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We are making a very big entry into the medical arena from the technological perspective

We are making a very big entry into the medical arena from the technological perspective

“We are making a very big entry into the medical arena from the technological perspective”

Professor Kamakoti Veezhinathan took charge as Director of IIT Madras in January 2022. He is most well-known for leading the team that developed India’s very own indigenous microprocessor, Shakti.

An alumnus of IITM himself, he has already laid out a roadmap that will build on the institute’s stellar past and deliver greater value to the industry and country.

Strong Industry-Academia connect is one of the hallmarks of IITM’s technology development focus – one of the factors it has so successfully incubated over 100 Startups.

Under Prof. Kamakoti this will be replicated in a range of new fields – for example in medical science and sports. Dr Kamakoti himself is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and a member of the National Security Advisory Council.

In an exclusive chat with Gajendra Upadhyay, Editor, Voice & Data, Professor Kamakoti shared his thoughts on the future of the semiconductor industry in India, advances in medical technology, the reasons why IITM has forged ahead in incubating startups and making them successful and the roadmap for technology education in our country, and a range of other topics.

The Startup sector is making waves. IIT Madras has incubated close to 100+ startups a lot of them in deep tech with some great successes. Why is IITM ahead of the curve in this area?

At IIT Madras for the last 20 years or more, my predecessors and those before them, have been concentrating on transformational research. About 30 to 40% of our faculty invest their valuable time in product-oriented research. Our motto is: whatever we do as research finally has to end up as a product in the market. It should be useful to the country, the society, to mankind.

This year, we have a record 214 patents filed and around 170 or so granted. We work very hard and meticulously in this area.

We also focus a lot on patenting. The first necessary condition for getting into the startup mode is an idea. That idea needs to be protected. So, we have been working very closely with all the faculty to ensure that their ideas become patentable quickly.

This year, we have a record 214 patents filed and around 170 or so granted. We work very hard and meticulously in this area. We have a system of very well-defined service level agreements and deadlines – in order to achieve specific outcomes for filing of patents. It is a template and we follow the template rigorously.

This encourages faculty and students. Once they go through the grill of patenting, immediately they understand what is the novelty is the market potential, and what is the total addressable market. If they have an idea of how it can translate into part of a product or whether the idea itself will become a product.

Then, we have four massive incubators here at IITM.

We have a Health Technology Innovation Center, we have a Rural Technology Incubator, we have a Biological Incubator for Cyber-Physical Systems opened under the national mission for interdisciplinary cyber-physical systems and then we have an IIT Madras incubation cell, which is the mother incubator.

So, in every leading field, we have an incubator that encourages students — guided by faculty as mentors – and in some cases faculty as even founders for startups. And that is very, very important.

And finally, we have established a mechanism for turning a product idea into a prototype or a design that could ultimately lead to a prototype. IIT Madras has set up a place called Nirman, for this, where the initial hand holding starts.

We also have the Gopalakrishnan-Deshpande Centre for Innovation (named after Krish Gopalakrishnan and Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande our distinguished alumni), which gives shape to a final product. Our incubation cells help incubate the company.

All in all, IIT Madras has a well-defined process, for handholding at every stage to basically guide students and faculty in the startup process. All these together really motivates the startup ecosystem within the campus.

Of the recent startups from IITM, which are the most promising, in your view?

We have many promising startups like Ather Energy which launched the smart electric scooter incubated at IITM. There is Agnikul in the space technology area. We have the project Aavishkar Hyperloop team – an immensely promising startup. There are many more which will scale up quickly.

There was Tejas which was also incubated at IIT Madras.

Yes, Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande was one the earliest persons who funded Tejas and we have our distinguished alumnus there, Shiv Kumar Sivarajan. Tejas also became very big.

IITM has been at the forefront in the communications sector, including research on 5G technology. The 5Gi standard was an IITM brainchild and is expected to become part of the global 3GPP standard.

There was a debate on whether 5Gi and 5G should be two different standards. Ultimately, we agreed on a specific approach as the global body (3GPP) wanted to harmonize it.

We would like to make the institute’s resources and knowledge sharing accessible to all. We are working on trying to reach rural areas in the country, starting with Tamil Nadu and setting up rural interaction centers with technology hubs.

There is no point in having two standards. When the 3GPP did not agree on 5Gi being a part of the core standard, we went and fought it. And it was agreed that the two should be harmonized. IITM did the harmonization. I think this is something big that we have achieved.

5Gi is going to be a sort of a pathbreaker. We believe that we have part of our design inside the core standard, without it being diluted. A large part of our 5Gi is part of the entire 5G offering.

5Gi we believe will double the distance of reach of the spectrum and that essentially means we halve the total deployment of base stations. Unreachable spots in India will get network coverage because of this extended reach of 5Gi.

5Gi is also very good at energy conservation. This is good from the global ecological point of view. We achieved this after several years of trying to get our technology into 3GPP.

It is a great landmark for us as a country. A lot of youngsters have worked very hard, young faculty across multiple institutions and I’m sure there’s a very good fitting reward for them.

The government supported this initiative in all international fora, without which we would not have achieved this. Their support gives us a lot of confidence to work on problems of national interest.

Certainly, this is of national interest. Any nation that wants to become a technology leader contributing to technology standards, depends directly on the amount of leadership that they get. As a country, 5Gi is a very good opening, and people across the board – the government, academia, and industry – have realized the importance of what has happened.

There is the other initiative of the Government – the production linked incentive or PLI – aimed at firing up the manufacturing sector. This has now been augmented with design-linked incentives or DLI. Where do you see DLI programs creating value for us as a country?

The main thing is when you look at semiconductors per se when you make a system on a chip (SOC), there are two costs involved.

First, there is the one-time non-recurring cost; another is the cost of production. The cost for production per chip is minuscule. Not even one by a million of what actually goes in the non-recurring fixed cost.

When you look at the overall design, if I did not

have the initial non-recurring fixed cost, then the chips that we sell can be sold at 1/3 or probably half the price, the remaining half essentially goes for the investment that you had made initially for the non-recurring fixed cost.

That’s why when the volume increases the amortization for the fixed costs keeps decreasing. If I have spent $1 million and I make 1 million chips then the cost is $1 per chip.

It is now a wakeup call for the industry to participate. We should look for our own Indian design our own IPs being siliconized.

If we make 10 million chips at this investment, then it is $ 0.1 dollar per chip. For 100 million chips it becomes $ 0.01 dollars per chip – that is the amortized cost. So as volume increases, your cost per chip decreases.

Startups when they get into the market, don’t have these volumes. They have to make the product to get the volumes. They invest so much money to make a product. And they don’t get volumes. That’s the bigger question that investors have. Investors ask themselves, what will the company do with this money.

They know that the fabs are costly, the initial design has to work and this design has to become commercially viable, then the product has to sell.

Investors when evaluating a Semiconductor company see all these things and then decide – mostly it is negative. Design linked incentive is basically there to offset some part of the non-recurring expenditure. It solves some part of this chicken and egg problem. I don’t say all. But to a large extent, the non-recurring costs will be reimbursed through these incentives. Even the Government cannot support a non-existing design. But once the design is successful then startups can essentially seek a loan, for example.

There is a lot of hope for the new Semiconductor policy. As a pioneer in semiconductor research, you are one of the leading minds in this sector. What are your expectations from the Policy.

From Chennai to Pondicherry it is 163 kilometers. There is a signage that says 163 kilometers with directions. It guides you to your destination. There is a well-laid road and provisions to fix a puncture or repairs on the route. But you have to buy your own car, your own driver, your own fuel and you have to drive.

So, in my view, what the Government has done today is have put the signboard/placard, plus the infrastructure creation (roads). This $10 billion is a very good beginning. It is a good investment with a very good promise. Indian industry has to now wake up.

They should start investing in Indian startup companies or just start their own design houses. It’s going to be a long journey. Importing a system from outside could be easier and more profitable. But working for India would involve sacrificing profit margins, to start with, and needs some patience. They need to have the mindset. They need to have confidence. Before Atmanirbharta should come to Aatmavishwas. Self-confidence in the Indian industry, Indian Academy, Indian manpower, and Indian human capacity is needed and investments are needed.

The government has come a long way forward and $10 billion cannot solve the complete semiconductor problem for the country. But $10 billion is not insubstantial. It states we are here to support you. We are serious about it.

At the recent industry event, Semicon 2022 the Hon. Minister was present for three days. This indicates the amount of commitment the Government and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology have for us.

It is now a wake-up call for the industry to participate. We should look for our own Indian design our own IPs being siliconized and basically put into products that will bring India the bigger credit. Will lead India to technical leadership. Indian industry is using electronics, every industry is using electronics.

For example, between you and me, on this call, there will be at least 1000 microprocessors that take my speech and my video over optical and mobile networks to you and vice versa. Everybody in this field should start making the investment, and start believing that we can do it, through a joint effort and with an open mind.

Your contribution in this area has been immense also.

Yes, but the point finally is we need to see Indian products and I have to use an Indian mobile phone. Otherwise, you know, all the efforts that we have put remain theoretical. In the next, next two to three years, we need to have Indian designs in the market. Contributions by academicians like me are all okay but the next three years are crucial.

I am appealing to the Indian industry. Please come forward. Please talk to startups in this field, and define the goals, we will achieve the goals. We will make world-class systems and use them. A lot of semiconductor startups in the country are struggling for funds.

I think investors should come forward and encourage them. Investors need to take some risks. The outcomes can only be great. They stand to benefit. Let us make India proud. That is what we are requesting.

What is your vision for IIT Madras going forward – what are your main goals for the next two years.

From the outreach side, I want to make IIT Madras an Institute for all. So, I want to bring in more and more people. We opened up our online data science degree, a BSc degree, where we have admitted around 12,500 students. We would like to make the institute’s resources and knowledge-sharing access to all. We are working on trying to reach rural areas in the country, starting with Tamil Nadu, and are setting up rural interaction centers with technology hubs.

On the technology side, there are two major initiatives. We want to start a Department of Medical Sciences – where technology and medicine go together. We are making a very big entry into the medical arena from the technological perspective. Our team is working on this and very shortly we will be opening up a school.

Next, we are trying to take our entire industry to connect to 10x which is 10 times what it is. We have incubated 100 startups this year, these are our own 100. We want to make it 1000. We have started working on these areas.

Our outreach has to become both locally relevant and globally recognized.

Enlarging our complete startup ecosystem and entrepreneurship is a major part of this. Rural entrepreneurship is a serious venture for us, especially as a means to generate jobs.

I’ve been telling my students, that the entire placement cell of IIT Madras should be able to place our students in our own start-up companies. They should come and recruit our own students. That’s a major goal.

I should have hundreds of companies incubated by IIT Madras that will recruit our students. An IIT-ian will join your company and make it a Unicorn. This is something I’ve been advocating and I’m sure we will realize  that goal at the earliest point in time

Can you expand a little more on the focus of medical science – is it health technology or the digital side of healthcare?

Essentially today any major analysis of medicine — for example, the root cause of saying why smoking causes cancer — is all result of collaborations. Technology and doctors. Many devices that are in wide use today – be it the ECG, or blood pressure monitoring – have all come out because of coordination between an engineer, a technologist, and a doctor. And this is precisely what we are trying to enhance.

We are looking at the heart, we are looking at nephrology, we are looking at orthopedics, and we are looking at neonatal care. Everywhere, there is a need for technology – which could be very helpful in diagnostics and in preventive care.

And it’s not limited to just that. Evaluating a sports person can be an entirely new area. There are a lot of things that we can do about evaluating the fitness of a sportsman, for example. These are some of the very big problems that exist today. We see an enormous market, an enormous need for people who can do this type of niche area of work. We must also be aware that it is easier to teach technology to a doctor than teach a technologist to be a doctor. The applications field is always tougher (in this case medicine) than the field that implements that application (technology). Understanding the subject matter is the core. That’s where this medical technology school will play a role, where we will take some doctors and MBBS students and we will make them do the other parts of engineering. When they are operating equipment, they know what the treatment should be and how it works. This will be the first seed of thought for them. From a technological perspective, we will be having some considerably larger results. Which can basically make the life of a patient more peaceful and enhance the living quality of patients.

Will Metaverse be a part of this? We are talking of Metaverse and new breakthroughs in diagnostics and healthcare?

These are very high layers that you’re talking of. I think there are more fundamental problems of engineering that a doctor faces today. If Metaverse could be an intermediate layer that can enhance the way in which the solution can be provided, certainly we will look into it.

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