(11 Aug 2018) Convocation address, Dept of Chem Engg, IIT-Bombay

Convocation address at the Department of Chemical Engineering,  IIT Bombay, by Dr V Premnath on 11 August 2018.

Good afternoon everybody. Good afternoon to the IIT-B Chemical Engineering family!

Class of 2018: Congratulations to you and your families!

To those who have done very well in class: Congratulations. You have excelled and definitely demonstrated consistent and focused hard work. May you keep shining in your endeavors and may you make wise choices.

To those who have NOT done so well in class: Nothing to worry. Nothing is lost. Some flowers blossom a little later in the season. I can tell you that some very successful classmates from my batch ended the IIT-B journey as 5/6/7 pointers.

To all: The conclusion of your IIT degree just marks the beginning of a much longer journey. Do not stop to relax now. Do not feel satiated and satisfied. Make wise choices for your future and pursue your dreams.

The expectations (from various quarters) from you will be high. There will be pressure to conform to the “ideal” of what an IITian is expected to do. People may want to gauge you on a scale of Return on Investment.  People may want to compare your salaries, your car, your home, your MNC tag and your trophies!  My advise to you would be to ignore all that!  Focus on that one thing which you will be happy pursuing day and night without feeling tired! That one thing that will make you happy, give you satisfaction and where you can be truly excellent.

All of you are IITians! I have always wondered, what, if anything, distinguishes us as IIT-Bombay alumni.  We are all probably fairly bright. We are capable of incredible hard work when needed.  But most importantly, we are all usually brimming with a quiet confidence nurtured by the stunning successes of the many people who have walked these corridors over years. That confidence makes us cocky! And that is a good thing. That confidence makes us believe that we can do the impossible. That confidence inspires us to pursue dreams. That confidence makes us set the bar high for ourselves. I want each of you to not let go that confidence!  Find your mission in life and pursue it irrespective of the hardships you face.

I graduated from this very department almost 25 years ago. That is a long time to gather some lessons.  I want to share some selected lessons with you today.

  1. This graduation marks a beginning and not an end. Give yourself a mission for your life, chart your course, have a plan and you will be surprised how much success and joy you will see over time.
  2. Till now, your life has been fairly structured. The education system set down the rails and you ran on the rails. You will be shortly seeing the rails disappear. You will have to shape your own course and more importantly make important choices. Choose strategically and not merely opportunistically.
  3. Do not follow the crowd and do not always sway to the winds. Each of you is unique, then how can your path not be unique?  Seek that which you are so passionate about that you will not stop for rest or sleep while pursuing it continuously.
  4. Pursue excellence and not jobs. If you are the best in the world in something, the whole world will chase you to give you jobs.  Excellence is not just about scale, numbers, scores, ratings, indices etc. Remember that you only have to do one piece of world beating work to win a Nobel prize.
  5. Always be a learner! Know your limitations. Understand that in many fields India is still quite far behind in the level of expertise. Go abroad to learn from the very best you can find. Do not get satiated with your IIT degree!
  6. It is important to contribute to this country that has made you what you are.  Abraham Lincoln once asked “what good is it to have lived and not left your country any better”.
  7. India has made enormous progress in the last 70+ years. We can hold our head high in the comity of Nations.  Despite all its problems, it is clear that India will be the poster child of growth in the coming decades. There will be immense and unique opportunity for many of you to solve real world problems and thus create value for society. I hope many of you will see the promising Land of the Golden Sparrow and an Emerging Phoenix in front of you and NOT a Sinking Ship.  I also hope many of you will contribute to India’s rise and success while also ensuring your own success.
  8. It is okay to aspire to be rich! Wealth allows you freedom to pursue your ideas and dreams.  But be careful that you do not get trapped into becoming a slave of money.
  9. It is okay to aspire to be powerful but remember to exercise power to serve a larger, inclusive and generous purpose.
  10. My last piece of advice — Be proud to have been trained as chemical engineers!  Chemical engineers are taught to be masters of matter and transformations. As chemical engineers, we are the most versatile of engineers. As chemical engineers, we can contribute to the largest number of industries and the most pressing problems of the world be it health, energy, environment, food, nutrition, water etc etc. It is only Chemical Engineers who have the privilege to dabble in and apply all natural sciences – chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics. As chemical engineers, we can, in principle, wield enormous power — see how the Shale Gas revolution in the US has entirely changed the world politics by making US the largest gasoline producer in the world. As chemical engineers, we can understand many more industries and most importantly are ideally positioned for spotting future opportunities. That means that we hold enormous potential to build new industries and create wealth for society.  Chemical engineers and technologists have pioneered various industries — pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices, conventional energy, alternative energy, nuclear power, energy storage, environment, waste management, materials, water, FMCG, food, dairy etc. It should not be surprising that chemical engineers today hold the position of Principal Scientific Advisor to the PM, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Chairman and MD of the largest company in India and the Director of the number one IIT of the country. Chemical engineers have made important National contributions and have been recognized by Padma Vibhushans – including Homi Sethna, MM Sharma, Raghunath Mashelkar. But beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.  If you insist on regretting not making it to a higher JEE rank, nobody can help you. Irrespective of whether you remain in the chemical engineering profession or not, this training and community will be an asset for you. Embrace it. Be proud. And make the most of it.

I want to thank Prof Gudi for giving me this honor and opportunity to speak to you today. He has asked me to speak on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, which I will do now. It is my view that technology innovation and entrepreneurship is going to shape India’s rise is the coming years — a rise, which I am convinced, will be the hallmark of the next 100 years! All of you will have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride this wave. It is time to be prepared and ready.

What is technology? Technology is merely the act of providing a solution to a problem. A technology with key novel ideas and elements is an invention. And when such a technology is taken through progressive stages of de-risking and translation to finally a product or service in use, you have an innovation.

So, when Bob Langer (a chemical engineer who is referred to as the Edison of Medicine and is probably one of the most heavily decorated chemical engineers of all times, pioneered the field of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering and founder of companies worth billions) noticed a pressing health care need, he looked for solutions and then came up with new inventions that are today in use — and hence are considered a technology innovation that changed the world.  Notice that you have to be passionate and deeply concerned about problems in order to start work on them or to recognize a solution for them when you come across them. Notice that you cannot always be only focused on “solving” (which is what we are trained to do in school, for JEE, IITs etc or any other exam focused activity), but have to explore, seek out and work on new problems that matter – something very different from what you have done so far as students.  Notice also that people who come up with the best inventions often have new and unique insights into the problem (ex: new pathways causing disease) and/or are developing new materials, methods and techniques to fill up the solvers’ toolkit; so you have to be in touch with the “new” and be open –minded.  Notice also that inventions do not happen unless a problem and solution meet each other — and that connect (so to say, connecting the dots as Steve Jobs said!) is the art of an inventor and technology developers.  But stopping there is not enough — you have to take it all the way! Remember that the inventions you remember today are the ones that went all the way and were put into use. You remember Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell today because of their inventions that found extensive use.  An innovator cannot afford to say that his/her job stopped with inventing — well, the job isn’t over till the problem is solved. And it is my firm belief that as Chemical Engineers you have an unparalleled opportunity to excel in the innovation process. I am of the opinion that Chemical Engineers are ideally suited to “connecting the dots” (you need versatility for that) and are perfect for the translation process and journey to market!  You are all trained in chemical engineering but remember that your degree is in Technology!

Let me turn your attention to entrepreneurship now! Entrepreneurship is all about creating a sustainable and scalable “engine” that will create value for end users, who acknowledge the value that they are receiving and hence pay for it, thereby creating a virtuous circle for sustenance and growth.  What distinguishes entrepreneurship and makes it interesting is the following: Very often you have an entrepreneurial team that is seized of an opportunity which is futuristic — one that the team is convinced about but most of the world probably laughs at or thinks it is too small to merit attention and resources. If the opportunity pans out, the team will have an incredible story of growth and scaling. The team is ambitious and looking at an opportunity that needs resources far beyond what is at their immediate disposal — and so the teams needs to communicate their vision and arrange resources.  The team also needs to have a built in innovation capacity to develop the ideas continuously and respond to the emerging challenges and opportunities in a creative and timely manner. I want you to notice a few things here:

  • The entrepreneur needs to be able to spot an opportunity well before others and be convinced enough to pursue it. For scientists and engineers, that ability to spot an opportunity early comes from their ability to understand where science and technology is headed. You as technologists and engineers have a natural advantage in “technology foresight”.  Nurture your technology roots.
  • For all entrepreneurs, the initial journey is very lonely. You are often the only believer! Have courage. Draw upon that “confidence” and “cockiness” that I mentioned IITians seem to have.  Remember that if others (especially those with a lot of money or established businesses) were all chasing the same opportunity, you would not have the opportunity to pursue it yourself in that crowd — so it is a God sent opportunity for you. Find fellow believers and supportive home bases  (incidentally, I run one of them in Pune called Venture Center)!
  • In fact, interestingly, most entrepreneurs start on their journeys pursuing a passion or to give purpose to their life fully realizing that while money is essential to the story, it is only a by-product of a happy ending. If money was the central focus, most people would either not get started at all with the daring ideas (that look small initially) and/or give up at the first disappointment in their journey.
  • What an incredible opportunity that entrepreneurship presents to you? Your ideas. Your vision. Your convictions. You are rallying the world to support your cause and direct resources to that. Your sweat and sacrifices directed at what you are passionate about – something meaningful and useful. And finally you would learn and may be succeed. What an exciting journey!
  • You will notice that innovation and entrepreneurship seem to be close cousins. That is true. They are. Both aim at solving problems.  In fact, entrepreneurship is the vehicle that mobilizes resources to deliver innovations.
  • The journey of entrepreneurship draws upon so much more than just your formal education. You will need to be resourceful. And this where you will find all your experiences in life and at IIT very valuable — your friends, you alumni network, your professors, what you learnt or who you met at PAF, E-Summit, Mood Indigo, Inter IIT or Night Outs.
  • One particular type of entrepreneurship that I am very passionate about is social entrepreneurship! We are indeed lucky to have exemplary case studies in social entrepreneurship in India.  To me the benchmark for social entrepreneurship is Amul and Dr Kurien. It is impressive to see the scale and scope of impact Amul has had while also being very profitable. Social entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship (sustainable and scalable) directed towards socially important needs. These ventures have multiple bottom lines – not merely profits but social and environmental impact. These ventures pursue topics that appeal to your humanity and therefore attract a lot of good will (which the entrepreneur needs to leverage to raise support and resources).  Many (but not all) social enterprises are based on frugal innovation and are inclusive in nature (not exclusive). As Dr Mashelkar says it strives for “More for less for many”!

There is so much more I would like to say to you all. But today is not the time and place. In conclusion, I commend to you a life pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship, while drawing upon the spirit and legacy of chemical engineering!

Thanks to Prof Gudi for inviting me. Thanks to all of you for your patient listening.

Congratulations to all of you.

I wish you good luck and all success.