About > The Early Years of TRDDC
 
E C Subbarao

The Early Years of TRDDC

E. C. Subbarao

E. C. Subbarao was the founding executive director of TRDDC, Pune from 1981 to 1999.  A renowned materials scientist and a distinguished academic, he spoke to Shivanand Kanavi about the early years of TRDDC.

What are your recollections of how TRDDC started?
TRDDC started on 8th October 1981, But. Mr. F C Kohli had initiated the groundwork about two years earlier, when I was at IIT, Kanpur.  It was an idea that had long-term implications, and he and I had a number of meetings.  The question we asked ourselves was,  ‘Are we being carried away by an idea or is it a practical proposition?’

How did you decide on the viability of the idea of TRDDC?
We decided to enlist two independent teams of consultants to explore the idea.  One was a three-member University of Waterloo, Ontario team consisting of dr. Archibald Sherbourne, Dr. E L Holmes and Prof. H K Kesavan.  They spoke to people in the industry, CSIR labs and other academic institutions.  The team prepared a report.  This was in 1980.  we also brought in Prof. Norman Dahl, a long-time professor at MIT who co-edited the well-known book, An Introduction to the Mechanics of Solids.  The text book is still studied around the world.  Dahl was the first leader of the Kanpur Indo-American Programme at IIT, Kanpur and later deputy representative of Ford Foundation in New Delhi.  Thus he had very strong links with India.

What was Prof. Dahl’s brief?
We wanted TRDDC to be an organization neither for corporate R&D nor for contract research.  So we asked Dahl to look at what we were thinking about.  Did it make sense?  We suggested a list of ten institutions in the US, of which he took a close look at four – how they had come into existence, what they were doing, how they had survived, what their contribution had been, etc.  Dahl also spoke to a number of companies and government officials in India, and produced a report.

So you had a hunch, and you wanted to check it out?
Yes.  We needed a document that tool all possible inputs. But we had the responsibility of making all the decisions, including the nitty-gritty, And, mind you, we had no parallel for reference, least of all in India.  We did consult others – dr. P K Kelkar, for instance.

What was TRDDC’s mission?
Mr. Tata had made it quite clear that the house of Tata had set up other organizations: TIFR for fundamental research in Mathematics and Physics, the Indian Institute of Science, much earlier, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and so on.  He said there was one more thing he wanted to do—create an institution that would apply science and technology of the benefit of the Indian Industry and people, within a broad framework.  He believed people were the most important raw material in the country.  So we decided to work in information technology because TRDDC was to be part of TCS, and IT services was TCS’s area.  And we interpreted the other part to mean that we should work not just with Tata companies but with a variety of companies, including the public sector.

How did the ‘fusion’ of non-software fields like process engineering, metallurgy and engineering services, and software engineering turn out?
All of us in TRDDC sad in close physical proximity to – literally rubbing shoulders with - -each other.  That’s when intellectual exchange takes place naturally, and ideas from one discipline rub off on another.

How would you describe your interaction with TCS committee?
We sent monthly reports to the TCS committee about core business activities.  That covered most of what we were doing.  Then Mr. Kohli or Mr. Nani Palkhivala, the then chairman of TCS, would ask me to make a brief presentation of what was happening in Pune.  This wasn’t a formal item on the agenda for the committee meeting.

Was the Tata Management involved with developments at TRDDC?
Keenly.  Mr. Tata set the pace and also asked for an oral report.  I remember, in 1985, we—Prof. Kesav Nori, Dr. Alok Bhattacharya, and I – begarn a joint presentation tot the Tata Sons board : Mr. J.R.D. Tata, Mr. Palkhivala, Mr. Darbari Seth and others, about fifteen people in all.  We had planned to take an hour.  Our work for the steel industry was one of the main topics.  I took a couple of minutes.  Then Alok took over and spoke about a genetically engineered diagnostic kit for tuberculosis.  What he had thought would take fifteen minutes took more than forty-five minutes.   When the next presentation started, I whispered to Mr. Palkhivala, who was the then chairman of TCS,’ We intended to take an hour to present four topics.  We’ve barely started the second one, and its close to lunchtime already’.  I decided to drop the last presentation and signaled to the third presenter to cut it short so that the others’ work would at least get mention.  But Mr. Tata jumped up and said “What are you signaling? This stuff is so interesting!”

Corporate R&D managers are often under pressure to get quick returns on investment.  What was it like for you?
TCS has been  committed to research that has clear pay-offs, so we never really felt that pressure, because our software research was aimed at helping TCS grow and we were able to get reasonable funding from sponsors for non-software research also.  For instance, an Indian public sector company once came to us after repeatedly failing to solve a very serious materials science problem.  One of its directors, a Central Government official, suggested they call us. When they came, I told them we could solve the problem but that we would be expensive.  But they said, “ Why don’t you let us figure that out?”  And they paid us in full!

Which of TRDDC’s non-software consulting engagement stand out?
Some, like Tata Steel, provided the labs, furnaces and grinding mills for the work on manufacturing cement from waste materials.  We did our work at their plant.  Sometimes they provided people as well.  We investigated the situation together.  The two sides had lots of dialogue.  This was unlike  what most consultants did.  We always took the view that the client should be part of the solution.  The client and we published case studies and research papers of successful solutions jointly.

There was no tussle for credit, for intellectual property rights, patents?
There was not need for it.

TRDDC has also been involved in policy-making
Some TRDDC people are on very important government committees.  We also have links with some foreign institutions.

How did TRDDC manage to attract top-notch talent despite having a complex mission?
The Tata name is a big asset.  We were also given a tremendous amount of autonomy.  We were created as a division of TCS, but we issued our own appointment letters, fixed our own salaries and fleshed out our own job descriptions. We operated our own bank accounts.  We were authorized to sign strategic contracts even with the Canadian International Development Agency.  We also knew our mission statement would appeal to a certain kind of intellect.  The early staff served as magnets for others.

But TRDDC had humble beginnings
Indeed.  For almost a year at the start, I had only a part-time secretary.  Even when we had crossed the year, I hadn’t found anybody we could hire.  When I told the leadership of TCS, they said, “This place is not being created for today. Its’ being created for the future.  People are its most important input. Take your time.  But get the best people you can. Don’t worry.’  After that we were able to find several very good people.  Some, like Prof. Kesav Nori, had taught at IIT, Kanpur and had been at Carnegie Mellon. He chose to come to TRDDC.  Others were like Pradip, who came to TRDDC from the Department of Atomic Energy.  Still others were professors in universities abroad, who spent their sabbaticals here – Anil Jain of Michigan State, Shyam Nawathe of Georgia Tech, Kesav Pingale of Cornell, for example.

We also took people who did not have PhDs, as long as they were very good. We created opportunities for professional growth for them.  We encouraged them to get their PhDs, gave them leave for course work and to defend their thesis.  There would be two guides, one at the university and the other at TRDDC.  For a research organization, this was exceptional.

Looking back, what were the challenges in setting up TRDDC and making it grow?
Getting first-rate people.  We were to do what would benefit the industry, whether it was TCS or others in the engineering industry. At that time, the engineering industry was not prepared to accept R&D as a driver for innovative solutions.  To convince them to give us a chance was quite a challenge, although now we are perhaps better accepted.
Globalisation hadn’t come then.  Besides, TCS had a low profile, and TRDDC, an even lower profile. We were media-shy.  We never advertised.  Everyone we got, we got by word of mouth.

Earlier TCS was privately held.  Now that it is a listed company, would there be pressure on the kind of work done in R&D from financial analysis?
So long as Engineering services are a part of TCS and innovation is a driver, the company’s stakeholders will buy the fact that R&D must characterize all industry segments. R&D won’t necessarily be quantifiable in financial terms, but its contribution to our band will be indisputable.