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This article is written by Pratap Alexander Muthalaly, a student of the Government Law College Trivandrum. This article looks into the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI), analyzing its overall performance since its inception, and also looks at areas for improvement and reform.

Introduction

The New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) is a program of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. It is the largest public-private-partnership endeavor within the R&D sector in India. It is an initiative that focuses on building futuristic technology and works to ensure the position of India as a stalwart of new and experimental technologies. It aims to achieve this by bringing out the best in institutions, academia, and the private industry, through a series of strategic and systemic partnerships.

Overview

By focusing on a carefully selected list of niche areas NMITLI hopes to catapult India into the position of a global leader in technology research. Some of the central principles that drive the NMITLI are: 

  1. A proactive programme – Instead of funding the program on the basis of requests or even applications, the application process happens through a framework that identifies the specific fields for development on the basis of a holistic national discussion and furthermore invites the most suited partners from various institutions and even enlists the support of the private sector to play a role in this process.
  2. Types of Projects: There is equal emphasis given to both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ projects, all of which are evolved under the careful surveillance of the NMITLI, as a result, these are appropriately dubbed as (i) Nationally Evolved Projects (NEP) and (ii) Industry Originated Projects (IOP).
  3. PPP mode – In the case of the mode of promulgation, almost all of these specialized projects are organized in a public-private partnership mode.
  4. Emphasis on identifying and building the projects – In the case of the NMITLI, higher importance is placed on identifying the specific niche areas and constructing projects with the assistance of specialists available across the nation. 
  5. S&T inputs – Superior level technology inputs are given as support at both the project development as well as at the final implementation stage.
  6. Monitoring & review system – In terms of surveillance, a two-stage strict monitoring system is put in place to make sure that all of the targets and goals are completed to a satisfactory level. Also, special emphasis is taken to ensure that the project is moving in a smooth and structured manner. Moreover, in the early stages, there is an internal Steering Committee comprising primary stakeholders and advisors (meets once in 3 months) and at the secondary stage, there is an external independent Monitoring Committee comprising of recognized peers in that area (meets at least once in six months). The latter committee is given the responsibility to recommend: (i) foreclosure or modification of the project or sub-component; (ii) inclusion of additional institutional/industrial partners wherever necessary; and (iii) revising the funding support to any / or all implementing partners.
  7. IP mapping – This whole process allows for regular mapping of the IP situation for each project and also in-licensing of IP with the intention to build a portfolio and achieve a strong dominant position.
  8. Foreclosure of projects- This initiative also makes room for foreclosure of the non-performing or certain projects wherein the project components are simply non-achievable, this is to ensure that thighs are constantly streamlined.
  9. Financial support – A unique part of this program is that it provides financial support to all of the parties involved in the endeavour. The support that is provided financially is in the form of a grant-in-aid to the various institutional collaborators in the public sphere and also in the form of a soft loan with an interest of 3% to the various private sector partners that have more than 50% of stake by Indians/Non-resident Indians and with over 5% interest to the private sector industrial collaborators having a share of less than 50% in the case of Indians/Non-resident Indians, who have a manufacturing base in India.
  10. Positioning of the project- The program constantly strives to push for research into new and cutting edge technology, that is often experimental in nature, so as to push the nation and its R&D sector forward in leaps and bounds. This basically involved low-level investment into less explored technology, which may be often regarded as high risk. 

Notable Successes

This programme has created in excess of 100 international patents and 150 publications in peer-reviewed journals. Here are some of its most notable achievements:

  • A massive shift in leather processing (from chemical to biochemical means)
  • New plants for separating cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and lignin from bagasse
  • New plants for producing lactic acid from sugarcane juice
  • Bioinformatics software viz. Bio-Suite, Gene Cluster, Bio-SuiteC and Darshee
  • Developed three variants of SofComp (Simple office Computer) devices including Mobilis
  • Anti-psoriasis(to prevent skin disease) formulation in Phase-III Clinical Trial
  • Lysostaphin(used to kill pathogens) in Phase-II Clinical Trial
  • The anti-tuberculosis molecule in Phase-II Clinical Trial
  • polyherbal formulations for diabetes, arthritis, and hepatic disorder
  • Micro-PCR based immuno-diagnostics for detecting eye infections
  • Development of new plant varieties of Mentha piperita
  • Development of Triple-Play broadband technology

Problems/Issues

According to a Hindu news report from 2018, nearly a third of the companies have defaulted on the loans they have taken from the CSIR. As of March 2018, an amount within the approximate of nearly ₹298 crores had been paid out of which roughly ₹92 crore is under the bracket of loans “in default” by 15 companies who have been put under the “defaulters.” The most notable of the lot is Ghaziabad-based Samtel Colour. This firm received a ₹28 crore loan in the financial year period of 2007-2010 to develop what was termed as ‘Next generation plasma display technology’. While the CSIR holds firm that the company developed the device, there have been declarations from government officials terming the firm as ‘sick’.

Expansion of NMITLI

Owing to its successes the NMITLI plans to expand in the following areas:

1. Funding along with industry (50:50 initiatives)

There are many Indian companies who are financially smart but are lacking in the requisite expertise and intellectual resources to advance to specific and specialized projects for the development of technologies/products in their chosen area of expertise. This is why they need the support of both research institutions as well as good guidance from associated industry leaders. This is where the NMITLI comes in, it acts as a mechanism to bridge the gap for such companies through its proposed 50:50 initiative. All Indian or foreign companies having a manufacturing base in India can avail of this initiative. The end goal is to provide 50% financial support from the NMITLI in the form of a grant and the remaining 50% project cost is to be financed by the company in the question itself. Once successful commercialization of the technology/product has been achieved, the company is then directed to the proportionate royalties to the CSIR.

2. Co-financing with Venture Capital Funds

Most venture capital firms are limited in their scope and ability to incur risk. This is why it is extremely beneficial for them to join hands with the NMITLI, which not only has a strong knowledge base but also the requisite funding to help them in jointly financing projects. Such projects would be chosen with the help of the NMITLI which would use its large contact base to select the best and most viable projects.

3. Joint development and support of projects with other departments of science and technology and economic ministries

Many government departments are engaged in various different research and development activities in those areas pertaining to them. 

There is often a considerable amount of overlap with other scientific departments, leading to ill utilization of resources and finances. However, the expertise of these individual departments is limited especially in undertaking multi-disciplinary projects in certain niche areas.

Projects of this nature require a wide spectrum of intellectual and infrastructural inputs. That is, to generate IPR, technologies, and products including high-quality publications there is a need for experience, inputs, and dedicated efforts from all the government departments involved.

Therefore, it has been proposed that the best way moving forward is to utilize parts of the NMITLI funds to generate inter-departmental projects, where various branches work side by side. 

This scheme in consideration is part of a larger plan to generate intellectual capital, technologies, and products in niche areas that could also themselves provide a catalyst to stimulate more effective coordination amongst the different government departments in the R&D sphere.

4. Setting up of NMITLI Innovation Centers in selected areas for long term sustained efforts

The research and development expertise in our country is scattered across many different fields, this is a hurdle to the nation’s further progress in R&D. Even the vast resources of the NMTLI would not be of much help if it was spread too thin with there being too diverse an approach to investment.

 This is why it is pivotal that the resources be centralized into certain high potential areas. This is to ensure the creation of quality publications, useful IPR, and of course smart cutting-edge inventions. 

This is the logic behind the possible plan to set up ‘NMITLI Innovation Centres’ in PPP mode for a continuous sustained push in some specific areas, for example, Photovoltaics, Fuel Cells, White LEDs, Industrial Enzymes, Medical Implants, Vaccine development, Seed Development, etc.

Ideally, these centres would be set up in an identified institution of repute or independently for that very purpose. These centres of course will have to be specialized in that specific area. Also, there is a need for a structured incentive system to attract and keep hold of talented inventors and scientists to ensure that these projects come to fruition.

5. Support to post NMITLI projects

In spite of the commendable R&D advancements, the technologies and products developed in the laboratory are not able to effectively penetrate the market due to a lack of what is commonly dubbed the ‘last mile approach’. Basically, companies under the ambit of this scheme need the CSIR’s added support to package, distribute, and market their goods, which is essentially making them commercially attractive to buyers, beyond their obvious function. This is the basic logic behind the proposal of the concept of ‘Post-NMITLI’ which essentially acts to make sure that the objective of providing financial and technical assistance for pre-commercialization related activities such as scale-up, pilot plants, field trials, market seeding of products, market surveys, etc are fulfilled. Other forms of support include soft loans to help guide them to the finish line.

6. Acquisition of early-stage relevant knowledge / IP for portfolio building

In the present day, ideas like External ideas/leads / IP acquisition and other things are all assuming greater significance in the market innovation chain. The prevalence of a sizable number of unburdened IP (being developed in a number of l laboratories globally) is providing a stimulus to this approach. Many nations around the world are striving to take advantage of the diversity of ideas at display in various parts of the world and integrate them with their own unique ideas to bring out novel products/processes to further push the global competitive outlook. Given that the NMITLI aims to provide Technological Leadership to the Indian industry, it is crucial for NMITLI to adopt similar strategies and practices to achieve its objectives. However, effective due diligence and screening are necessary for this process as well.

7. Crossing the boundaries

In recent times, there is a growing consensus among industry leaders that to exert dominance in niche areas, excessive reliance on internal expertise and internal capabilities may not be quite adequate, especially in the long run. That is, to achieve the target of global leadership, it would be helpful to broaden the existing program in place by bringing in international partnerships and expertise to cover for whatever natural gaps India may have. Said International expertise may take the form of:

(i) the expert guidance of international experts at various phases of project development and implementation.

(ii) Integrating international companies for product/technology development and marketing at a global scale.

(iii) Working with research institutions and/or CROs across the globe where Indian expertise needs outside complementation. Essentially, the NMITLI seeks to draw upon or outsource expertise, wherever it is available at a global level for profitable rates. The proposal would in essence involve India having to relax the existing norms that Indian institutions and companies can only be in partnership with the NMITLI. That is they can form effective strategic partnerships with those abroad who have similar research interests and goals as them.

Conclusion

In short, the NMITLI is a largely positive initiative, with a lot of potential remaining to be tapped into. If the NMITLI expands in all of its proposed areas, the program will continue to experience the same success if not more. The only area of concern is the increasing number of loan defaulters, it is crucial that adequate provisions be put in place to effectively deal with sick and underperforming firms who have availed of this scheme. Also, it is important that these firms be detected before they start failing noticeably so as to preserve the reputation and credibility of the program.

References

  1. https://www.gktoday.in/gk/recent-achievements-of-csir/
  2. https://www.manifestias.com/2019/10/18/new-india-millennium-indian-technology-leadership-initiative/
  3. https://www.csir.res.in/sites/default/files/NMITLI%20Information%20in%20brief.pdf
  4. https://www.csir.res.in/nmitli

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