A business model based on scientific curiosity and specialised innovations..
Raman pursued an education in management. But innovation and research had always interested him.
To take scientific curiosity a step further and develop a business model out of it is something that only a few have attempted. Aroon Raman of Raman FibreScience is among the daring few who have taken an entrepreneurial plunge into a field that is rare, highly specialised and calls for immense research and dedication.
Ever heard of ‘wet-laid composites'? Well, listening to Raman talk passionately about his invention, it was easy to see that his story was as much about lesser-known Indian companies sitting on cutting-edge technology with global potential as it was about the complex composites themselves.
Bangalore-based research and innovation company, Raman FibreScience sells technology and product IPR in the specialised segment called wet-laid composites, which is rather similar to papermaking, except that the materials used are much “more exotic compared to the conventional wood pulp or agro-based fibres used in paper”. Materials such as carbon, glass, ceramic and polyester are innovatively combined with other chemical additives and polymers to create high-performance composites for customised use.
With its R&D facility in Mysore, the company offers end-to-end solutions — from laboratory formulae to big plant manufacturing. “Many companies have approached us for solutions even where we have had no prior experience of their industry. This is lateral innovation: ideas that come from unrelated experience,” says Raman.
With a degree in Economics (a far cry from R&D, he exclaims), Raman pursued an education in management. But innovation and research had always interested him. The urge to innovate was so strong that early in his career, he set up a small innovation centre in 1991 that later became Raman Boards and was involved in the electrical materials business. Even as it fared well against competition, the niche business was always on the radar for acquisition and was finally bought out by ABB, Switzerland, in 2007. This proved a blessing in disguise as it left Raman with enough resources to pursue his passion. He separated the innovation centre from the transaction and turned it into the core of his new company, Raman FibreScience.
From air and liquid filtration, thermal insulation, fuel cells, separators for lead-acid batteries, gasket materials for special sealing requirements to special materials for the footwear industry, the company develops them all.
It has invented a non-polymer battery separator with versatile applications. “About 80 per cent of the world's lead-acid batteries use polyethylene (PE) separators and we are the first to offer a non-PE composite that can be run on continuous battery lines. The material has generated excellent response, and even at this early stage it has been accepted by several major customers. We are now taking the product to international markets,” he says with pride.
The HEPA, or High Efficiency Particulate Air, filter developed by his team is used for clean-room applications in pharma, biotech, healthcare and nuclear industries. The special impregnated paperboard for footwear is another proud achievements.
“We will build a profitable business in the wet-laid composite area with cutting-edge products and solutions. We will also develop as a research and innovation partner to global companies which see synergy with the work we do. We are trying hard to build an open innovation culture. At our company, the R&D team is not an ivory tower that does product development and expects the production team to deliver; rather, the whole process of innovation and product development is highly collaborative,” he says, outlining the company's vision for the future.
Scientific and enterprising?
Having been an entrepreneur pretty much all his life, Raman says that while passion is important, one must equally be real and aware of financial and market risks. “Second, getting the right people for a start-up is not easy. Finally, staying power is always a huge challenge — especially when the market build-up gets delayed due to factors beyond one's control. Never give up, but if the venture looks fundamentally unviable, give it up and move on to your next dream. You will win in the end…”
The journey towards establishing an enterprise, creating a team driven by a single vision and building a company with global standards of excellence has been rewarding for him. However, Raman, who recently took over as the Chairman of the CII Karnataka State Council, cautions: “One can claim only partial success in all this, for entrepreneurship is a lifelong journey and, as the saying goes, sometimes it is as fulfilling to travel as to arrive.”
So what prevents young minds from taking up science as a mainstream career? “The state of science education in our country is alarming. We might boast of the odd centres of scientific excellence such as the IISc or TIFR or some national laboratories, but for a country of more than one billion people, this is woefully inadequate,” he says.
Attracting young talent
“Teaching has suffered over the last decades and simply does not attract the best brains. This is partly linked to a socioeconomic reality that has materially rewarded ‘professional' qualifications such as engineering and medicine over pure science.”
But he still sees enough room for hope. “Globalisation has unleashed a wave of industrial research and innovation in India. Some of the biggest companies in the world have set up research facilities here and the demand for pure science has suddenly grown exponentially. Compensation has also moved up significantly to a point where one can do very well in a career in science. It remains to address the shortfall in good teachers, who are critical in the early stages of science incubation. India is therefore at a cusp… The next decade will be absolutely crucial.”