Boldness has genius, power and magic.
Updated: Jan 7
BITS Pilani 2016 Convocation Address,
July 24th 2016
Thank you Chancellor Shri K M Birla, Vice-Chancellor Professor Souvik Bhattacharya, BITS Board of Governors and the BITS community for according me the great honour of addressing the class of 2016. I recall the last time I was up on this stage at my alma mater BITS Pilani. This was as a student 41 years ago in 1975 as an amateur actor in a play staged by the drama club. My hearty congratulations to the graduating students, the distinguished faculty and the proud family members who have supported their loved ones in achieving excellence in education from a young age to successful graduation from Pilani which stands high among the list of India’s finest universities.
It is the vision of the Birla family starting with GD Babu that has guided this University from its founding, on the fringes of the Rajasthani desert, more than five decades ago to being placed ninth in the list of India’s leading universities for the year 2016. This achievement is singular because BITS Pilani is the only private institution amongst the top ten universities in a ranking framework created by a public agency, i.e., the National Institutional Ranking Framework of the MHRD, Govt. of India. This achievement is the cumulative effort of dozens of university administrators, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students across your three national campuses at Pilani, Goa and Hyderabad as well as your international campus at Dubai.
There is a massive wave of entrepreneurial energy coursing through the nation’s arteries. If we could connect this enthusiasm with the excellence in basic and applied research at our higher educational institutions, the possibility of a new growth engine that has more enduring value to society seems within reach. This needs a new alignment around the theme of “translational research” – a concept that is easy to describe but hard to execute as it disturbs the natural order. In my mind, BITS should be projected as an example by agencies such as the NITI Aayog in transforming India through translational impact. Industry engagement is one of the cornerstones of the educational philosophy of BITS Pilani exemplified by the Practice School, and the Work Integrated Learning Programmes which are outstanding models of industry-academia cooperation.
As I look at you, the graduating class of 2016 of BITS-Pilani, I am both awestruck and nervous. I am awestruck because you represent such an awesome force of nature, a large auditorium full of exceedingly bright, well-educated and highly talented young scientists and engineers. Many of you will become leaders and will also have a great impact through your chosen careers in the industry as well as on society in all corners of the country and across the world. You will doubtless make your families and your alma mater proud with your creativity and success. I have only one simple piece of advice.
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now." These lines are from the epic play “Faust” written by the German writer von Goethe who goes on to say that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too - भाग्य बहादुर का साथ देता है| (Fortune favours the brave).
If I have had some success in my academic and professional endeavours it has been because of the power of commitment and perseverance.
As a student at BITS- from 1970-1975, I had not only the good fortune of the tutelage of the inspiring faculty of BITS , but was also exposed to great intellectual minds from across the world. In our final year, the legendary director of BITS, Dr Chittaranjan Mitra, had invited Dr Stafford Beer to visit and give a few lectures about Operational Research and his adventures in Chile as a technical advisor to Salvador Allende. I was enthralled by Beer's descriptions of the field of "cybernetics" and its application to real world systems. I had found my academic passion - my segue into a career in research.
After getting a master’s degree in engineering systems at UCLA, I opted to do a PhD in Operations Research at MIT. My guru and friend Professor Jeremy F Shapiro of MIT was a special man. Jerry taught me more than anyone else how to be courageous and bold in research. He was never one to be unduly impressed by "reigning paradigms" - mutual admiration clubs trapped in cul-de-sacs of specialization. If my career has taken on such a variety of experiences, it is because of Jerry's encouragement to seek them.
In years to come, many of you will also realize and value how much you have learned and benefitted from your Gurus at BITS. In 2009, my batch of 1975 decided to honor our faculty by creating the BITS 75 Charitable Trust. From this endowment, we have honoured over 27 of our BITS gurus through a Guru Dakshina program. As recently as this January, Professors Kundu, Arora, Chaturvedi and Radhakrishnan were honoured here on campus by our batch. I do hope the graduating class of 2016 will keep such traditions going.
I began by saying that I am also nervous. Why am I nervous? I am nervous because you have such enormous responsibilities in the days ahead. India is blessed with what we have been calling a “demographic dividend” – a large pool of young people entering the workforce relative to much of the developed world which is ageing rapidly. This also represents an urgent need for disruptive change; that bold reforms are the order of the day. India needs to generate 115 million non-farming jobs over the next decade, to gainfully employ its workforce and reap its “demographic dividend”.
Given this context, encouraging and promoting self-employment as a career option for young people will be of highest importance. The culture of entrepreneurship should be inclusive and focus on a variety of enterprises, such as young and innovative technology firms, upcoming manufacturing businesses and rural innovator companies. Entrepreneurs should also be encouraged to help solve pressing socio-economic problems. As Peter Drucker says, entrepreneurs create something new, something different; they change or transmute values. This scale of employment can only be created by entrepreneurship.
The drumbeat on innovation and entrepreneurship has been rolling for over a decade in India. There are many gurus writing, speaking and extolling the virtues of innovation. Grassroots innovators, business innovators, incubators, accelerators and entrepreneurs are now at every corner-in both urban and rural India. Our country now officially has the world’s second largest collection of entrepreneurs. A google search on “entrepreneur, founder” in a 5km radius around Koramangala in Bangalore yields a hit of 9,662 LinkedIn sites. While etymologists may argue that the word “entrepreneur” strictly has French and Latin origins, I am tempted to believe that it may have derived from the Sanskrit “Anthah-Prerna” or “self-motivated”.
In a small way, our batch of 1975 has also tried to seed and mentor entrepreneurship in our BITS campuses. Two startups that have benefitted and are flourishing are Phyzok in e-learning and Sattva in the medical device space. Phyzok is already profitable and has won many awards, and Sattva was selected by PMO to make a presentation in the presence of the PM in Silicon Valley early this year.
There is a dire need to find financially viable solutions for the challenges of the disenfranchised. This will be of paramount importance, so as to ensure long-term social and economic stability. India needs a model that pulls along the 350-400 million people that currently reside outside mainstream society. Social inclusion not only fulfils higher altruistic purposes, but can also be financially viable. Furthermore, measures taken to enhance social inclusion would inevitably result in the opening up of a significant new market. We are at an inflection point in history where Science and Technology can play an extraordinary role in transforming our society and our country. It is not very different from what some nations including the US faced at the end of World War II just as India became independent. Let us take a look at the US at that stage.
President Roosevelt had challenged Professor Vannevar Bush, the director of the office of scientific research and development to make a plan for the post war period and the latter did just that based on the classical declaration “Science the endless frontier” that he penned in July 1945. “Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress. Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world."
India, impoverished by colonial rule for over two centuries also made deliberate choices as a free nation to leverage science and technology to regain its lost glory. And naturally it has succeeded in some quarters and not in others. After close to seven decades we have witnessed a few examples of science driven innovation that have been quite noteworthy. The list below is representative:
- In agriculture, we have moved from a status of massive famines to self sufficiency in gross output albeit with challenges in storage and equitable distribution of supplies.
- In automobile manufacturing we moved from archaic hand-me-down models from Europe to the ability to design, manufacture and export electric sedans, MUVs, mini-Vans, Farm Tractors, …
- Design and manufacture electronic voting machines and successfully scale to run the world’s largest democratic elections electronically.
- Formulate and manufacture in the world’s fourth largest (by volume) production facilities of pharmaceutical therapeutics.
- We are the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines with approximately 33% market share.
- A software development and software enabled services – scaled to a 150B$ industry
- Demonstrated ability to develop indigenous missile and rocket science, launch satellite and space missions.
After WWII, Professor Vannevar Bush returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts to guide both MIT and Raytheon for a couple of decades. According to the Kauffman Foundation report in 2009, MIT alumni founded companies generated over two trillion US dollars in revenue a year (the 11th largest economy, when viewed as the GDP of a nation) and provided gainful employment to over 3.3 million people. We should similarly assess the impact of enterprise driven by BITS alumni and while the numbers may be modest in comparison to begin with, it would be a valuable metric to track as a measure of social impact.
I circle back to the issue of leadership and while congratulating you once again for your brilliant performances as young graduates of this great campus, exhort you to become someone whose actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. And remember whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it now. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Professor Vijay Chandru
Vijay Chandru (PhD, MIT ‘82) is an academic turned entrepreneur. His academic career in data science spanned over two decades as a professor of computational mathematics first at Purdue University and then Indian Institute of Science. He is a fellow of the national academies of science and engineering in India and the winner of the Presidents Medal of INFORMS in 2006.
A Technology Pioneer of the World Economic Forum since 2006, Professor Chandru has been on the global advisory council for the future of healthcare at WEF for 2014-2016. Professor Chandru is a founder and former Honorary President of ABLE (the apex body for the biotechnology industry in India) from 2009-2012 and continues as a special invitee to the executive council. He serves on the vision groups for biotechnology, Science & Technology and as a member of the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology
As an entrepreneur, Vijay leads the new generation healthcare company Strand Life Sciences. Since 2007, Strand has been a global leader in bioinformatics products licensed to over 2000 research labs and hospitals worldwide. With a team of over 200 high calibre scientists, Strand is now leading the charge in precision medicine in India with over 300 referring hospitals and clinics. Strand has the only CAP and NABL accredited labs for clinical genomics using NGS technologies in South Asia helping physicians diagnose germline risks of familial disease and decision support for clinical delivery of individualized medicine.