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MIT Technology Review

India’s 10-Year Patent Drive

The West begins licensing Indian-born inventions.

September 1, 2006

A decade after India launched an innovate-and-patent campaign, early signs of an Indian technology invasion are evident. Just two examples: a U.S. company has purchased the patent for ­Indian-­designed software that eliminates noise from complex digital data, and fruit growers in California and Turkey have bought a pomegranate deseeder invented by an Indian college dropout.

Illustration by Ken Orvidas

The patent portfolio of 38 publicly funded Indian laboratories has increased from fewer than 30 U.S. patents in 1995 to more than 720 in July of this year – and those patents are beginning to translate into licenses outside India. This growth reflects a dramatic transformation in India’s research culture. For decades, most research conducted within India’s closed economy was aimed at “reverse engineering” – a euphemism for copying technologies. “Without true innovation, we would always lag behind the best,” says Raghunath Mashelkar, director general of the network linking the 38 public labs, known as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR.

After India opened its economy in the early 1990s, foreign products slipped in – from cars to cornflakes. Industries and scientists had to compete. In that changed environment, Mashelkar spearheaded a patent drive and preached a new mantra to scientists: “Patent, publish, and prosper.”

Now most scientists and labs select projects only when they see opportunities to generate intellectual property or acquire patents. Sometimes those opportunities lie in unexpected directions: one patented Indian technology – the digital noise filter – emerged because chemical engineer Bhaskar Kulkarni and his colleagues at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune strayed off their home turf.

India’s patent savvy has also enticed global companies to exploit local Indian research talent and to seek partnerships with CSIR labs. To be sure, the raw patent numbers are quite small; they pale beside the track records of global corporate behemoths like IBM (more than 2,900 patents last year) or Samsung (more than 1,600). But Mashelkar says the CSIR’s labs, despite a fairly meager budget of approximately $330 million, are now garnering more U.S. patents than publicly funded laboratories in countries such as Germany, France, and Japan.

Of course, now that Cisco, Intel, General Electric, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and dozens of other companies have established Indian research centers, some fear that India’s potential intellectual property will increasingly flow to multinational companies. “They’re using Indian IQ to create IP for themselves,” says Mashelkar. “We need to exploit our local IQ to generate IP for ourselves.”

Nor is everyone happy with the tempo of licensing. The CSIR has licensed only 133 patents out of 1,915 granted. “The atmosphere for venture capital in high technology in India is not as good as it is in the United States,” says Ajay Sood, a physicist at the Indian Institute of Science in ­Bangalore. “The process of moving ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace needs to improve.”

But nothing is stopping the automated pomegranate deseeder. Unlike its predecessors, the gadget – designed by Uddhab Bharali, an engineering-­school dropout – does not require water to operate. As a result, “there is no dilution of fruit,” boasts Chinzah Lalmuanzuala, an official at the National Innovation Foundation, an agency trying to promote grassroots inventions.