The ESDM industry and the IoT space provide strong opportunities for India to become a value-added product creation hub in the globe. But for that, we need to enhance our capacity of solving complex challenges with technology and designing those solutions from within our country. During a visit to CSIR-CEERI, Pilani, to get a glimpse of their in-house low-cost fab production facility, Paromik Chakraborty of Electronics For You caught up with Professor Santanu Chaudhury, then director at CSIR-CEERI Pilani, (and currently, director at IIT Jodhpur), to understand how setups like these can kick-start India’s domestic production ecosystem.
Q. Where do India’s ESDM and IoT ecosystems stand and what is the need of the hour to boost them?
A. Surveys are predicting a huge market for IoT products globally, exceeding $40 billion USD. But in India, excluding the startup space, not much is happening especially in terms of developing the hardware. Most of the companies are bringing the chips, which bring the actual value, from outside, adding software on top and creating the systems. If this trend continues, it will eventually result in electronics import costs higher than our oil imports, 2024 onwards. We urgently need the capability to make hardware here. There needs to be a judicious mix of what hardware we can build ourselves, and what hardware we may need to import, and a full-proof planning of how that will lead to value-added ESDM products.
Q. Is The Ecosystem Generating Enough Valuable IP At The Moment?
A. Many startups have come up with the fabless IP design business model. However, the fabless IP culture has to expand into more challenging technological design domains. R&D labs in India are working on innovative IPs, which need to be taken up by these fabless players for product creation, so that the technologies can be sold and monetised as useful products. The infrastructure for that fabless design has to be strongly established. The fabless IP should be a huge stress point for the ESDM sector to grow.
Q. How Can This Be Realised?
A. We need the capability to create customised sensors, readout circuitry and other components domestically. This does not require a very high-end fab manufacturing facility, actually. The government can start with setting up four low cost fab production facilities across the country. National research labs (like CEERI) should be given the responsibility to maintain and run the facilities. SMEs and startups can make use of these facilities for creating their products and components domestically. This will propel the growth of industries in this space. The Indian ESDM industry can actively cater to the needs of customised IoT systems for a variety of industries.
Another important growth area is the amalgamation of AI and hardware — which is called embedded ML. Embedded ML, mixed with a number of IoT and 5G applications, has huge scope – given the entire 5G use case verticals applicable in India. Those ML applications will be based on India-specific datasets – which means these will lead to solutions tailor-made for Indian conditions.
On the other hand, if these solutions are procured from multinationals, which are usually designed based on foreign datasets, we will not only lose the chance of creating our own IP, but will also be losing our main resource for creating practical solutions meant for our conditions.
Q. How deep have National Research Institutions, like CEERI, delved in this context?
A. Academic institutions and R&D labs are doing a lot of progress. For instance, we at CEERI are working on designing a range of biosensor- and nanobiosensor-based solutions in the healthcare space. These products will be able to detect diseases common in India or third world nations – like dengue, typhoid etc. The idea is to develop cost-effective solutions for quick diagnostics, that can be easily carried to a village and a user of low skill level can use it.
There are number of laboratories in India, including CEERI, where sensors as well as IoT systems built with these sensors are being developed from scratch, not bought. Many startups today claim that they are ‘making’ the sensors. They are essentially purchasing the sensors from outside and packaging them in India. The research institutions are trying to change that scenario. They have also got their proprietary designs. This can be popularised if we have low cost fab manufacturing facilities in the country.
Additionally, in Delhi, we have also set up a high end GPU based facility for machine learning. Startups can use this facility for training their machine learning system engines using the resources available, before placing in their embedded platforms. As a result, they need not go to private multinational firms like Amazon or Google and hand them their data for the ML training. They can do it in the country itself, with their own discretion. Startups should start using this to further secure their IPs.
Q. Can you give us a bit more insight into the low-cost fab facilities?
A. There is a concept called Infrastructure-less Fabs facility or Fab-in-a-box. Now, this cost-effective setup cannot be used to develop something using 20 nanometer technology. But it will be sufficient for ICs using one micron technology. This will allow us to have purely India-produced products in IOT space which can be put into the market at low cost and good quality, whenever there is a demand. These fabs will enable us to compete in the global market.
We have created know-how for sensors, readout circuitry, processor design, SoC design, AI and ML techniques and more. It is important to translate these know-hows into products and taken to the market. For that, a partnership between the labs and the industry has to be created. That is where a bottleneck lies at the moment.
Q. What does it take for IoT players to create their own IP?
A. Creating IP in IoT space depends on what challenge you are willing to solve. Now, if a company plans to start a business for making generic SoCs for IoT, I do not think there is much window available for business there, because it is a crowded space. The novelty will lie in the design of application linked processing units.
For example, one can develop processing unit for an e-nose, in which the ML algorithms have to run with strict time constraints of a few milliseconds. Also, IoT units targeted for smart water grid management will be interesting. A specific case would be an IoT unit which will have a real-time vibration monitoring application to detect leakage within a time bound. For fog-computing application we can have a hardware-software integrated model which can be programmed on-the-fly. There is enough opportunities for specialised IPs in the IoT domain.
Q. Which application areas will have the highest business opportunities in the coming years?
A. IoT and electronics have great scope in agriculture and food processing. But their practical intervention in these fields is almost nil, especially in food processing. Applications like post harvest loss reduction, food adulteration detection, precision agriculture appliances can significant business opportunities. Other spaces include embedded AI applications, healthcare and medical electronics fields. The mobile is all set to take the role of a healthcare device. Smart city applications like transportation will also find great application. In three years time, we will have connected cars, and with 5G coming in, there are large prospects there.
Civil construction monitoring is also important. Automation in the construction industry has been introduced. But what is more important is real-time structural health monitoring. This is important following recent flyover and bridge collapses in the country. We are, in fact, working on some projects for sensor based predictive analytics of civil structures. In fact, we are trying to create a Digital Twins lab, where we can create digital copies of the actual structure and get sensor data directly for doing a predictive maintenance in real time. These can also be applied for machines, pipeline maintenance etc.. Even AR and VR will find great demand– including education, entertainment as well as maintenance.
Q. What more can the government do to propel the startup ecosystem and ESDM environment?
A. The government has to make well-planned, specific, directed interventions of appropriate strength to promote the startup ecosystem. Frequent undirected intervention may backfire. For instance, they can start with setting up four low cost fab production facilities across the country, like we discussed before. These will bring in a momentum to the hardware ecosystem. Subsidies can be an encouragement. It allows companies to bring high quality products to the market at an affordable price tag. But the policies should very well established. The processes must be simplified too.
Q. What is your view India’s startup strength at the moment?
A. India has a lot of genuine creative talent for creating innovative startups. We have to distinguish the real valuable offerings from also runs. There are incubation centres, funds and incentives. But in India, most of us are still not ready to take the risk, as compared to other countries. People who have sufficient funds should be informed enough to know where and how to invest it.
Somehow in India, venture investors and angel investors prefer to play safe. Moreover, the investments come at a more individual level or from foreign investors. Major industry houses do not take part in such investments. Our angel investors, in particular have to be more forward-looking, informed technology visionaries. They must be able to visualise the future of technologies – then only can they invest in something that will create an IP and disruptive products.
Unfortunately, many people end up investing in the same type of business for the sake of safety, for example, the e-commerce. The tragedy is, other than the first movers in these businesses, no one has to take up any genuine technology challenge. The funds should be invested in ideas which would leverage on the risks of new technologies, to create a disruption – not only for the profit.
Q. Tell us about your filtration criteria for selecting startups for your Incubation centre at Jaipur.
A. Any start-up in the broad domain of electronics can apply for incubation. The main filtration is done based on our evaluation of the strength of product idea and originality of the business model being presented. We plan to organise regular workshops to help start-ups develop relevant skill set. We would like startups to come up with unique ideas with sufficient technology barrier so that those ideas cannot be easily replicated. It is important to get registered in the Startup India program, procure benefits of GFR and to attract funding going ahead. We are providing all the facilities we have – the scientific know-how as well as fab and characterisation facilities. This, in a way, will also help us to translate our technologies into commercial products. In fact, three of our startups are based on technologies developed by CEERI.
Q. Will you provide any other hand holding, once the startups become market ready?
A. For startups using our technologies, in terms of technology transfer from lab, we will provide at least one year of hand-holding. The main assistance will be through technical know-how support and skill building. We will provide some help in other aspects in specific cases. For example, we are partnering with National Research Development Corporation (of DSIR), where we will support their marketing activities and also provide help in legal matters.