An alumnus of the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, Dr Nikhil Agarwal is currently the CEO at Foundation for Innovation & Research in Science & Technology (FIRST) IIT, Kanpur. He is also serving as CEO of Centre for Cyber Security and Cyber Security of Cyber-Physical Systems Innovation Hub (C3i Hub, IITK).
The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur was established in 1959 with a vision “to create, disseminate and translate knowledge in science, engineering and allied disciplines that will best serve the society.”
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Nikhil has almost 20 years of experience in the industry as well as academia. Prior to this, he has worked with the FICCI BISNET group as a senior advisor. At IIT-Kanpur, Nikhil is responsible for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.
In an exclusive interview with Analytics India Magazine, Nikhil Agarwal spoke about IIT Kanpur’s contributions to the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence and machine learning in India.
AIM: What are the AI research/projects IIT Kanpur is working on?
Nikhil: I am very excited to announce that FIRST IIT Kanpur, in collaboration with FICCI, under the Uttar Pradesh Start-up Policy 2020, will establish an Artificial intelligence and innovation-driven entrepreneurship (AIIDE) Centre of Excellence in Noida. The centre will promote start-ups and nurture entrepreneurship in the field of AI/ML and become a torchbearer in R&D in innovative ideas.
The centre will support 250 start-ups over five years, top 20 from the pool of start-ups will be presented in front of investors for funding. A pool of world-class mentors will be created to assist and support these entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs will be provided with world-class infrastructure in the form of Labs and working space to develop their products.
Apart from that, we already have a program running named Prithvi AI – an initiative of Startup Incubation and Innovation Center (SIIC), IIT Kanpur. The incubation centre operated by FIRST is an intersection of industry experts, leading technical institutes, entrepreneurs, angel investors and engineers and data scientists from the IIT Kanpur and technology partners of FIRST. The program is designed to cater to deep tech development for entrepreneurs, support and handhold them to create a robust product while they create a Go-To-Market (GTM) solution, test hypothesis and scale the business fast. The program will have a technology development support partner and one or more investment & ecosystem partners.
AIM: What’s IIT Kanpur’s approach towards AI education and research?
Nikhil: FIRST is defined by the intent that drives us — a nurturing environment and community support that catalyses an entrepreneur’s journey from an idea to a solution. With the involvement of IIT Kanpur’s academic strength and pool of India’s brightest minds in the network, FIRST is committed to pulling the best resources together to help innovators and entrepreneurs deliver audacious results.
We believe that while knowledge is crucial to innovation, connection and collaboration are the catalysts. Bright brains with shared intentions and values put together can create a revolution.
AIM: Tell us about the scope of Artificial intelligence in India
Nikhil: The startup or SME sector in India, with some exceptions, is characterised by no or low technology levels — a huge drawback in the emerging global market. This results in non-viability for many SMEs in the long run and makes them highly uncompetitive compared to imported products. Moreover, it hinders the growth of innovation-driven companies as their focus remains on problem-solving rather than concentrating on innovation.
Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) are new-age models that have been made possible by the exponential growth in the field of software & electronics in the last few decades. Since these models are built on pay-as-you-grow, startups and SMEs are able to avail a wide variety of cost-effective solutions, which earlier was not possible.
AIM: How can the government play a role in encouraging more students to enter AI fields?
Nikhil: The government plays a clear and obvious role in driving research and development, transformative changes in technology that are essential to our national security and other critical national needs. Their role in promoting effective infrastructure – whether physical infrastructure or transportation infrastructure, cyberinfrastructure or energy infrastructure – fosters innovation and technology. Supporting the early-stage entrepreneur, promoting trade, nurturing the tax and business environment conducive to risk-taking are prominent elements of this role.
At present, it is also essential to bring in innovation economics as it reformulates the traditional model of economic growth so that knowledge, technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation are positioned at the centre rather than being seen as independent forces largely unaffected by policy. We also realise that what primarily drives economic growth in today’s knowledge-based economy is not capital accumulation but innovation.
AIM: What is your advice for students and entrepreneurs who want to pursue AI?
Nikhil: We at FIRST IIT Kanpur have time and now proven to be a nurturing ground for those who dare to believe they can change the world for good–for those who have a keen eye to observe the real-world problems and the intent to solve them using technology and “jugaad.”
If you are a researcher working on an idea to solve a challenging problem, we welcome you to develop your idea and take it from idea to the solutions that the world needs.