‘Translational R&D is IIT-M’s strong suit’

Ramesh Matham | Updated on: Jan 30, 2022
V Kamakoti, Director, IIT-Madras

V Kamakoti, Director, IIT-Madras

The National Centre for Combustion Research and Development at IIT-Madras

The National Centre for Combustion Research and Development at IIT-Madras

The IIT-Madras Research Park aims to bridge the industry-academia gap through work on ‘translatable products’

The IIT-Madras Research Park aims to bridge the industry-academia gap through work on ‘translatable products’

Newly anointed IIT-Madras Director Veezhinathan Kamakoti says the institute is not short on funds or pioneering ideas

Prof Veezhinathan Kamakoti, who has just taken over as the Director of IIT-Madras, is also its alumnus, having done PhD there and taught in the computer science department. He is considered an expert in artificial intelligence (AI) and led a task force on AI for the Commerce Ministry. He is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board and was involved in the National Mission on Inter-disciplinary Cyber-physical Systems. 

Kama — as he is called — is a man of many parts. Besides a world-renowned semiconductor scientist, he is a passionate proponent of regenerative agriculture, working on his farm, and a violinist in love with Carnatic music.

Excerpts from his recent conversation with Quantum

Is IIT-Madras funded adequately?  

Funding-wise we are doing pretty good. For us, funding comes from three sources. First is the government. This goes for paying salaries, building infrastructure etc. This is ₹600-700 crore [a year]. The second source is ‘sponsored research and consultancy’. This is for running our projects, in the course of which some infrastructure also gets built. This is another ₹600-700 crore. The third major source of funds is donations and CSR [corporate social responsibility] money. These are typically for specific projects.

What about your alumni? 

We get a lot of funds from our alumni and I count that under ‘donations’. So, we are well covered for funds. Today, whether from the government or industry, we never face a funding crunch when we go with relevant proposals. For example, the ‘5G test bed’ [a project to build a test bed that closely resembles real-world 5G deployment]. We are a set of institutions, under the headship of my predecessor, Prof Baskar Ramamurthy; we have brought in standards for 5G that have been accepted as global standards. Something like this has happened for the first time.

That is what I mean when I say ‘relevant proposal’. We always focus on relevant technologies — Industry 4.0, IoT, cyber-physical systems, modular housing, like that.

IIT-Madras has been consistently named an ‘institute of eminence’. What do you see as your core strengths? 

I will first give you a general answer and then a more specific one. In the last twenty years — during the tenures of my predecessor and his predecessor (Prof MS Ananth) — we have focused on ‘translational research’, namely, take an idea and convert it into a project. A good example is the Shakti processor, which was developed here. The 5Gi [5G standards] is a result of translational research, which is a big strength of IIT-Madras. Back in 2006-07, Prof Ananth created the IIT-Madras Research Park for research that would result ina translatable product — to bridge the industry-academia gap. 

I will ensure that during my term there is enough focus on translational research. Today, when our researchers are thinking of publishing a paper, they are also thinking of patents, prototype and entrepreneurship. Researchers are thinking, ‘Can I license this technology out?’ or ‘Can I start a company?’ Most of the research happens along with students. So, if students are interested, we encourage them to set up start-ups. In the last twenty years, hundreds of start-ups have come up. 

Now, coming to the specific answer to your question, each one of our departments is a centre of excellence in itself.

I have already mentioned our strengths in communications. There are many others. Just to give a few examples, we are very strong in civil engineering — heritage structures, modular housing, construction technology. Our ocean engineering is very strong — every port in the country consults us. In Thaiyur [near Chennai, where IIT-Madras is building a new campus] we can actually simulate a sea. In micro-electronics, we have one of the world’s best teams. Likewise, in healthcare, particularly medical devices. We now have a mobile bio unit, which goes to villages and does various tests. We started it for RT-PCR, but we can do 11-12 [kinds of] tests. 

That sounds more like social work than research? 

No, it is research, because the results of the tests provide data for designing medical devices. Lots of start-ups have come up for medical devices.

But if you say each department is in itself a centre of excellence, then would you be doing everything or would you focus on select areas to make them world-class? 

Yeah, for that we have — my predecessor initiated this — interdisciplinary centres of excellence. One example is the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science, which has faculties from eight departments. Another is the IIT-Madras Pravarthak Technologies Foundation [a technology innovation hub funded by the National Mission on Interdisciplinary Cyber-physical Systems], which I was managing until I became the Director. It is a Section 8 company, it has about 50 faculty members from 11 of our 16 departments.

In five years, I expect that 350 faculty members will be contributing to this. Everybody has a core strength and every strength has to be encouraged.

My role as Director is to bring in focus, so that all the different works done by the faculties converge into a single large umbrella. IIT Pravarthak Technologies has developed 4-5 technologies; in the next five years, I expect it will have developed 25-30 technologies.

One good example of the interdisciplinary work done here is the ‘Hyperloop project’. In another 2-3 years, we will have something very big to show. Seventy-one students from seven departments are participating. Over time, students from 11-12 departments will be participating. Hyperloop requires multiple expertise — metallurgy, electromagnetism, materials, mechanical engineering and so on.

They have been looking to build a 500-metre test track? 

Yes. That is very much on the cards and we are moving very fast on that. We are also working with Agnikul, another of our notable start-ups. When successful, we can launch rockets like how you would conduct weddings — hire a place, perform the wedding and come back. So, if you want to launch a rocket, just take three big trucks anywhere — one will be the launch pad, another the control centre and the third the power station. Press a button, the rocket will go up, and then the trucks drive back home.

This ‘rapid launch’ is necessary today. And these rockets are manufactured by 3D printing. The turnaround time for making an engine comes to a few weeks, as opposed to months otherwise. Also, there is significant reduction in soldering, welding etc, so the reliability of the rocket is 10-20 times more.

Published on January 30, 2022
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