A new direction, an answer to the prayers of several innovative minds, an extension of the sparks of brilliance generated in classrooms and a space that has become very much our own is the IIT Madras Research Park. When we at Chennai 36 caught up with our former Director  Prof. M S Ananth recently, he spoke, reminisced and discussed this particular vision.

Well, the idea came to Prhotelof Ashok Jhunjhunwala and myself, independently.  I was Dean Academic Courses at that time. Ashok had already approached Prof Natarajan. One afternoon, I told Prof Natarajan about how we should start a research park. He asked me if I was in  touch with Ashok. My ideas, however, were slightly different.

The first point was that the values of a market place are different from values of an academic system. A university seeks unity in knowledge whereas the Industry thrives on differences. I see a lot of diversity and try to come up with a law that can explain everything. Newton did it most dramatically – he discovered that the falling of an apple and planetary motion were the same. Back then, nobody could have connected the two. The purpose of the industry is to be different. If they aren’t different, they won’t sell. In one of the meetings that went on endlessly where the IT Secretary was present, someone asked me when would IIT students be ready for employment by Satyam. I said ‘With due apologies to Ramalinga Raju (who was on stage at that time), I hope never. You run a lean mean hungry competition. I don’t. This is a cooperative place where everyone learns. I want them to learn unity in knowledge. Once they join you, they’ll come to me and tell me how Satyam is very different. You have your Dharma and I respect that. We have a different Dharma. Don’t interfere with our process of education. If after one year of training, the student still isn’t fit for work, then I can’t do anything other than just smile and ask you to do your job’. Actually even Ramalinga Raju agreed with me. In fact, when they asked me for my USP ( Unique Selling Proposition), I said my USP is that I don’t have one.

The problem is that we’ve lost sight of this fact. Students have become very “mathlabi”. Students ask what the ‘use of this course is’. I don’t know the use of any course. 90% of the times in a  job you  apply common sense and use the empirical facts around you. So when you ask me why you ‘need’ a course, I have no tangible answer for you. But I can tell you what I think you need.

You do need self-confidence. This comes in a very implicit and intangible way. While I can’t tell you how to develop it, I can say that when you go through ups and downs, you must look at others and develop some self competition. And most of all, at that point especially and with increasing relevance today, you need innovation. IPR and Silicon Valley are the most dramatic examples. When we looked at Silicon Valley, 70% of the things coming out had Indian names in it and 70% of those who were behind the products were IITian. I mean to say that IPRs have several people working it and one of them was an IITian.

When we went with the proposal to the MHRD in 2002, I quoted Louis pasteur out of context , when I said that discovery is the result of chance meeting a prepared mind. He actually said it in the field of experimental research but I left that part out. I said IIT Grads were meeting chance in Silicon Valley. We need them to meet chance here. We had a few problems initially with getting the land. After some time, MGR film city was closing down and were offering land. I filed an application with the state Government. They asked me you have 650 acres of land, why do you need more. Land costs 60 crores an acre. I told them I have pure academic land and worship Saraswati here in the 650 acres. The current trend is that we have to help the market. If you want me to worship Lakshmi, you give me the 12 acres I want. I’ll cross the road and worship Lakshmi. He said yes.

That’s all I told them. I wrote a letter and it was approved.

Of course, he told me it’ll take five years to get the land and it did take 5 years. I mean it wasn’t bad. There was a lot of politics, somebody else wanted the land. We were still small in the scheme of things. The projected cost was 220 crores but ballooned to 300 crores because of a few delays. Prof Ashok had already spoken to a couple of people in World Bank to get a loan. We were going to take a loan of 100 crores at 2% interest. There was a Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, who said that he would not have  his Director going to the World Bank for  100 crores, and that I would go  to the World Bank only if I needed 10000 crores. He offered to give us 100 crores. He was very supportive of the idea. He listened to me for 20 minutes and said yes. Again, there was a process and it took 5 years. The first question they ask is what about other IITs? I said I’m already slow in a 100 metre dash, you’re just tying me down even more. Let the other IITs ask then you can give them. You’ll never have development if you say let other IITs come into the picture.

Right now, our research park is one of a kind. Others will come, no doubt. As soon as we built it, a lot of industries said they wanted to come. We put it together and we started it. There were lots of hurdles but the idea was that you need a meeting of unlike minds for innovation. It was first achieved in Bell labs. All kinds of characters put together. What you would call within quotes “Crack-pots”.  There was a IPR fellow roaming around. As soon as someone said anything relevant to the market, he would catch it.  US graduate schools have worked really well because they bring people of many cultures together.

In India, you start 22 things and 3 things will go through. As a Director, I wanted IIT to be as open minded as possible. When we tried something and someone said this won’t work, I used to say that’s not the way. It may not have worked at your time now it may work. You can’t stop things at T=0. If it’s a bad idea it’ll die out on its own. So we started experimenting with a lot of new paradigms. My philosophy was to try something for 3 years and then see if we should go ahead with it. The crazy theories would be filtered out before it was bought to the senate. Sometimes, the people who opposed it most were the ones who became ardent supporters after 3 years. There was also some weak objection to research park from the Mathematics Dept. Some people from the department told me that the park was absurd. I said mathematically you are right! But there were no serious objections. A lot of us, me included, had a few reservations. I had a lot of cooperation and it helped.

Today, the Research Park is probably one of the places which define IIT M. Though geographically apart, it has become an integral part of the college, of the lives of the professors , the students and many others. When I look back, I sometimes find it hard to believe how a small idea at the back of my head has become a part of the realities of so many people. But, reality is also that this is a world where at every point there are people to help you out and make your lives better.

Prof.  M S Ananth was our Director from 2002 to 2011. A revolutionary, he has been associated with IIT Madras for over 40 years. He is currently teaching at IISc, Bangalore.

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