University IP and Commercialization: The Indian Way

This winter has seen a time of IP reflection for this Kat. He has done a bit of lecturing to a number of Indian audiences -- student, legal, professional and otherwise -- over the last several weeks. No less importantly, at least for him, is that he has listened to a large number of colleagues, from various walks of the Indian IP world, as he tries to make sense of the IP community there. While there is certainly no monolithic Indian view of IP, this Kat heard a number of recurring comments that suggest to him that they may form a core set of themes that enjoy a certain durability within the local IP landscape.

Perhaps the most compelling of these themes is the ambiguous status of IP commercialization, especially when the IP was developed within the public university context. Two encounters particularly brought this home for him. The first was a Workshop at the First International Conference on Management of Intellectual Property and Strategy (ÏP for Development: The Emerging Paradigm) that took place earlier this month at the Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management at the Indian Institute of Technology--Bombay. The subject of the Workshop was "ÏP Management/Licensing at Academic Institutions" and the moderator was the Dean of R&D at the Institute. This dean is also a full professor in his subject area at the Institute and it appears that his appointment as Dean of R&D is for a fixed period of three years. As part of his responsibilities, he oversees the licensing of IP for technologies created at the Institute.

IIT-Bombay, as it is known, is one of 16 campuses (I hope that I have the current number correct) that form the country's leading science and engineering center for higher education here. They are among the most competitive, if not the most competitive, school for college acceptance in India, with acceptance ratios that dwarf those at the Ivy League in the U.S. The main take-away message from his presentation was the pronounced tension between the interest of the Institute in encouraging increasing commercialization of such technologies and the notable reluctance, in the words of the Dean, among of the faculty to "turn over" their research for commercial purposes. Research and the early publication of the fruits of such research are viewed as the central function of the Institute. Not even a revenue allocation that confers 70% of revenues to the faculty member (at least in the first stage of commercialization) seems to have moved the needle in a significant fashion in favor of the faculty embracing the commercial role for technology developed at the Institute. (Remember also that the appointment for Dan of R&D is for three years only). All of this suggests that the primacy of the research function remains a deeply entrenched value within the Institute.

 This macro view of the tension between the research and commercialization functions of the Institute was brought home in an acute fashion in a subsequent lunchtime conversation that I had with a senior professor at the Institute about the theory and role of industrial design in our society. When I moved the conversation ever so slightly to the direction of commercialization, the esteemed professor was direct and clear: such efforts were, in his words, "filthy and dirty". What he has created at the Institute is for the benefit, enjoyment and use of the entire society. To steer into the hands of a single commercializing entity is antithetical to the purpose of his research.

I don't know whether this position reflects the view at the other 15 campuses of the IIT system (it does appear that there is no single framework for the structure of commercialization and revenue allocation). Nevertheless, based on my understanding and discussions there, this certain hostility to the commercialization of faculty IP and technology reflects two strands of Indian culture. The first is a deep-rooted notion of community and sharing, which includes the fruits of intellectual labors. The second, more recent, derives from the socialist orientation of the country's formative period whereby there is a reluctance, if not hostility, to a restricted use of the benefits of publicly-funded research for the benefit of a given commercial entity (even if the institution also receives a benefit that it can then use for its general use).

But this is not the only strand of thinking. Set against this uncertain faculty attitude toward the commercialization of technology, this Kat also attended a widely-publicized two-day conference on entrepreneurship that took place on the campus. The program was the culmination of a student-run Entrepreneurship Club which, its leaders proudly told me, has key faculty support. Moreover, I am also advised that the Entrepreneurship course given by the School of Management is among the most popular cross-over courses at the Institute. The spirit of student entrepreneurship among the country's top engineering students is palpable.

So what do we make of this? A couple of thoughts come to mind. The tension between social and commercial goals is a challenge that seems to permeate broad aspects of the country. In a setting as complex as that of India, notions of public and private, social and commercial, may take on a different meaning than those held in other countries. The role of IP in such a matrix may also take on a distinct meaning. Against that backdrop, the role of universities in fostering the commercialization of technology may continue to reflect this specific context. Innovation and entrepreneurship will still flourish, but the universities may play a somewhat different IP role to that of their counterparts in other technologically advanced countries. More than in any jurisdiction that I have encountered, the nature of IP rights is still very much a work in a progress here. The role of universities with respect to the commercialization of IP rights is but one prominent example.
University IP and Commercialization: The Indian Way University IP and Commercialization: The Indian Way Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, February 20, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. Neil, very interesting. I can remember expressions of hostility to commercialisation activities by some UK university staff back in the 1980s, when it was all very new, and when the "Thatcherite revolution" was still happening. It took time for new attitudes to permeate into collective thinking. I don't hear any such hostility expressed nowadays in the UK university sector.

    It will be interesting to see whether Indian attitudes are the same in 20 years' time.

  2. Neil
    I wonder if a model based on social enterprise as the vehicle for commercialising University IP could resolve the conflict between research and commercial goals.
    Laurie Kaye

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    List of Courses in India

  4. Dear Neil:

    There are professors and Institutes on the other end as well.

    I am told that Intellectual Ventures was trying very hard to get licenses to patents/ tech information created by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

    Additionally, I believe that IIT Bombay has a very decent entrepreneurship cell which encourages commercialisation of IP.

  5. not really related, but would appreciate your thoughts on what this means for the IP community:

  6. Dear Anonymous

    Thank you for the email.

    As for Intellectual Ventures, in the Q&A with the Dean of R&D at IIT-Bombay, I asked him about this topic. He intimated that they had been in contact with IV or like company, but that nothing concrete seems to have emerged (whether it is a good or bad thing for a university to lock up its IP with a company like IV is a separate issue).

    As I suggested in my blog, the students at IIT-B are quite keen on entrepreneurship (there is another entrepreneurship event next week on campus). It is the disjunction between these students and at least some of the faculty that is so interesting.


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