“Creating open atmosphere for unlike minds helps seed new ideas,” says Prof. M.S. Ananth


The IIT-M Director steals the show with a lucid “lecture” on what India needs to do now

It’s a gift we wouldn’t have better asked for. It was a speech full of wisdom and at its core very inspirational. We had a taste of why Prof. M.S. Ananth, IIT-M Director, is so popular. The IC & SR auditorium was full to capacity as Prof. Ananth inaugurated the TechSparks 2011 Regional RoundTable Chennai. The 11-acre, Rs. 200 crore IIT-M Research Park, conceived on the lines of facilities that exist in Stanford and in the Silicon Valley, still is the only concerted effort of providing a research-cum-incubation facility in the whole country. A high-level committee headed by Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has in principle agreed to construct 100 more research parks, with small spaces for R&D facilities in larger cities where space is a constraint and quite large spaces for manufacturing facilities in smaller cities. Still we don’t have anything like huge manufacturing open spaces in the Silicon Valley. And China’s plans of building 1000 parks with $1.2 billion investment in huge facilities shows that “we have woken up late,” to quote Prof. Ananth.

“By 2035, our demographics will be the best in the world,” Prof. Ananth said, adding “our time has come.” The 2035 demographics will be characterized by a huge population of young people but older people are still needed to provide right advice and wise counsel. He quoted a story of elephants that killed rhinos in an animal park in Africa when older elephants were totally removed from the park to contain their population whereas when the old elephants were restored to the park, killing of rhinos stopped probably because older elephants dissuaded younger elephants from killing the rhinos as they are harmless. He said, “you may still need old people to give you wise counsel.”

The coming together of unlike minds fosters innovation. But bringing together of unlike minds is a huge task by itself. “An open atmosphere is needed where people can freely discuss their ideas and feel comfortable without constrained by anything,” said Prof. Ananth. Research Park is a large open space where unlike minds like students, professors, commercial enterprises, corporates would come together and this would lead to new ideas, in Prof. Ananth’s view. Even a good eatery is needed when a delicious dish can make an extraordinary researcher happy that he feels enthused to think about new ideas and happily share it. Many great discussions happen in most informal of places like a restaurant and Research Park does have a good eating outlet and also a hotel at the top floor. He quoted Google living out of Stanford during vacations and Rand Corporation setting up a research laboratory by bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines.

“It’s a valuable time till you are a student,” said Prof. Ananth because students can come up with inventive ideas, which might be shunned if it comes from a professor. As long as the student label is upon you, you will not be written off as someone crazy. Now there are 10 incubatees in the Research Park and 15 patents have been filed in the last six months. “If 20% of the ventures in Research Park succeed, it could be counted as highly successful,” said Prof. Ananth.Prof. Ananth has also held discussions with CEOs of big companies so that their R&D facilities can be set up at IIT-M Research Park and new ideas for research can be thought of. MoUs have been signed with a few companies. But similar to student grades, the output of these R&D facilities would be measured against, say, 1000 sq. ft. of space they occupy and if results are not satisfactory, they would be thrown out. One warning would be given in advance for them to redeem again similar to what IIT does to a nonperforming student.

Commenting on us Indians, Prof. Ananth said we always have an entrepreneurial bent of mind. But we are constrained by several factors not to display it. “We always think out of the box,” explained Prof. Ananth though in a lighter vein. We thought the British laid down rules for their administrative convenience and so we always have flouted them and in that way we always think of the box. And it is in interpretation of rules that we differ applying our own explanations. We hide our failures as our society does not accept failures whereas in the United States, failed attempts could go into your CV and people would know that you have gained experience by failing.

In a 10-minute wit and wisdom “lecture” that left the audience spell bound, Prof. Ananth explained the essence of helping unlike minds coming together to generate new ideas and also explaining how our own DNA as Indians either constrains or encourages thinking outside the box. It is only such visionaries like Prof. Ananth that bring real change and Prof. Ananth has seeded a Research Park that might lead to many of them and in turn to many innovative commercial enterprises benefiting the society.

–Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist