A Technology Entrepreneur with an Academic Core
KOCHI: Dr. Sreekumar R, Director, Delgado Coating & Solutions Pvt. Ltd. and a hardware startup entrepreneur from Kerala, recently made headlines when India’s prestigious Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) approached him to build and supply Ultrasonic Spray Coater. But what really went unnoticed were his efforts and perseverance to become a successful entrepreneur after completing PhD. Many PhD holders may not be able to work in a field which is related to the topic he or she had chosen for their research due to certain compulsions of life or peculiarity of their background. But, for Dr. Sreekumar, who is also a post-doctoral fellow at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), this was not the case. His passion to become a technology entrepreneur in an area which was somewhat connected to his academic work helped him succeed as an inventor.
Dr. Sreekumar’s passion to become a technology entrepreneur in an area which was connected to his academic work helped him succeed as an inventor
“DRDO’s priority was to encourage manufacturers from India. I only knew that the technology would be used for biomedical application. The coater we developed using the technology would be used for coating clothes, goggles and other apparels of soldiers with nano particles,” he says.
Delgado Coating and Technology Solutions, incubated at Maker Village, has already supplied an instrument to the DRDO and, if it is proved successful after trial run, Delgado would be required to provide more such instruments.
However, the purchase order was formally handed over by Dr. Ajay Kumar IAS, Secretary, Defence Production, Government of India to Dr. Sreekumar at the recently-held Hardtech '19 conference in Kochi. The technology Delgado developed is used in solar cells as transparent electrode, touch-screen devices (mobiles), flat-panel displays, OLEDs, energy-saving smart windows, nanocoating and bio-medical coatings over needles and surgical stents.
The ‘Advanced Spray Coater’ can help slash the production cost by 30 per cent compared to the present technology used by other countries.There are many PhD holders who land lucrative jobs and there are many who do not, too. But Sreekumar considered himself as someone who was not able to secure a ‘meaningful job’ despite his high educational qualification. But he was not ready to settle for whatever he had and moved forward with determination to find his domain where he could innovate and create.
“PhD holders are often seen hell-bent on landing a job immediately after securing the doctorate. Sadly, they find jobs which have nothing to do with research and development most of the time,” says Sreekumar. Majority of PhD holders prefer to take up teaching as a career and only a handful of them would enter the realm of industry, he adds.
He says these PhD holders enter teaching job after paying huge sums of money as ‘bribe’ to private aided colleges. “That is an open secret,” Sreekumar says. “Some of them want to land easy and high-paying jobs and don’t really want to continue their research,” he adds.
University faculties all over Kerala are doing their level best to bring out quality research results. But according to Dr. Sreekumar, the disparities in the funding of research projects stall the progress of work in research institutes. “Large sums of funds are mostly channelized to premier research institutes like IITs and others in the country. Universities and colleges also have potential research facilities but they get only a small share as funding. And with that no meaningful research will happen. Research scholars will only try to join the premier research institutes. On the other hand, there are some good researches happening in our universities but they are not coming to limelight. One reason for that is such institutions lack the equipment needed for research and students will have to depend on high-end institutions for doing research. For example, if a repair needs to be done on a Rs.20-lakh equipment and it requires Rs. 2 lakh to repair it, most of these institutions/universities will not be able to carry out the repair work as they can’t afford to spend even a meagre Rs. 20,000,” he says.
The great asymmetry in funding by the Union Government proves the observations made by Dr. Sreekumar. According to data tabled by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in Parliament in 2018, 26.96 per cent of the total funds has gone to IITs which have just 1.18 per cent of the students; 17.99 per cent has gone to NITs where 1.37 per cent of the students study; IIMs which open their gates to only 0.12 per cent of the students, received 3.35 per cent while 2.28 per cent of the budget has gone to the IIITs, where 0.05 per cent students study. That means, close to 50 per cent of the total Central Government grants have gone to institutions like IITs, NITs, IIMS and IISERs where just 2.75 per cent of students study. On the other hand, close to 97 per cent of the remaining students go to more than 850-plus higher education institutions in the country.
“Funds will flow to colleges and institutions only if there is a change in the government strategies and policies,” Dr. Sreekumar says.
The idea to setup Delgado dawned on Dr. Sreekumar some 12 years back. But he was not able to do anything to materialise his dream as his hands were tied due to a number of reasons. But now, he says, “there is no need for huge amounts of money to evolve a concept and realise it.” He urges startups to get incubated at institutions like Maker Village in Kochi or approach banks which issue soft loans to overcome the financial difficulties in the initial phase.
However, he is not very impressed by the role played by financial institutions like Kerala Financial Corporation (KFC) in this regard. Last year, under the leadership of an economist, the Corporation had announced a number of handholding credit systems to give a boost to the startups in Kerala. But Dr. Sreekumar feels that the schemes are delayed and yet to help the startups in Kerala.
“KFC’s scheme to help startups on the basis of purchase order is really sloppy. When we received the purchase order, we were allotted only 90 days to supply the product. KFC, on the other hand, informed us that it would require three to four months to process the loan request. KFC thus comes across as an institution which is not dependable as of now,” Dr. Sreekumar says.
What is more ironical is that Dr. Sreekumar has committed to supply the products to DRDO by having his personal assets mortgaged. As far as the risk factor is concerned, especially considering that Dr. Sreekumar is far above the mean age of startup promoters in Kerala, he feels that it is never too late to start. “I take inspiration from those multi-billion dollar entrepreneurs who started very late,” he exudes confidence.