Business unicorns and Academic Research

By: Dr. Aneela Afzal

A big idea can change the fate of a whole nation. Tata Consulting Service changed the course of India’s progress, so did Samsung for Korea and Foxconn for China. But who is to brew this big idea and where? Universities are the most fertile grounds to generate ideas as they have in-depth expertise and specialisation in one sector but at the same time are multi-disciplinary where conditions are ripe to exchange the ideas among disciplines. Students are young, energetic, inquisitive and enthusiastic. So, it’s not a surprise that Apple, Google, Xerox and HP are all conceived at Stanford University and implemented in its Business Park. Internet was invented in Oxford University and Webcam in Cambridge. Even today, businesses prefer to work in close proximity with universities to take advantage of their Research and Development. Among other rivalries, one of the biggest rivalries between Oxford and Cambridge is that who takes lead in the volume of commercialisation of technology developed at these universities. Such commercialisation not only serves community in its true form by introducing new products and services but also creates jobs, pays taxes and helps increase influence of these governments in other economies.

So where is Pakistan and its universities standing in development and commercialisation of Technology? Probably nowhere; despite fertile grounds and ripe conditions why are Pakistani universities unable to deliver. It’s simply because government expected universities to efficiently churn out graduates. In a bid to gain so-called efficiency, universities shirked from their core job of Research and Development; they resorted to inducting self-financing students introducing more commercially viable programs.

An imperceptible but constant wave has been generated recently where Research and Development was re-introduced as one of the most important functions of universities if not the most important one. For instance recently, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi was awarded with Rs. 1.4 billion from Public Sector Development Program for its hard-core research and commercialisation of ensuing technology program. The project will established National Centre for Industrial Biotechnology. Federal Government deserves kudos for realising potential of this sector in industrial ecosystem of the country and approving it in the wake of combatting toughest economic challenge of recent times in the form of COVID-19. Funding for such Research and Development programs should be a key highlight of every PSDP. University management also deserves laurels in their bid to transform the university and tread on a new path to discovery by pioneering world class Research and Development.