Chemicals and creativity

Tata Chemicals is stepping up gear. Last year, it set up an Innovation Centre in Pune headed by chief scientist Dr Murali Sastry, ex-IITian and formerly with the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste

On the need for the Innovation Centre
Tata Chemicals (TCL) is a commodity chemicals company and its products (soda ash, soda bicarb, fertilisers) are highly capital-intensive and have a relatively low return on investment. Worldwide, however, chemicals businesses are evolving through hi-tech inputs, with Dow Chemicals, DuPont, etc, getting into areas that are more knowledge-centric, includig specialty chemicals, fine chemicals, biometric approaches to making materials, and even advanced materials with a green chemistry orientation. These are R&D-centric businesses, where you need to generate your own knowledge and intellectual property.

The centre was conceptualised about two years ago and we have an interim lab in Pune with 18 scientists currently — a good mix of nanotechnologists, bio-technologists and chemical engineers. We are recruiting an IPR expert for filing patents and in the process of putting together a small business development team. A state-of-the-art lab, for both biotech as well as nanotech work, is planned to be set up in Hyderabad.

The Innovation Centre will play a dual role, greening our existing businesses by looking at biochemical processes that are more eco-friendly or more energy-efficient to make the same product, as well as for developing new products. Its primary focus is identifying new business opportunities for TCL, in line with the company's strategy.

On collaborating with the academia
We have many collaborations with academic institutions, both in India and overseas. If we hear about interesting work being done in a research institution, or learn about an exciting new technology that would be useful for us, we would seek some form of collaboration or research partnership. Some projects are done completely by our partners; but in most cases, one of our scientists actually works with the team; he learns on the job and becomes an inventor.

On new technologies developed
It's too early for us to have developed our own new technology, but we are very close to filing a patent in three of our partnership projects. Even if TCL chooses not to manufacture the product, the intellectual property would be valuable and can be exploited.

On nanotechnology
I am very passionate about talking to students. I often visit schools and colleges, and talk to students about nanotechnology. People hear nanotechnology can be bad, and I think there is a need to give people an honest account of the benefits this technology can provide.

While the urban public is aware of nanotechnology, mainly through the media, there's a big disconnect in rural areas. Indian scientists often don't talk to the public and explain new technologies. Public outreach, as it's known abroad, needs to be done seriously in India, and this will be another important area for the centre.

On new opportunities for scientists
It is boom time in India for academia wanting to get into industry, as many research labs are opening; but very few senior scientists are willing to take the plunge. It's a risky proposition, especially if you have established yourself in academia. Industry does not always care about publications or awards; it's concerned with getting processes operating or putting products into the market.

It is the younger generation of Indian scientists who want to return to India, who are seriously looking at industry as an option. They see it as a challenge; something that was not available to them earlier. Some of them are interested in joining the Innovation Centre because of the Tata name, which is a big draw. Once they join, the challenge will be to ensure that we provide them with the necessary infrastructure and facilities. We have to create the right work culture to be able to retain the best, as they always have a choice of moving to a competing R&D lab.

On motivating scientists
There are basically two groups of scientists. The thinkers are driven by doing basic science — learning more and understanding better — they don't worry about whether their work helps in developing products that can be marketed. Thinkers must be given space to experiment and freedom to do new things. The doers are interested in actually developing products or creating processes. They are not interested in understanding why a nano-material has a particular property; rather, they want to know if it can be used to develop a product or in a process. The challenge for me is to get an appropriate mix of thinkers and doers for the centre.

Both groups require good growth opportunities and recognition of their contributions. This need not be in terms of monetary benefits; for scientists, recognition of their ideas is more important than money. Apart from this, creating the right work environment is my challenge — creating growth opportunities, the freedom to work on their ideas, and a compensation package on par or better than what the industry averages.

On his vision for the future
I have a grand vision to make this a state-of-the-art Innovation Centre and one of the top R&D labs in India, focused on nanotechnology and bio-technology; a lab that will not only create new businesses but also generate tremendous knowledge. People believe that a corporate innovation centre only looks at making products, but a lot of knowledge generation actually goes hand in hand. In my ideal Innovation Centre, doing basic research would be as important as applied work. The question is only one of finding the right mix of both.

On working with other Tata companies
Nanotechnology is not a standalone technology. It's actually an enabling technology that cuts across so many of the areas that the Tata Group is working in. In Tata Motors, it could revolutionise fuel, lubricants, or even engine parts. In Tata Steel, it could create different types of composites, or coatings for steel…

We have expertise in nanotechnology, which can be shared with other Tata companies for mutual benefit. Many people in the group want to know more about what nanotechnology can do for their businesses and several have asked me to come and speak to them.

On the innovation mission trip
We visited some very innovative companies in the US recently. It was a fantastic experience and extremely useful from the Innovation Centre's point of view, because we could see mature processes. The deliverables for an academic group are very different from a corporate group. Hearing how 3M, HP or Intel functions in terms of managing and fostering innovation was extremely useful, because processes, whether we like it or not, are required.

The mission was also useful from the HR angle; how do these companies treat their scientists, how are they compensated, how are they allowed to grow? HR is a critical component in such companies and we need to take it seriously. They have a two-pronged career growth plan, and it is something we would like to implement in the Innovation Centre. It means that people who are really good at R&D should be allowed to grow in that direction and not have to worry about trying to become a manager to get those top-level promotions.