Raghunath Anant Mashelkar is used to being wooed. So he is fairly casual about the 26 invites to join the boards of companies that he has received since he handed over the reins as head of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) a fortnight ago.
"I will have to decide very carefully," is all the former director general of the institution lets on.
He knows his worth. And he ensures that the world knows it too. And that is what has bagged him his many accolades and achievements -- he has 50 international and national awards to his credit, including a Padmabhushan. He has chaired a dozen "Mashelkar Committees" on subjects as diverse as the Bhopal gas tragedy to the restructuring of regional engineering colleges (RECs) to the auto fuel policy to recombinant pharma.
He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (London) in 1998 -- only the third Indian engineer to be elected in the 20th century. He was also elected foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science -- the seventh Indian to be so honoured since 1863. The list only gets longer.
The feather in his cap, however, is the turnaround he has managed in what used to be a very sarkaari CSIR and made it leaner (with lowering headcounts) and meaner during his 11-year reign.
Not many know that its web of 40-odd research labs go way beyond test-tubes and chemicals. One of its labs -- National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) -- is working on prototypes of a 70-seater aircraft.
"We started with nothing more than a toy," says a proud Mashelkar. Today, a 14-seater Saras -- a short-haul craft which can land on semi-prepared runways of 500 metres -- is just a couple of years away from commercialisation.
The aircraft is a very local (read Indian) solution to the very local problem of connectivity. Mashelkar makes a case for homegrown solutions to homegrown problems like malaria, which multinational drug companies are not keen to work on since "there is not much profit to make", though millions of children die of the infection. CSIR breakthrough for cerebral malaria today saves lives in 48 nations, including many in sub-Saharan Africa.
And some of these solutions to local problems are closest to Mashelkar's heart. "Creating drugs for the poor is something I am very proud of," says the man who has himself tasted poverty in his younger years.
His "social-good" streak may be strong but the commercial acumen of "patent" Mashelkar is sharper. He understands the patents game and wants the country, and its scientists, to understand it too. "India is still a child not only in writing patents but also in understanding the game of patents," says Mashlekar.
He looks down upon the class of scientists who are satisfied with publishing papers. But isn't securing patents without commercialising them an equally wasteful activity? That has, in fact, been one of the severest criticisms of his patent mania. Patents need to be monetised to yield value.
"The universal rule is that 5 per cent of the patents that are filed get commercialised. We are at an impressive 6-7 per cent," counters Mashelkar.
In fact, the Indian Institute of Microbial Technology (Imtech) recently outlicensed a probable blockbuster drug whose revenue could cross a billion dollars. A $100,000 downpayment has already been made for this "clot specific streptokinase" which dissolves a clot without dangerously thinning blood.
This will be followed by milestone payments, and when the drug hits the market there will be 3 per cent royalty on sales. That could mean $30 million in revenue for a lab with a $3 million budget! And this outlicencing was not possible if the innovation was not protected by patents.
The record as far as grant of patents is concerned is also impressive -- from 5-6 US patents per year when he took office to about 150-160 today. "For the first time, we have a portfolio of something like 1,000 plus patents. Now we can start talking in terms of licencing and commercialising," he says.
Of course, these are still "small numbers for the size of the organisation" with a head count of about 18,000 and an annual budget of Rs 1,500 crore (Rs 15 billion), of which Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.50 billion) is internally generated. There is a lot of ground to be covered by CSIR's labs, and by the country as a whole.
Meanwhile, foreigners are cashing in on our IQ. "Indian IQ is being used to create IP (intellectual property) for foreign firms," laments Mashelkar. Take the numbers for Bangalore. Almost 92 per cent of the 474 US patents granted to the city last year were to foreign firms with Indian inventors. The number was almost 70 per cent for Mumbai and 57 per cent for Delhi.
Giving more than zero to the world
Be that as it may, the scientist administrator who loves "science and the affairs of science" and scoffs at those who reverse-engineer, laments the fact that India has given nothing to the world in the 20th century -- no Xerox, no Transistor, no Polaroid.
"In the 21st century, we have to change that," he says. So forward engineering, as opposed to reverse engineering, needs to be undertaken. Risks need to be taken. And failure needs to be accepted. "In science, if you don't fail, you have failed," he says.
So his seven-year-old New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative -- which has 50 projects under its belt -- has a healthy failure rate of 40 per cent. The project, with an annual budget of Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) per year, aims at bringing together public institutions and private enterprise. The count today of those working together -- 71 private sector companies and 220 institutions across the country.
Has the risk-taking paid off? "Absolutely," says Dr Yogeswar Rao, who manages the initiative. Twelve projects have been completed and another 10 will be completed by March. There is the new drug "Sudoterb" for the treatment of tuberculosis -- phase I trials are on -- in partnership with Lupin. It has cleared TB in two months in animal trials against the conventional 6-8 months.
Mobilis, a Rs 10,000 personal computer, is also on the cards -- 3,000 sets are getting beta tested at the moment. It does everything -- web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets et al -- apart from video games and high-end computing. But we are hearing of a computing machine at half that price ($100-150) from MIT's Nicholas Negroponte who is the founder of the One Laptop Per Child project?
"We entered this area when Negroponte had not even thought about it," says Mashelkar, "and we are ahead of him. Take my word for it," he says, adding that CSIR has also got its eye on the $100 price mark. The two entities are, in fact, competing for a bid in Brazil to supply low-cost computers.
But there are questions. Why should government money head to a cash-rich company like TCS so that a "biosuite" can be developed which marries biology and software? "I call it seduction money," quips Mashelkar. And it is the government which invests and supports industries around the world, whether it is in aerospace or supercomputing.
"The supercomputer in the US would not have been there if government had not invested in it." CSIR's biology labs could never have managed to make a product on their own. And yes, there are commercial disputes in such public-private partnerships. "But there is nothing that cannot be resolved...by Mashelkar," he says.
Innovative India is young
With his "can-do-attitude", Mashelkar is convinced about one thing -- India 's competitive advantage lies in drugs and pharmaceuticals. But we have not delivered a single blockbuster drug so far? "You forget that Innovative India is just one generation old. It is too short a time to judge," he says.
Companies are warming up to innovative research and looking for new drug molecules and new ways to deliver them rather than copying what is available.
Heavy investment is required in research. "There must be real commitment to looking at innovation as something which will provide a win in a competitive market, not just because there are some tax breaks to avail," he says.
So while he lauds Tata's Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) car project -- "I assure you it will have four wheels, not three" -- he is worried about the talent crunch that is looming. Take the booming infotech sector -- the entire country has not produced even 40 PhDs in information and communication technology.
The next act
Mashelkar is now back at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune to research complex fluids and materials. This is the laboratory where he worked for 19 years after his return to India in 1976 from UK.
He also took charge as the first president of the Global Research Alliance from January 1. His task there is to create an international level CSIR, weaving the resources of nine "CSIR-like" institutions across the world with a resource pool of 50,000 scientists and a multi-billion dollar budget. And then there are the invitations-to-join-the-boards. "My 2007 diary is fuller than it was in 2006," he says.
As for CSIR, it seems there are miles to be covered for it to become "market-friendly".
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out earlier this week: "If CSIR has to survive as a major force in civilian technology development, many radical changes are still required. Indeed, CSIR's charter itself requires a re-look. Interaction and collaboration with industry, especially private industry, has to become very much easier and simpler." Clearly, there are miles to go. . .
How do you manage the time to meet all your responsibilities?
I have the art of creating the 25th hour of the day (smiles). It is a question of focusing -- when I am looking at you and talking to you, I am not thinking of anything else -- and time management.
You are said to be obsessed with patents? And what of the track record of commercialisation?
Our country is an impatient country. India is still a child not only in writing patents but also in understanding the game of patents. That applies to industry, media and the political system too. In the patenting game, it is not that every patent is sold (read commercialised).
Some companies say they can't afford to play the patenting game. It is expensive.
Expensive? You can spend hundreds of crores (billions) in marketing. What does a patent take? Nothing in comparison to that. I think it is a mindset issue. Also, Indian IQ must create IP for India rather than for foreign firms.
Some scientists are unhappy with you. . .
Some academics feel threatened for the simple reason that they are in a hurry to publish a paper. This (pointing to his head) is the only thing we have from which we can make money. I want scientists to understand that without compromising science, you can create wealth.
You are seen as a publicity hound. . .
Publicity is not something I sought. It has followed me. I can't help it. People got interested in the things I have done, and I have done them because I believe in them. I did not fight the turmeric patent because I wanted publicity. I simply believed that it was wrong that these countries are claiming rights on our traditional knowledge.
Do you have any political ambitions?
None. I have absolutely no political ambition. That is one of the reasons that I am moving from Delhi to Pune. There was talk of a Rajya Sabha nomination earlier. My way to serve the country is through my science and my technology -- not only by doing but by managing the affairs of science.