If you are in the right place at the right time — at the beginning of a wave — you will benefit significantly,” says Senapathy Gopalakrishnan, better known as “Kris”, cofounder of Infosys, on a recent winter morning in Bengaluru.It’s a lesson he has lived and learned from the time he and six other engineers set up the IT services firm in 1981, ushering in the tech offshoring revolution in India. In the decades that followed, they reaped gains many times over, with Gopalakrishnan, 64, alone currently possessing net worth of $2 billion. Now, he hopes to replicate that lesson in his second avatar as one of the biggest individual philanthropic funders of scientific research in the country, though the benefits, in this case, will neither be pecuniary nor personal.In January 2019, it will be five years — or the halfway mark — since the former Infosys CEO announced a 10-year grant of Rs 225 crore for a brain research centre, particularly to study age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The years since have seen him step up with more grants for deep science — from a Rs 60 crore endowment to set up six chairs at his alma mater IIT-Madras and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for computational brain research, to Rs 6 crore for a multidisciplinary initiative involving research in stem cells, which would study the relationship between mental illnesses and cellular processes. Stem cells are the new tools, he says, that will help us find new cures and new techniques for trials. In total, he has made grants of over Rs 300 crore for research. Most recently, he is considering setting up a hospital specialising in neuroscience, which will be connected to the Centre for Brain Research, a joint effort between IISc and Pratiksha Trust founded by Gopalakrishnan and wife Sudha.He knows quantifying the results of funding deep science research is not easy. This is unlike in IT services or even the over 60 startups he has invested in since he stepped down from Infosys as vicechairman in 2014. “Research is open-ended. You can never predict when an ‘aha’ moment will happen. What you can do is make sure there are enough people working (on a problem) and that diverse areas of interest are looked at,” says Gopalakrishnan, as he sips coffee on the sidelines of an Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, which he has helped bring to Bengaluru.Dividing his interest into the computational (the endowment chairs at IIT-M and IISc) and the clinical (the Centre for Brain Research), he says there is now a “critical mass” of people working on computational research. He supports about 50 such researchers. Each of the six groups is supervised by leading international experts in the field, such as Mriganka Sur, director of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).“I believe that if 50 people work on an area, that’s a decent number and it will start yielding results,” he says. The researchers are looking at various aspects of brain computation, spanning hardware and software, machine learning and artificial intelligence, from the architecture of the brain to how it hears (the audio circuitry of the brain). Underlying the initiative is the belief that we are on the edge of a new revolution driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning. “I think we need to be at the forefront of this,” he says.On the clinical side, the same scale has not been reached yet but the first project has kicked off. “That’s a longitudinal study of 10,000 people over 10 years in Kolar (in Karnataka) on how they age. Data collection has started. We will soon recruit people to use this data.” The DNA sequencing of as many of them as possible will be also conducted. Studies like these are critical because of the lack of such a large database in India, which will be important in areas such as precision medicine (an emerging field of treatment which takes into consideration individual variability in genes and lifestyle).Construction of a 110,000 sq ft facility for the Centre for Brain Research, headed by scientist Dr Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, is also under way on the IISc campus. Ultimately, around 50 people will be recruited to study ageing and ageing-related disorders. The hope? “With the new tools that are available, we may come out with a better understanding of dementia, something for which there is no cure and no prevention because we still don’t understand the reasons for it,” says Gopalakrishnan.Grants over the years
Once he stepped down from his last fulltime role as Infosys vice-chairman of in 2014, he wanted to support research. He narrowed the field to brain as he thought it was close to computing, which would hold his interest and offer numerous opportunities. “I also wanted to add a dimension of social purpose by addressing the issue of ageing. That’s how the clinical aspect came about.” Driving the decision was his belief that world-class research can be done in India. “We need to think big, have ambitious goals, larger teams working towards them and more funding…. We don’t have a large pool of private money coming into research, especially philanthropic money,” says Gopalakrishnan, who cites Microsoft founder Bill Gates as an inspiration.Where’s the Money? Funding of scientific research and development in India has remained stagnant for the last couple of decades, at 0.6% to 0.7% of GDP, as the Economic Survey 2017-18 highlighted. In contrast, China spends 2.1% of its GDP on research and Israel 4.3%. Of the funding in India, just 0.2% comes from the private sector. “Investment in fundamental research is an investment in the future. It’s somewhat disappointing that private sector investment in fundamental research is lagging. Frankly, Kris’s initiative is the kind we need,” says RA Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
Tata Trusts continues to be one of the biggest private donors to science. Last year, Tata Trusts announced it would be investing over Rs 450 crore to set up the Tata Institute of Genetics and Society with the aim of eradicating malaria by exploring geneediting technology. It has also donated Rs 75 crore to IISc and the Centre for Brain Research for Alzheimer’s research. Others like Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Infosys cofounder NR Narayana Murthy have also been contributing to scientific research in different ways. Where Gopalakrishnan’s initiative stands out is in its size and the focus on one area by an individual.Dr Ravindranath is one of the many scientists who had to grapple with the paucity of funds. A researcher on Parkinson’s disease, she spent years at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) as faculty, before being appointed founder-director of the National Brain Research Center, Manesar, and now of the Centre for Brain Research. “If you work at NIMHANS and see the suffering of people, it leaves a lifelong impact on you. Your desire to make a difference becomes a lifelong passion,” says Ravindranath. “I dreamt of this project for 20 years. I didn’t get the funding.” Then Tata Trusts came forward with Rs 75 crore for Alzheimer’s research, followed by Gopalakrishnan, with Rs 225 crore. “I’m glad Kris came along or we would never have had money for dementia research. I don’t think there’s a philanthropist in India with such a passion to make a difference in this area,” she says.Dementia, which refers to a group of symptoms affecting memory and thinking abilities, occurs when the brain is damaged by diseases. At present, there are 4.4 million people living with dementia in India; it is expected to triple by 2050.
Historically, dementia has not been a public health priority in India, mainly because the country had other priorities to attend to. But once infectious illnesses and heart diseases are dealt with and more of the population starts to age, India will have to face a whole other set of problems, says David Bennett, director at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University, US. “And because of the size of India’s population, dementia is going to be a big problem,” he adds.It’s a fear Ravindranath shares. “My worry is that with the increase in aged people in India and families breaking up into nuclear families, the elderly are going to have a really rough time. My dream is to identify the risk factors (of dementia), put in place policies in conjunction with the public health system so that we can translate these into lifestyle changes and alleviate the risks as we see them.” The hope is to lower the number of dementia cases, delay the onset of the disease and slow down its progression — in other words, give people a better quality of life as they live longer. It is a long road but one which she is evidently excited to be on.“The understanding (of the disease), management, prevention, slowing down of the progression, cure — any of these is possible,” says Gopalakrishnan. He sees himself in the role of funding agent, convener, cheerleader and spokesperson “so that more people will contribute to and work in this area.” In the five years since his announcement, people have expressed interest but that has not translated into funding. Gopalakrishnan still remains optimistic. He feels India needs to be at the forefront of research in areas such as AI and machine learning so that costs can be reduced significantly, if done right. “We are not going to be a high-income country in the next 15 years, so affordability is important. And if we don’t participate, our data and our requirements will not be taken into account,” he says.It might sound like a quantum leap but as a nation, India needs to step up its spending on research to 3% or even 4% of GDP, says Gopalakrishnan. “We are in an area of knowledge-based economies, and we need to own that knowledge. This means we need to create it, which means we need to fund it.”Two Models of GrantsGopalakrishnan says he is focusing on two areas in his research fundingCentre for Brain ResearchThe Centre for Brain Research, on the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bengaluru, is a first-ofits-kind initiative to look into agerelated disorders of the brain, like Alzheimer’s. The plan is to identify risk factors for dementia, delay its onset, slow its progress and perhaps even find a cure. Plans for a hospital are also being discussed. While a 110,000 sq ft building is being constructed, recruitment has started and data collection has begun for an ambitious 10-year study of 10,000 people.Computational Brain ResearchTo promote computational brain research in India, three chairs have been set up at Gopalakrishnan’s alma mater, IIT-Madras, and at IISc. Eminent researchers from abroad are handling these functions. These scholars will create research teams and mentor the young faculty to accelerate the development of the field in India. There will also be international collaborations and conferences. The idea is for India to become a part of the cutting-edge research happening in this field.
Read more: economictimes.indiatimes.com