Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ajit Balakrishnan is unworthy of your trust


Remember this article by Ajit Balakrishnan (CEO of Rediff.com)? In it (which I linked to here), Balakrishnan writes about how he discovered Soumen Chakrabarti's research almost by accident, and how he hired a couple of his students, and how, through them, he gets their professor for free! The story of discovering a hidden jewel in his own backyard is all great and wonderful, except that it doesn't give him any right to oh-so-casually trash an institution -- IIT-B.

In his enthusiasm for showing off his firm's collaboration with Soumen, Balakrishnan slips this in:

Landing the Soumen catch turned out to be the easy part. Getting to engage IIT Bombay in a commercial relationship was to be a near-impossible task. The process for such an engagement is unchartered territory for Indian academic institutions.

Balakrishnan also adds:

I have ever since felt mildly guilty about this arrangement that gave us so much knowhow for so little payment.

The implication here is clear: the 'good' Rediff was keen on compensating Soumen for his help, except that the 'bad' IIT-B screwed things up -- not for Rediff, but for Soumen!

I have to call a foul here, because Balakrishnan's charge is totally unsubstantiated. If he wants to make this charge stick, he must point out exactly where IIT-B failed, and what could have salvaged Rediff's collaboration with Soumen's group. If he has some experience with fruitful collaborations with other institutions, he could also point out how IIT-B handled things differently. Instead, all we have is his say-so.

* * *

[Aside: Balakrishnan's baseless slur is picked up by Karthik, who appears -- rather naively -- to buy completely into Balakrishnan's two-sentence declaration that IIT-B was incapable of dealing with industry. He then uses IIT-B's alleged failure to hold forth on opportunity cost, incentives, and other such wholesome economic goodness. Given the blog in which it appeared, I'm surprised that he didn't give yet another lecture on how socialism has ruined this country! [Karthik's post also led Krish to write a totally ballistic response!]

Along the way, Karthik also asks this question: "... what about the Professor, who has hardly been compensated for his research which has been commercialized? What incentive does [Soumen Chakabarti] have to continue to churn out good and relevant research?" While some of you might want to invest your time -- NOT! -- to educate Karthik about what makes academics tick, let me just point out that Soumen also started this open source project.]

* * *

Let's get back to why Ajit Balakrishnan's charge is baseless.

At least since the days of dot com boom, IITs have been very savvy about dealing with industry. And they have strong incentives for coveting research grants or consultancy fees from industry. One, funds from industry come with very few strings attached. This means this money can be used for a variety of purposes -- including foreign travel, a purpose that government grants do not permit. Two, the institution gets a larger share of industry money as overhead charges. Three, for the researcher, too, there's an incentive: grants/fees from industry can be used for augmenting one's salary; government grants, on the other hand, do not provide for personal remuneration.

Given these widely appreciated benefits of interacting with the industry, many institutions have set up mechanisms to facilitate their faculty's interactions with industries. As premier engineering institutions, IITs have certainly led the way. That an IIT-B's engagement with industry was 'uncharted territory' is, to say the least, a ludicrous claim.

Balakrishnan may not have given us the details of how exactly IIT-B made a "commercial relationship ... a near-impossible task". But since he also expressed some (only some!) guilt at not having compensated Soumen for his help, perhaps we could suggest some remedies that could help him get rid of the guilt. So, here are the ways in which Balakrishnan himself could have compensated Soumen:

  • Balakrishnan could have offered a research grant to enable Soumen to work on fundamental problems of interest to Soumen and Rediff. IIT-B has a mechanism for this route.
  • He could have asked Soumen to work -- or hire someone to work -- on a specific problem of interest to Rediff, and paid him (and IIT-B) a consultancy fee. Unsurprisingly, IIT-B has a mechanism for this too.
  • He could have offered a license fee for using Soumen's code. [Guidelines are available on Soumen's website]
  • He could send some of his brightest students to go and work with Soumen, offering a 'training fee'.
  • He could invite Soumen to offer lectures and training programs to Rediff engineers and researchers -- much like the executive development programs for managers.
  • If he was not satisfied with any of these mechanisms, he could have lavished Soumen with an award, thereby ensuring that Soumen was compensated adequately for his efforts (and earning some brownie points for Rediff for corporate social responsibility!).

We all know that talk is cheap. Cheaper still is to use that talk to show off how you ripped someone off -- and place the blame on that person's institution / employer!

Well, here's another data point that indicates why Ajit Balakrishnan is not credible as a commentator. Though he strives to give us the impression that he 'knows' Soumen, he gets Soumen's alma mater wrong: Soumen got his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley -- not from Stanford. This information is also readily available right on Soumen's website.

[All this is not to say that there might have been a genuine concern over the ownership of intellectual property rights, or over licensing arrangements. If this is indeed so, is Ajit Balakrishnan right to brush aside IIT-B's concerns -- by not even mentioning them?]

9 Comments:

  1. capitalist said...

    both the prof and the rediff guy are happy and satisfied. wats ur problem? i dont see why they shud meet ur standards of ethics n other crap. periya parupu madri nadula ne yaru-a? avanga deal, ne enna periya punakka?

  2. Anonymous said...

    Please!

    Something about listening to customer feedback, and taking it seriously, even if it does not align with your sense of what a product/service should look like.

    Something that even the Mahatma, hardly a capitalist he, said about customer being king.

    And yet, here you are.

  3. chitta said...

    Abi:

    Unless you have some inside information from Soumen or someone close to this incident it seems to me that you are overreacting and blowing it out of proportion. Every day companies use research done in academic institutions without explicitly paying for it. Perhaps Ajit was feeling guilty about that and hence mentioned it. From the title of the article its clear that he is trying to praise Soumen, his research, and some world class research done in India. Yes, he slipped in a criticism of IIT B and Indian academic institution. Does that really deserve a post from you with title "AB can not be trusted". May be a title "AB is unfair to Indian academic inst" would have been more appropriate.

    But if you have some inside info on the topic then its a different matter.

    But hey, its your blog. You can say whatever you want and feel like.

    cheers
    Chitta

  4. Krish said...

    Capitalist aka Vatsan,

    You know the statement I usually make in my blog (your ignorance cannot be the reason for god). I want to say the same thing here. Your ignorance cannot be the reason to consider Ajit Balakrishnan to be right. How about all ye capitalists check how academia-industry collaboration takes place in all the elite instutitons of India.

  5. vatsan said...

    dei vennai krish, i did not say ajit balakrishnan was right or wrong, i just said u pudingis had no locus standi to comment since u have no seen the deal, spoken to the parties etc. if u have had access to the deal, write a post with the terms and ur problems with it. even in that case as long as BOTH parties are happy u pudungis have no reason to whine. unless the prof feels cheated and you personally speak to him u pudungis dont have sufficient information to comment.

    dei vennai krish, olanga padi, i did not say either party was right, just said u guys dont have enough information to comment. periya paruppu madri olarathai da vennai

  6. zen babu said...

    Abi,

    In case you need to substantiate your claim that AB's charge is baseless, you can read and use this http://www.ircc.iitb.ac.in/~webadm/consrules/

  7. Abi said...

    Capitalist/Vatsan, Chitta: This post is not about Soumen or about his getting ripped off.

    My post is really about the casually cavalier way in which Balakrishnan painted IIT-B as a stone-age entity when it comes to dealing with industry. I just wanted to show not only that Balakrishnan's allegation was false (see the link provided by Zen Babu), but also that he was unfair to IIT-B administrators who negotiated with him.

    Krish: Thanks for sharing the IEB link!

    Zen Babu: Thank you so much for that link! When I said "at least since the dot com boom ...", I was being safe, because that's the period that I know about. The document you linked to shows that the consultancy centre has been in existence since the late eighties! Thanks again.

  8. vatsan said...

    abi, first both parties are happier with this deal rather than going through IITB, and its important to separate the reason for two grounds.

    1) IITB is really bad, therefore they bypassed it.

    2) IITB is not bad, but both parties are better off bypassing it rather than using it. if this is the case, find out why.

    idhu pannama u cant make ne judgements. summa dont jump the gun . olanga issues purinju analyse pannu mada sambrani

  9. vatsan said...

    krish oru kenaiyan, avanuku corporations na pidikathu, avan kenathanama ellathiyum punakku nu solluvan matter teriyamal.

    yosikamal matter teriyamal, avannukku jalra podathai, nalla yosichu oru stand edu, summa evano oru kenaiyan solleran nu avanoda sendhu jalra podrathu madathanam