First Among Equals

The reinvention of IIT-Madras

How IIT-M rose up to #1 in India’s first ever institutional ranking, and why, amidst many global round-the-year exercises, national ranking matters

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For a middle class home, it may seem a shot from afar.

“You can run two bulbs, one fan, one tubelight, one television, and one cell phone charger. You can’t run your grinder, cooler or refrigerator yet but we are getting there,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala professorially, adjusting his trousers over worn, open-toe sandals. Inside a model home at the Research Park, he gives a demo.

In his small audience is Tarun Mehta, founder of the two-year-old electric two-wheeler company Ather Energy, who, until recently, was building his e-scooter in the incubation cell a few floors up. The two exchange murmurs about a new battery engineering centre which is a hushed affair until the minister for power, Piyush Goyal, visits later in July.

The 125-watt solar panel outside and the energy load of appliances hooked-up to the micro-grid inside the model home don’t add up. But that’s where the ingenuity sits – in the Inverterless. Cleverly branded as Inverterless, it is a solar unit where the power generation, storage and distribution happen in direct current (DC), without any conversion to alternating current (AC) on which the world’s grids run.

Most electronics devices today are DC but since the grid operates on AC, DC to AC conversion is the norm, as is the gross energy loss, sometimes as much as 50%.

By mid July when Goyal would visit, Jhunjhunwala would be ready to demonstrate how large buildings can run on DC. Most offices are already on DC load – hundreds of lights, laptops, variable air volume systems, sensors, exhaust, and so on – but convert them to AC at huge inefficiencies.

Readying the model units for Goyal was mere formality, especially after how Jhunjhunwala got the minister to back his idea of large scale solar micro-grids.

Soon after Goyal took charge in 2014, the professor wanted to present his idea but was unable to get ‘quality’ time with the jet-setting politician. So Jhunjhunwala worked out with his office, flew to Mumbai just so he could find a seat next to the politician on his return to Delhi. In the flight, he unspooled his project plan, catching a return flight to Chennai from Delhi the same day.

“When we made a formal presentation in Delhi, people nitpicked and ranted. Piyush’s remark was, ‘I know Jhunjhunwala. He doesn’t give up; one day he’ll show’ and he backed this project,” recounts Jhunjhunwala.

Today, solar-DC deployments are underway in multiple locations in at least half a dozen states.

If 25 years ago, he and Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director of IIT-M, attempted to bring telephones in millions of households, today they are saying – “grid-free power in every home”.

With or without a game-changing idea, many at IIT-M, certainly more than other IITs, have pursued technologies that solve societal or industrial problems. Among other things, it was this engineering itch to ‘build’ that hurled it into the top rank of engineering schools this year in India’s first ever national ranking.

When the results were announced in April many were surprised, including some IITs which even set up committees to parse the data. Thankfully, the process has been transparent and quantitative.

In the last few years, international ranking agencies have ranked IITs but none captured sponsored research or industry collaboration of these institutes. Until about two-three years ago, the agencies didn’t even ask for data, instead used publications, patents and perception to rank them.

For all its worth (and some annual rabble-rousing), these rankings never saw IITs perched high up there. Not in the top 50, not even in top 100.

“There was a strong feeling among institutions and the government that international rankings do not do justice to our institutions and their parameters [like internalization] are driven by factors which may or may not be important to us,” says Surendra Prasad, chairman of National Board of Accreditation, who led India’s first National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranking.

“We need a national ranking because only handful Indian institutions are eligible for international rankings. We have to sensitize a larger number of Indian institutions to position them better,” says Prasad, who is a former IIT-D director.

All international rankings assign heavy weightage to perception. As much as 30% in Times Higher Education Ranking (THE) and 25%  in US News & World Report which debuted its world university rankings in 2014. They all use large secondary databases of academicians and employers to do reputation surveys.

However, ShanghaiRanking doesn’t use perception surveys, which is understandable because the Chinese get hit on perception even more than Indians. Consequently, ShanghaiRanking assigns disproportionately high weightage to publications and citations, even transferring from other indicators when not applicable.

This is not the best way to rank smaller or engineering schools.

For this reason, the US News, which has been ranking American colleges for 30 years, started changing its tack for domestic colleges making outcome as the most heavily weighted factor in 2014. “What began as a reputation-based survey has turned into a comprehensive, data-driven evaluation of more than 1,500 schools using hundreds of data points,” said its chief data strategist Robert Morse in an email.

Perception is utterly subjective, says V Ramgopal Rao, director of IIT-Delhi, who like many IIT professors has participated in the reputation surveys of international agencies. “We have cows on our campuses. The overall impression is so bad that one of the questions we are often asked is – ‘Are you really as good as you are made out to be?’  How can you change the perception? We can never look as good as international campuses. We don’t have international students or faculty.”

People are doing the math: If the scores are increased by 10% by removing internationalization, a big draw for overseas universities but not for Indian, IITs catapult into top 20-30, (and German and Japanese universities into top 5-10).

One reason IITs are wrestling with their global image is because 2017 onward they will conduct GATE-JEE in seven countries for doctoral and masters programmes and they desperately need a brand leg-up.

But in spite of much bellyaching about a lack of resources and unfair comparisons, all IITs have inched up the ranks, IIT-M relatively more.

Global University Rankings

Global University Rankings

It’s been a few years in the making. Trying to come to terms with their position, the administration prepared a Strategy Plan 2020 and has been following it in spirit even before the letters came into force formally.

It starts with students.

Less students sleeping in classrooms

One of the IIT directors used to say, ‘We are all race horses, 10 seconds is all that matters…*Jo jeeta wohi Sikandar*”, said Shanthi Pavan. Soon after, much of it becomes pointless. Year after year IITs experience losing students early on, attendance and motivation decline in tandem.

Call it the Kota effect if you will, but it’s hard to make students unlearn the exam-cracking code of studies.

“We decided to get rid of our own baggage,” says Ramamurthi. “When we made the transition to a four-year [B-Tech] course from a five-year, it was only in name. All teachers kept their courses, the curriculum became faculty driven. Now we’ve made it student-centric.”

Since last year, there’s a cap on the number of courses and labs a student can take. “We leave very little opportunity for students to complain based on the standard practice of how much time you spend for one hour of instruction,” says Pavan, one of the ‘star’ professors in electrical engineering.

For far too long 17-18 year-olds have had to decide which branch of engineering they would study, and often for the rest of their life. The decision is part parental, part perception, and part JEE rank-driven.

The dual-degree program (five-year integrated masters program) corrected the imbalance to some extent but it wasn’t enough. Ramamurthi says IIT-M wants to evolve to a position where a B-Tech student can also evolve into a dual degree program out of interest as well as choose interesting electives.

“We plan to upgrade 6-12 programmes in hot areas like data science, computational engineering, etc. If a group of 30 students from five-six departments would like to pursue a programme, we’d facilitate it,” he says. “If it succeeds, then we’ll cut down entry to dual degree and take more students through B-Tech and then let them choose M-Tech. We are trying to go in a particular path; it’ll take three-four years.”

The upgrades also attack the determinism of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ branches in engineering.

In one such experiment, IIT-M has been offering a new course in Engineering Design with help from its industry partner Ashok Leyland. A product of the third batch, Ather’s Mehta says it’s one-of-its kind course because the focus is on product design rather than engineering design. More by accident than by design though, nearly half the dual-degree holders in his batch took to entrepreneurship in 2013.

All IITs are going through a demographic shift. Post-graduate students today outnumber undergraduates.

Just so the undergrad teaching isn’t diluted, and the students “retain the spark in their eyes”, some limited steps started as far back as the early aughts have now been expanded. Dean of planning, David Koilpillai, recalls coming back after 16 years in the US to find the fun department he had left — electrical engineering – was no longer fun.

Professors were teaching but without caring whether students got an internship or a job.

“I said, ‘We’ll fix it.’ We got a set of professors from different departments who’d keep engineering on the side and engage with students first. It was important to keep their passion alive,” says Koilpillai. Coming from Caltech, where Nobel laureate Richard Feynman teaching the basic physics course is folklore, he and others made sure electrical engineering was popular again.

Over the years IIT-M went on to devise many such introductory courses.

Koilpillai’s measure of success?

“We see less students sleeping in class and more students staying back in engineering”.

And as more students stay back and take to research – in August Modi government announced 1000 new research fellowships – the Research Park next door is just the right place to build stuff for the truly inclined.

Reach out, be relevant

How the Research Park came about is a story of a handful professors who ostensibly wished to go beyond their duty of teaching and research, and take their own technologies to people. As early as 1985, when starting up was a social putdown for academics, Jhunjhunwala founded Benchmark Systems to make cheaper fibre-optics kits for classroom teaching. Over the years, 4000 engineering colleges in India ended up using his kits.

The Institute had a bit of a head-start in working on real world problems. It set up its industrial consultancy in the early 1970s, much before the last of German professors, Hans Wagner, left the Chennai campus. It was also a rub-off of the long German association. But what Jhunjhunwala had in mind was something different – co-location with industry partners even as he was incubating businesses around technologies coming out of the electrical engineering department.

An all-contained Research Park was taking shape in their minds. In mid-2000s, he lucked out in getting 6.5 acres carved out of Jayalalitha Film City where, with 100 crores in government grant, IIT-M built the Park. But the initial years were spent in putting bricks and mortar when the academics wrapped their heads around how to engage with the industry effectively.

It was IIM-Bangalore professor J Ramachandran, with whom Jhunjhunwala served on some corporate Boards, who made him understand that if the two partners define and agree to some credits in the contract, then auditors make sure they become part of senior executives’ Key Result Area. A credit system was devised where for every 1000 sq ft of area industry had to earn certain credits.

“When your variable pay is dependent on whether you achieve this or not, then you can be assured the work will get done. With this credit system, which we keep refining, we created a huge force in the Park,” says Jhunjhunwala.

The Park earns Rs 10 crore annually but by the time the second phase gets operational next year, it expects manifold increase in income. In a coup of sorts, it managed to get the French construction and materials company Saint Gobain as an anchor client. In its 350-year history the conservative conglomerate has not gone to a place where it doesn’t own the perimeter. Over six months, five teams came from France to evaluate if there were enough collaborative research potential. Eventually they took one-seventh of the space.

As part of the strategic plan, by 2020 IIT-M would have 60% of its faculty working with the industry, up from the current 45%. By then it also plans to have 20 new companies starting up every year.

So far, 102 companies have been incubated of which 60 came up in the last two years, around a host of new technologies, in water, renewable energy, biomedical. While it provided Rs 8 crore in seed funding to 84 of them, 30 startups have raised Rs 320 crore in venture funding with Ather Energy alone garnering Rs 81 crore in Series A.

Viewed objectively, it’s an impressive record by Indian institutional standards. Other IITs want to emulate. Mumbai is building a research park close to its Powai campus, but Delhi is fine even going to Panipat, to a new 50-acre campus, as long as it can do what IIT-M has done. To save on lost time, it plans to start with prefabricated structures.

“Nobody realized such a Park was important. IIT-M is certainly much ahead of all other IITs. If we can do as well as IIT-M, then we can later think of improving upon it. After we announced 200,000 sq ft in Panipat, the industry has shown great interest; the space is already sold out,” says Rao.

Hopefully, IIT-M experience will show others that it’s not just about creating ‘physical’ spaces.

Although a dozen odd start-ups came out of just the telecom group in Chennai, none made a splash especially when the start-up activity elsewhere began heating up.

How does Jhunjhunwala rate his early evangelism?

“Tejas [Networks] came out of our lab, it is now reaching Rs 1000 crore. Midas [Communications started in 1994] reached Rs 500 crore [before it imploded]. Look, you have to allow some companies to fail. But surely enough must succeed,” he says.

“What we learnt was at this space [in Research Park] is that start-ups’ work gets over once they reach Rs 5 to 10 crore [in revenue]. Beyond that we can’t add value, though we may add some bit of technology here and there. In Midas we made this mistake. Once they reached Rs 100 crore I should have recognized that a change in management or even a change in control was needed,” says Jhunjhunwala.

However, two decades of developing telecom technologies made the IIT-M group a go-to-resource for the government when telecom became the breakout industry and officials had to deal with imported equipment. To understand what was inside, what to specify, and how to buy was not trivial.

Acceleration due to proximity

Twenty years ago when the TeNeT group at IIT-M proposed Wireless in Local Loop, a new last mile wireless technology to take telephony to masses since it was the wiring of households which accounted for two-thirds of the telecommunications cost, it looked difficult in plain sight. Telecom companies were laying wires everywhere and here was Jhunjhunwala suggesting disruption. He found few backers, even in the government or Delhi’s starchy bureaucracy.

Looking back, Ramamurthi is realistic.

“Others would have gone with us in a big way if we had access to a radio interface. Problem was we were very strong in system design but not in wireless design. We did not have radio frequency people. We could have done with cellular technology but we did not know how to do it and it was a closely guarded technology those days. We didn’t foresee what could happen with mobile systems. By the time we overcame the hurdles, mobile telephony had arrived,” says Ramamurthi.

IIT-M Director, Bhaskar Ramamurthi

IIT-M Director, Bhaskar Ramamurthi

Perception-wise we have a problem. Some of them go back 20 years. People still say we have water problem even though we fixed it long ago. Then the perception among undergrads is that mumbai has better placements. Looking at data, it is because of the few very high paying financial consultancy jobs that go only to mumbai because the multinationals are headquartered there…look, south has a perception issue, even in the us [southern states face this]” – Bhaskar Ramamurthi

Unlike WLL, in solar-DC they are on a firm footing. Both Ramamurthi and Jhunjhunwala have risen in stature and have linkages in the government. More importantly, this time they could get industry to some make products. Initial naysayers have come around the idea of solar-DC; the first to blink was the power technologies giant ABB. A few others followed, including Bluestar, Lucas-TVS, Crompton and Amararaja, India’s largest battery maker.

They have further reduced the risk by separating solar-DC from their new brown-out technology. It’s meant to end black-outs by introducing a new low-level AC power line in the grid to supply a minimum amount of DC power at 48 Volts to all homes on the existing grid. Since it would require some work at the grid and sub-station level, something which makes it akin to WLL in the scale of disruption, it requires government support.

Even though in July Goyal said his ministry is experimenting with the brown-out technology, professors believe its success or failure is not linked to solar-DC.

‘We are much better off this time by working on the standardization, from the beginning,” says Ramamurthi. Along with the Bureau of Indian Standards, the international body IEEE is keen to standardize 48 volts for solar-DC. “The world also is more willing to look at a disruptive technology from India than what it was 20 years ago,” he says.

“Prof Jhunjhunwlala used to be a rebel; now people say you are a part of the establishment”?

“I am still a rebel. But this time we said let’s identify who’d help you and run with them, don’t try to convince and fight the whole system all the time. We learnt to duck,” says Jhunjhunwala.

Systemic changes are not just few, but even fraught.

At IIT-M Ramamurthi is still debating how best to assess faculty’s work beyond publishing. If a third of them are going to work with the industry by 2020, a clear mechanism must be in place, just as it is for starting up which has led 30 of them to work with start-ups, as co-founders and minority stakeholders. (Rao at IIT-D wants this number to go up from five to 50 in about three years.)

“Very few understand the Park’s purpose, not just outside IIT-M but even within it. It’ll be a decade before the big leap is visible to all,” said Ather’s Mehta. “The only reason IIT-M companies are small and not branded as unicorns is that it is very hard to start, run and succeed as a hardware start-up in India.”

Blast from the past

Far from the start-up chatter in an unassuming ground-floor Space Lab, stairs damaged from the floods last year, Akshay Gulati and a dozen students are pegging away at their payload – a high energy particle detector. It’d nest inside a 12-kg nano-satellite aboard an ISRO rocket, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Six years ago when a group of students wanted to build a satellite, the institute said they’d back a satellite that made a difference, not just another student satellite. After some months Gulati and others came up with the idea of an in-orbit detector that would study charged particles in the ionosphere which, if measured, could predict earthquakes. (A few hours before an earthquake there are perturbations on the ground but they are difficult to measure because of their extremely low frequency.)

In one year, the detector must capture enough events – at least 60 earthquakes above 5 Richter scale – to be able to make a meaningful inference.

When they approached ISRO, the agency said it stayed away from earthquake predictions; it even discouraged the students because the detector would require very high speed electronics to measure the transient phenomena and few in the country could make those.

Akshay Gulati with the nano-satellite IITMSAT which carries a detector to study charged particles in the ionosphere prior to earthquakes.

Akshay Gulati with the nano-satellite IITMSAT which carries a detector to study charged particles in the ionosphere prior to earthquakes.

More than 300 students from six batches have worked on the detector which will be placed in orbit later this year. After reviewing it, ISRO said it “would have been proud if its scientists had built it”.

This satellite is one of many research projects that are now possible because the institute is allowing undergrad students to do them as a course for credits and, no less importantly, the alumni network is willing to fund such seemingly-crazy ideas. In Gulati’s Rs 3-crore project, Rs 2.25 crore, came from the alumni.

At the turn of the century, it was IIT-B which first showed what a multiplier force an alumni network could be. Culturally different from Mumbai, Chennai took its own sweet time. And fair to say, like the institute, alumni also take the character of the city.

“If you removed IIT and just kept Mumbai and Chennai, the difference would be valid. IIT-M has lot of successful entrepreneurs who make a lot of money but go about it very quietly; even their families don’t know how much money they are making,” goes the tale.

In the 23 years that R Nagarajan stayed away from the campus, he hardly ever heard anything from the institute. In 2009, five years after his return, he took charge of alumni affairs and three years later the institute created a Dean’s position for alumni and international affairs, merging the two. (For perspective, IIT-B created a Dean-level position nearly a decade earlier.)

“We focused on reaching out to our alumni, engaging them, and giving a clear understanding of what had changed at the institute. We then tried to gauge their interest,” said Nagarajan.

The results took two-three years to show. Prior to 2009, the average fundraising from alumni, including the occasional spikes, was Rs 3 crore. It reached Rs 10 crore in 2011, touched Rs 55 crore in 2015. Nagarajan estimates this year to end with Rs 100 crore. The plan is to reach a steady state of Rs 100 crore, and then build a corpus. Almost all contribution so far is towards projects, not endowment.

“We needed to build the trust before we built a corpus,” says Nagarajan.

Most IITs don’t have any corpus to talk about. “All IITs average just about Rs 10-15 crore a year in fund raising,” says Rao of IIT-D. Since he took over as director in April, he’s doubling down on bigger and better involvement with alumni. An app now connects IIT-D alumni directly with students.

In Chennai, Nagarajan ensures it’s seamless – money comes for a project, gets deployed, project ends and the alumnus gets a report. This process has generated confidence in the 45,000-strong network.

A few years ago, when Nagarajan wrote to this group seeking their interest in supporting a stadium with a synthetic track, Canadian billionaire Prem Watsa asked how much they needed and offered to fund the entire project, which cost Rs 5.5 crore.

“There’s a definite focus on getting us to contribute back [to IIT-M] in many ways,” says Venky Harinarayan, serial entrepreneur (Junglee.com, Kosmix and others) and venture capitalist in California. “Bhaskar and Nagarajan have been consistently building bridges between top minds in the US and Chennai in last four-five years which is now showing.”

Design, Develop and Deploy 

In one such alumni meeting in 2014, Lalit Mahajan happened to be on the campus, which he never visited since his B-Tech in 1968, not even for his chemical engineering degree certificate. During dinner, Ramamurthi invited Mahajan, founder of Delhi-based diagnostics company J Mitra, to visit the new Health Technology and Innovation Centre (HTIC) in Research Park.

Mahajan had tried working with IIT-D many years ago without much success but he obliged Ramamurthi, and told his wife, with whom he had planned a trip to Mahabalipuram, he’d be “out of that place in half an hour”. He stayed on for more than six hours, of course cancelling his excursion.

What followed is an outlier. With the centre’s director Mohan Sivaprakasam, Mahajan signed up to develop a luminescence-technology-based portable instrument for rapid diagnosis of diseases. It cost him Rs 7 crore but in less than 18 months the device is ready; 300 of them are being tested with doctors and pathologists. Mahajan, who returned from the annual meeting of American Association of Clinical Chemists in Philadelphia last month, is as pleased as punch.

“No [global diagnostic company] has such a point-of-care instrument. In the lab, their minimum cost is Rs 10-11 lakh, whereas ours would sell at one-tenth later this year,” he says.

For Sivaprakasam and his associate J Jayaraj this is becoming routine, developing functional medical technology that is. It wasn’t easy to pin down so many moving parts.

In 2009 when he joined the electrical engineering department IIT-M, having worked on cutting-edge corneal and cochlear implants in the US, he realized he hadn’t quite skated to where the puck was going. If anything, he was five years too early; people were not ready for medtech in India, least in engineering schools which, in any case, never go all the way up to deployment.

Jhunjhunwala introduced Sivaprakasam to Maharaj K Bhan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology in Delhi. In April 2009 when Bhan visited IIT-M after a three-hour discussion, he said, “This has a high chance of failure. But go ahead. Banao.”

Sivaprakasam wasn’t sure how to write a proposal. Ramamurthi was the dean at that time and suggested they set up a centre to “develop and deploy technology”, “make something which is relevant”. Mohan submitted the proposal for HTIC.

Many in Delhi bureaucracy said, “The guy is only 28 and is asking for Rs 25 crore.”

However, both DBT and IIT-M took a big chance. Even before it was inaugurated in 2012, the mobile eye surgical unit, which HTIC built with Sankara Nethralaya, had already done 486 surgeries in villages. The unique design, built of two standard bus chassis which when parked in parallel convert into a world class operation theatre, is letting the hospital do more surgeries in a day than its land-based operation theatre allows.

The second unit, sponsored by Tata Sons, went functional in Jamshedpur in July.

(Not a head-to-head comparison, but IIT-B has a healthcare consortium and academics there admit it doesn’t have much to show in the name of deployment.)

Evolution 

In some sense, T Pradeep’s evolution at IIT-M is the evolution of the institute.

When he returned from Purdue University in 1993, Pradeep had job offers from the IITs in Kanpur and Kharagpur and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. IIT-M was the last to offer, a temporary position at that.

Chemistry, like all sciences at an engineering school, was viewed as a supporting discipline.

“When I asked about my lab, my department said you can’t have a lab of your own. But I consciously built my lab,” he recalls. That has become a culture; everyone either has or wants to have a lab. The institute has allowed academics to pursue this which, in turn, has fostered many PhDs between engineering and sciences.

Around 2003, when the then director MS Ananth was rolling out the first strategy plan (2003-2010), Pradeep was wrestling with a personal challenge:  “Should I make a difference? Can I, as a chemist, make a difference?” were the questions he grappled with. His research in molecular materials was throwing up immense possibilities.

But the line connecting his discoveries and various water filters in the market was anything but straight.

Continuing his tradition of building instruments, T Pradeep built this spectrometer in his lab at a cost of $1 million, only one of such in the world, to study the first few molecules of ice.

Continuing his tradition of building instruments, T Pradeep built this spectrometer in his lab at a cost of $1 million, only one of such in the world, to study the first few molecules of ice.

Today his group’s nanochemistry based filter for pesticide removal is used in many parts of India, more than 7.5 million people use it. But even as his prolific research group – he publishes more than 20 papers in a year and neatly catalogues them to circulate on December 31 – churned out new findings, he understood getting all of them to the market was nearly impossible. Even big brands like Bajaj or Tata were not willing to take up the lab work for building new products.

“They all asked for ‘boxes’ (products), which was not possible in the lab setting,” he says. So he too began to incubate businesses. In May, his co-founded company InnoNano Research received $18 million from US-based energy and water investment firm NanoHoldings.

Like a few others on the campus, Pradeep, for whom IIT-M has created a unique position of Institute Professor, is pushing the envelope at both ends – science and technology. And water is his chosen battleground.

Given India’s water crisis, in the long run we have to ensure there is water to purify, he says.

“Eventually we have to get to atmospheric water capture for drinking, especially in coastal areas which have 90% humidity. Why depend on ground water? But that requires energy which requires new materials”, he says, pointing to several next-gen water purifiers under development in the spanking new labs.

But these are small dots in his larger scheme of things. Pradeep’s lab has water programs with half a dozen countries and he has been organizing an international conference on clean water for four years. Now, he wants all that to converge in a new International Center for Water at IIT-M’s new campus in Thaiyur, 35 km from the main campus.

“We want it to be a centre where you can come with your idea on water, build your technology and go back,” he says.

People on the campus are free to find their levels. Ramamurthi says the institute does not expect all faculty members to do the same thing.

“Although we are yet to arrive at a mechanism to assess industrial work, saying we brought a certain amount of money is not enough. We are also learning how to assess failure; it’s not easy. We don’t measure by things that can be gamed, like a list of accepted journals, but we do watch where and what we publish. Are we developing things that matter? Our evolving assessment is very different from what even the West does [of measuring paper citations]. Hope we get it right,” says Ramamurthi.

If Indian institutions go after publications, in a few years, going by current trends, they will get the citations and, hence, the ranks. But in the Indian context it is equally important that engineering schools take up societal challenges.

Work In Progress

Speaking of challenges, one that stares IIT-M is its perception in the eyes of students. Looking at top 100 JEE rank holders, almost all of them go to IIT-B. Depending on how many seats Mumbai has in Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), 50 or 60, the remaining toppers go to IIT-D and then to IIT-M.

One could argue 60-odd ranks in the top 100 are from Kota and the Western Zone, for whom going to the south isn’t that attractive. But the rub lies in the choice of the remaining 40-odd top 100 rankers who are from Andhra Pradesh. Even they choose to go to IIT-B, nearly all of them.

“At the end of the day, it’s a free market. If you were a startup and your customers are not buying your product, you figure out what are the problems and fix it,” says an IIT-M CSE alumnus, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Nearly 25 years ago, the distribution of top rankers was even. It was geographic, students chose an IIT which was closest to their native place. But as the tech industry’s prowess spread, as Mumbai’s CSE strength grew, as its illustrious alumni strutted the Silicon Valley landscape, and as coaching institutes fed students with formulaic tips, it was the ‘network effect’ which set perceptions. Not just of students, but of parents as well.

Skewed as it may be — after all why should only one subject matter in engineering – just look at the five biggest companies in the US. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook are all software companies.

As for the course, top students going to Mumbai is a slow, trailing indicator, not a leading indicator. While it tells us how good CSE at IIT-B is, it doesn’t say much about how bad CSE at IIT-M is. Alumni say in the late 1980s, the preferred CSE place was IIT-Kanpur even though some of the leading professors, V Rajaraman, HN Mahabala and S Muthukrishnan had left Kanpur and moved to IISc and IIT-M respectively more than a decade ago.

There’s a lag between reality and perception.

That said, IIT-B CSE has been phenomenal because the leadership in early 1990s was open to new ideas. In 1993, Srinivasan Seshadri was returning to India, fresh after his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. His first choice was IIT-M, his alma mater, but it was IIT-B which managed to woo him as an assistant professor.

“In one year, they hired three people returning to India. There was just so much intellectual honesty, willingness to embrace new thoughts and hire people better than themselves,” says Seshadri, now a serial entrepreneur in California, most recently of Zettata. And the trend continued in Mumbai.

During those years, IIT-M let its CSE strength drop, to below 20 and for various reasons. The department strength is nearly 30 now. Ramamurthi says it’d grow to 38-40 by 2020. Several new areas have been introduced with endowed chairs from alumni support, like Computational Brain Research funded by Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan and Inter-Disciplinary Biological Systems Engineering programme by the Mehta Chair in Biosciences. Some Visiting Chair programmes are planned as well.

But the problem has been many years in making and will take some time, even as the institute carves out its place in other fields.

In July, when Goyal visited the Research Park, he inaugurated a Battery Engineering and Electric Vehicle Centre. The team behind solar-DC believes its disruptive ideas in batteries and motors for EVs can make these vehicles viable in the urban Indian market and it “wants to see them through”.

What many IIT professors like to see, though, is: “All top five IITs are in the same league”.

But if rankings periodically push them into the Orwellian axiom, and some appear more equal than others, it’s a good thing; even if angsty and temporarily unsettling. We’ll see some of that later in September when Shanghai and QS rankings hit the headline.

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