosystems. We are planning to expand this into a larger study and a more detailed, quantitative whitepaper. The following is a summary of some insights we acquired from our initial exercise.

Limitations of this whitepaper: Note that these are only initial thoughts and we hope that this can form the basis of discussion and a deeper study. The academic ecosystem in India is quite diverse (including the IITs, NITs, CSIR institutes, ICT, IICT, and many others in the chemicals domain) and it will need a much larger effort to sample the full gamut of interactions and associated issues. Due to limitations of time we could not claim to have done this. Also, due to nature of the authors' expertise the stakeholders tended to be Chemical Engineers or Chemists from India or Germany and hence the opinions may be biased in that way.

Many points that we highlight could be regarded as assertions or speculations that need further data collection to verify and validate. This study can at best be regarded as an exploratory attempt to identify the issues involved or perhaps an opinion piece. The work is qualitative and narrative, not quantitative. By no means is this the result of a rigorous scientific / statistical survey.

Most importantly, in this whitepaper the issues of applied research are prioritized; different structures, concerns and solutions will definitely apply to basic and long-horizon foundational research. Those are very important problems and may deserve a separate study but we did not cover those in our present scope. The researchers we spoke to were selected to be biased towards working on problems with an applied or industrial research focus and it is problems with collaborations in those areas that we address. This does not, in any way, imply that everyone should be working in applied areas; far from it. There always needs to be an appropriate balance between fundamental research and high quality engineering (applied) research.

Finally, this paper should not be viewed as criticism of the existing framework but as our attempt to brainstorm on how we could perform better on collaborative projects in the chemical sector. By no means is the German (or any other system) axiomatically superior to the Indian system; the aim is only to learn from the best-practices of all systems.

Some of the points we highlight are no novel or unique, but we feel they deserve to be re-emphasized in order to improve the innovation ecosystem.

Building the right incentive structure in academic institutions: Oftentimes the traditional university model rewards and overly focuses on metrics viz. number and quality of publications, or citation indexes, etc. - which may not always be wellcorrelated to the output of a researcher who chooses to focus on industrial problems especially in the applied area. Tweaking the incentive system can be a crucial factor to encourage more academic researchers working on industrially relevant problems. Generally, a tenuretrack professor is rewarded for publishing in high impact-factor, journals (e.g. the likes of Nature and Science) which may not always be possible for an applied researcher, who still has substantial real world impact. Problem-solving oriented work may not compete well in terms of fundamental contributions, or scientific depth or rigor, yet this sort of work needs more recognition through alternative mechanisms of acknowledging credit.

Importance of dual-homed, industryuniversity PhD students: The German academic institutions visited by us had a non-trivial fraction of their PhD and Masters students that were jointly advised by advisors at a university and an industry(we need to collect more rigorous data on this aspect). Some students spent more than 50 percent of their time working in the industry site, although regular interactions with the academic mentor were planned as well. We heard very good opinions about this model. Often it led to good hiring matches for industry post-PhD; and the industrial fit for such candidates can be very good. The interaction, this imposes between the industrial and academic partner, is usually a win-win situation. Although we do have certain similar models for Masters students at Indian Institute of Technology, Bangalore(IITB) in collaboration with the petroleum PSUs, we feel that this model needs to be popularized more in the Indian context.

Establishing forums for tighter and more frequent contact between industry and academia: Through bodies like ACHEMA, DECHMA and other more specific topical associations frequent conferences seem to be the norm where the presence of academics and industrial stakeholders was close to 50 -50. Organizational committees almost always had people from both sides and students presented posters and presentations on their ongoing projects. Anecdotally, often the direction of a PhD project was shaped and changed based on feedback received at such conferences. Many a time, new collaborations between a university researcher and the industry were seeded during informal discussions at such meetings. It is crucial that top leadership, and decision makers from industry make it a point to attend these forums. In the Indian context, we do have forums such as Chemtech, Chemspec, ICC, and many others organizing similar interactions; but perhaps we need to have more such initiatives and also more balanced participation from industry and academia at such meetings. i.e. often some events tend to be industry-heavy and others academia-heavy.

Insistence that government funded applied-research projects have an industrial stakeholder: We heard reports that increasingly federal funding models are insisting on having an industrial stakeholder on projects they will fund. This ensures that the topics chosen and problem formulation fit the industrial demand. This reduces the cases of developing solutionsin- search-of-a-problem. Having skin in the game also increases the involvement of the industrial stakeholder and puts pressure on the academic partner to make the project a success. India too has funding models that are similar in the UAY, IMPRINT, and some of the DST / DBT schemes which mandate joint participation of the industry and academia.

Crucial role of industrial internships:
Almost all the students, we interacted with, had per-force done an industrial internship. Some had even completed two separate internships. These internships were necessarily connected to their domains of graduation, and the work had an academic mentor. The durations were substantially longer than the norm in India, and the students had to present a serious report at the end of the internship which contributed to their graduation performance. The placement of students into internships was very often through a direct one-on-one relationship between the professor and a stakeholder at the industrial partner (as opposed to a common discipline agnostic intern pool handled by a central placement office, which seems the norm in India) which helped identify the right person for a project. In a number of cases (where we need to collect more data), these internships resulted in job-offers or a joint PhD project should the student decide to go into graduate school. Risk capital and project horizons: There is a feeling that for real success stories to emerge from the innovation ecosystem, the funding agencies (industrial or government) have to have a greater willingness to fail. Many success examples that were narrated to us, were preceded by a project or two with the same researcher that had failed. Lessons were learnt from the failures and eventually a successful project resulted. Of course, this needs a longer horizon commitment to research and freedom from being judged on short term goals for the industrial sponsor. We have heard opinions (justifiable or not) that the Indian Industrial R & D system needs to adjust to take these longer duration risks.

Crucial role of the project stakeholder within the industry: Every joint project needs to have a committed and passionate stakeholder within the industry. It is also useful, if he has the technological maturity to understand and judge the work of the academic partner which often needs up-todate knowledge. Very often, having a good industrial stakeholder is the single largest factor determining the success or failure of the project. At various times during the course of a project, inputs are needed from the industrial hierarchy that can be difficult for the external student or academia to navigate alone. The academic research, on success, needs to be successfully translated and demonstrated in industry , and the role of the industry-stakeholder is imperative. Hence, project -proposals that emerge organically from the stakeholder tend to be more successful.

Pipeline of institutions from basic to translational research: The German ecosystem had several players each focusing on a different stage of research in the technology readiness model. E.g. The Helmholtz, Fraunhofer, Universities, Technical Universities, Max Planck, Startups etc. Unless we develop this entire pipeline, it is difficult for good research to reach the market since specialization has meant that one institution often cannot handle the full chain. One of the notable features of the German model especially in the Fraunhofer system is that the senior functionaries often held a joint appointment at a regional University, facilitating effective interaction with that University.

Role of start-ups and spinoffs: The spurt in startups in the Chemicals is a fairly recent trend. The final polishing of a research idea, and converting it into a technology-package is the part that the conventional universities and institutes are often not suitable for. As for e.g. industries want process guarantees that may not fit into the mandate of conventional institutions due to the risk factors and litigation risk involved. Often a PhD student or young researcher can lead such a startup (often with a dual position at the Fraunhofer) which then pays royalties to the parent institution for commercializing technology. We find a gap that needs to be filled by more such startups in the chemicals in India. The research lab is not well suited with the skillset needed to deliver a full technology package. In addition, the traditional chemical engineering curriculum was centred around "processes". But in today's context, "product development" has become increasingly important; and can be a great avenue for entrepreneurship and startups due to relatively modest investment requirements as opposed to traditional chemical manufacturing plants. To equip students to the transition into successful startups and entrepreneurship, the academic curriculum may need necessary changes to add more techno-commercial courses with exposure to business, financial, and legal aspects relevant to commercialization of technical ideas.

Early industrial apprenticeships for undergrad students: Although not universal, we did encounter students who had spent a semester in an industry at the very early stages of their university education. This was more an apprenticeship than an independent internship; but it may play a formative role in enhancing the student's understanding of the industrial setup and an empathy with the characteristics of feasible solutions. e.g. Practice School at MIT. It also develops a work ethic in the student and a willingness to get their hands dirty in labs and workshops. Another skill picked up early on was the ability to work with chemicals, tools (lathes, CNC, milling etc.), and instruments safely.

Research Group as an autonomous unit of structure: The individual research group, with a senior Professor as its head, enjoys substantial autonomy in the German system and is often a more cohesive structure than in the Indian system where the Department is the fundamental unit. In a world where research has become so specialized, perhaps there are benefits of this approach. The research group had significant freedom in areas like hiring, procurement, budgets etc. which leads to a more flexible and nimble research environment.

Role of generalists in technology transfer & need identification: One of the lacunae in the Indian system that was mentioned by stakeholders was the difficulty for an industry in identifying the right set of resources from a University or National Lab that may be useful to work on a particular problem. This is, in general, not an easy problem to solve since it requires very high quality people at the interfaces(i.e. Technology Transfer offices) who are conversant with a wide variety of research disciplines. Many applied problems need niche skillsets or instruments; and often cannot be conveniently corralled into a single or few areas of departmental expertise. The same sort of generalists can also be very useful in need identification so that Academia prioritizes working on problems of the most urgent need and highest impact. Various institutes including the IITs do have industrial research and consultancy offices but they may need to be further strengthened. The current model works at an institutional level, but perhaps decentralized nodes at the departmental level may have an increasing role to play?

Cross mobility between industry and academia: We came across substantial number of academics who had had a previous stint in industry (more data is needed) and the other way around. Cross mobility was possible and often encouraged in leadership positions. There is a perception that this contributes positively to the innovation ecosystem. Furthermore, certain positions seem unique in their structure, in which the professor actually spends a certain number of days every month in a particular company and which has contributed financially to this position. This has the potential to bring about very close interaction between the industry and the academia.

Development of a work ethic and willingness to get hands dirty: In German lab-tours, we saw a greater willingness among students to work with tools and get their hands dirty. To its credit the German system also provided more opportunities to do this. We expect more Tinker-labs and other experimental spaces at universities to encourage this. At the research level, we need more students capable of designing, building, and repairing their own experimental setups than depending always on external providers. Not only would this speed up the research process, but also innovations in apparatus and devices often need a deep understanding that cannot be gained by merely operating a setup as a "black-box" without tinkering with the internals (with safety and caution in mind, of course). Traditionally, workshop skills - included in a university curriculum for engineers - include crafts viz. welding, woodworking, etc. Today this may need to be supplemented with tinkering toolkits in the software-machine interfaces viz. LabView, Arduino, RaspberryPi, and other DIY robotics and industrial microcontrollers. With the elements of Industry 4.0 rolling into industry, these skills will become increasingly important. The difficulty of establishing such hands-on facilities in the Chemicals area is greater but we see some success at IIT-Bombay in starting such facilities.

Reduction in bureaucracy and project execution bottlenecks: In the Indian context, there were many horror stories about projects waiting for months for procurement-or-accounts approvals at universities, or delayed payments to vendors because of ERP glitches, etc. One stakeholder cited an incident that almost a year been lost in getting the much needed approvals to use a relatively common synthetic reagent on an innovation campus. There is a need to streamline these non-technical aspects of the ecosystem since the time is of essence in the modern industrial cycle. Bureaucratic overreach needs to be controlled from derailing the project timelines. Professional project management principles need to make more inroads in the academic setting. The unique needs of research project in terms of procurement should be understood and incorporated into the systems.

Getting out of a vicious cycle of learned failures: Some people we spoke to, in the Indian system, expressed a perception of a vicious cycle: Some collaborative projects fail leading to scepticism about collaborations leading to lesser inputs and resources poured into future collaborations. This creates underfunded projects with unrealistic expectations or impractical timelines under the constraints of the resources made available. This in turn results in projects with even worse performance and often mistrust from both sides. This cycle needs to be broken out of. We need to create and highlight a critical mass of successful projects and case -studies to break this cycle of learned failures. Typically, there are two valleys of death in translational R & D: (i) From invention to development and (ii) From Development to the Market. Successful collaboration between academia and industry needs to focus on how to bridge these twin valleys of death.

On a larger scale, the same principles apply at a sectoral and national level: "Success breeds success". Institutions and sectors with a history of indigenous innovations gain the confidence for further success. The German system has this as an advantage whereas we in the Indian context need to build up this momentum. There is a certain critical mass of successful projects after which we can expect such an autocatalytic transformation to set in; but we need the effort and patience to reach this inflection point.

Establishing geographic clusters of excellence: Having a high density of researchers in a certain industrial sector (e.g. chemicals, automotives etc.) in a certain geography increases the probability of interactions and collaborations among related researchers. We need to encourage such facilities in India. The geography is ideally so chosen that the chemical industry also has a high density in the same geography. Notwithstanding the advances in communication and video calls we still found that physical meetings and interactions are playing a large role in building successful partnerships.

Stable policy that transcends leadership changes: Opinions were expressed that institutional policy needs to be fairly stable in the medium to longer runs for investments to bear fruit. There are fears of facilities being established but left to deteriorate due to a change in leadership focus or institutional direction.

Hierarchy of Positions for mentorship in academic labs: A unique feature of some of the labs and groups we visited was a rich set of hierarchical roles to establish the mentorship chain and continuity of skills and passing down of knowledge. Typically, a senior professor heading the lab, with - several younger professors, post-doctoral researchers, permanent skilled laboratory technicians, PhD students, Masters students, and undergrad interns formed the ecosystem. This sort of pyramidal structure enables the research efforts to scale and establishes a critical mass of internal knowledge and skillsets. The chain of mentorship ensures that various people along the chain play a leading role in training and supervising the level under them. This sort of structure does exist in the Indian setup but perhaps could be strengthened or its gaps filled up(e.g. postdoctoral researcher recruitment has been stepped up recently in IITs).

Cross mobility of students between countries to appreciate best practices: We see a need to encourage internships, and lab exchanges etc. to industries and academic labs in other countries. Sometimes the best way to absorb best practices from another culture is to have a student from that nation spent a semester or two here. Work ethic, or attention to detail, or the ability to tinker may be best learnt by osmosis from a visiting student or researcher. At a higher level, the cross mobility of Professors between nations also needs to increase. There are several recent initiatives to encourage this in Indian institutions but there’s still scope for further improvement.

Student Training to match Industrial requirements: Industry 4.0 and all analogous initiatives will require a highly skilled and motivated workforce for the chemicals industry. Academia and Industry will have to brainstorm together to identify areas in which we need to focus university teaching on or bolster skills at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In certain subjects the curriculum has lagged behind and needs to be appropriately revised to make it meaningful to today's industry. Many industries currently spend a good portion of a year retraining fresh hires to bring them up to the skillset level desirable for their industry. If some of these gaps could be filled at the academic level, the transition to industry may be smoother.

Reward structure relative to competing sectors: A talented, motivated workforce is certainly a crucial factor in bringing about a robust innovation ecosystem. In certain western economies chemical engineering jobs tend to be one of the highest paying (need more data to validate this), on average, among the Engineering Disciplines. There is a perception that in India we are losing a lot of the Chemical Engineering Talent to other areas (finance, banking, IT, consulting, etc.) due to disparities in the compensation structure. This may only be partly true, since students do not choose jobs based on compensation alone. On the other hand, we hear our colleagues in the chemical industry that good candidates are hard to find. There is certainly a gap in the expectations from both sides (the industry and graduating students) that somehow needs to be bridged and academia ought to play a role here in tweaking its training protocols. So also, introspection is needed on the industrial side as to how other sectors generate more value(as evidenced from relative compensation) from the same set of students and what the Chemicals sector could be doing to emulate this value creation.

Aiming for the Low Hanging Fruit: There is a tendency for research money to get crowded in certain areas that are perceived to have a high impact. While it is certainly true that there are several such high impact problems that, if solved, can impact the lives of billions of people at the same time there are a multitude of problems in sectors like speciality chemicals, which may sound relatively trivial, yet where much more impact can be produced with the same effort. This is because of the great variety of processes and products in the speciality chemicals industry and the high rate with which new products get introduced which in turn has meant that relatively little work has been done on each of them. Un -optimized processes are plenty and they should serve as low hanging fruit for a motivated researcher. Effort is needed to attract more talent to such underappreciated areas and problems in the chemicals sector.

Thinking outside the box - life beyond funded research projects: Although industry-funded research projects remain the primary avenue for collaboration today we see potential for fruitful interactions in other atypical ways: In-kind donations of chemicals and equipment, access to instrumental analysis facilities at industrial labs and many others. Due to obsolescence, or product changes there are often industrial surplus in equipment that can be productively utilized in academic setups. In addition, one opinion we heard was the positive impact that can arise by inviting an outsider (e.g. a University Professor) to attend and comment during project meetings and evaluations. The access to external points of view can often lead to high quality brainstorming and innovative solutions emerge. Similar impact can probably be had by inviting industry professionals to academic group meetings.

Continuing education for industry professionals: With the rapid pace of technical advances and increasing demands of day to day operations, it is not easy for an industrial professional to keep abreast with the latest technology and development outside of his immediate area of expertise. On the other hand, such knowledge is crucial for staying on top of the innovation cycle. Managers who do not understand the latest advancements in technology, cannot be expected to take optimal decisions in such an ecosystem. Academic institutions will have a crucial role to play in digesting and disseminating this knowledge to industrial partners by way of workshops and continuing education initiatives. Traditionally such work in universities has perhaps been accorded an inferior status vis-à-vis primary research, and that needs to change to incentivize academics to work on continuing education.

Exposing students to the excitement of the chemical industry: Very often the excitement of sectors like basic and specialty chemicals remains hidden from sight. Many students go through the university curriculum without visiting an impressive plant, hearing about the execution of a large project or interacting with a practising engineer they may look up to as a role model. On the contrary, advances from other areas like e -commerce or analytics etc., are more accessible to the average student. It is our belief that we need to do more to "sell" our sector to the students. If only, we could get them to visit more chemical plants or interact with successful practising engineers we could infect them with the enthusiasm that would open them up to the excitement of working in the chemicals sector . In the German /Swiss model we see initiatives such as the "Schweizer Jugend Forscht" which try to catch youth even younger at the school level and inject such enthusiasm for the chemical sciences. Together, industry and academia has to work on more such initiatives to attract the best talent into the innovation ecosystem.

Concluding Remarks:
We think these issues of industryacademia interaction are very important going ahead, if we are to build a robust innovation ecosystem in India. The Chemical industry in general and speciality chemicals in particular is a sector where substantial innovation can drive the Indian industry if we can overcome some of the hurdles adopt the best practices from other international frameworks. One potential solution going ahead, could be to establish "Centres of Excellence" in these areas (e.g. specialty chemicals) under the domain of existing academic institutions. These sector-specific Centres of Excellence could be models of industry academia collaboration focussed on applied research in a single domain where some of these ideas of collaboration can be tested. We can hope to overcome existing hurdles and incorporate a structure that has tried to borrow from the best R & D and project management systems we come across. We are optimistic that this can lead to more success stories of successful collaboration in the Speciality Chemical sector.

We intended this communication to be only an expression of our opinions and of some limited interactions we had with other stakeholders in the industry and academia. We discovered a lot of opinions about what works and what doesn't; but it needs a larger and more rigorous study to verify some of these assertions and to dig deeper into the issues. We hope this will prove useful to others to present their opinions and to serve as a starting point for further brainstorming. These sort of observations are necessarily subjective and we are very happy to receive comments regarding points we may have overlooked, or may have been outright wrong about. This sort of feedback will contribute to creating a better version of the whitepaper.

Acknowledgement: Members of various institutions, both in India and Germany, gave us valuable co-operation, patient discussions, anecdotal evidence, and opinions about how to build a successful industrial -academic ecosystem. Detailed comments from Dr. Dietmar Hueglin of BASF are gratefully acknowledged. The responsibility for the opinions expressed in this report are only of the authors alone but the inputs of these colleagues are gratefully acknowledged. Funding for this initiative was, in part, provided by Mr. Amrut Dama of the Jay Chemicals Group.

Acknowledgement / Disclaimer:
The opinions expressed in this document do not reflect the official position of the Institute or any of the organizations referred to.