Charity Begins at Home: The Shanta Wadhwani Centre for Cardiac and Neural Research
Indians are making a lot of money; it is all over the news. Corporate houses are merging and splitting, changing hands and making it to Fortune 500 lists. But is any of this money channelled to scientific research - to drive the innovation that has the capacity to transform the nation? Unlike many institutes abroad, Indian research centres are largely dependant on government grants and there is limited philanthropic funding. Well aware of this situation, Dr. Romesh Wadhwani, Chairperson and CEO of the Symphony Technology Group is determined to make a change. In 2000 he established the Wadhwani Foundation, which will distribute 80% of his wealth to welfare and development projects. As announced during his recent visit to our campus, the beneficiaries now include Indian research institutes such as NCBS and Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.
The Wadhwani Foundation is not just another charitable institution. Devoted to 'accelerating economic growth in India and emerging economies', the Foundation has a 'bigger purpose' of supporting innovation - both entrepreneurial and scientific in the country. In Dr. Wadhwani's words 'a country cannot be a great country for any sustainable period of time without having truly world-class original innovation'. With this belief he tried to set up a bioscience and biotech research institute in India. Sadly, it did not take off due to political difficulties, but he did not give up. Dr. Wadhwani then turned to institutes that were already doing well and decided to help them accelerate to world-class standards. Defining 'world-class', he said, did not come easy. An Indian institute, he felt, would have truly reached a world-class standard when reputed universities from abroad start seeking help and advice from it. A Nobel laureate every few years, he added, would not be a bad thing either.
The Foundation has funded biological research in IIT-Mumbai and now it has promised to fund research at the Shanta Wadhwani Center for Cardiac and Neural Research at inStem. Addressing an eager audience in the colonnade of NCBS's new lab complex, Dr. Wadhwani lovingly recalled his mother, the late Shanta Wadhwani, who died of a cardiac ailment and after whom the Center has been named. He recollected how she had encouraged her children to pursue science and to innovate.
After unveiling the plaque at the Center, Dr. Wadhawani and Dr.VijayRaghavan addressed the press. Dr.VijayRaghavan stressed that the funding was far more flexible than the kind of grants NCBS usually gets from the government. This freedom, so in tune with NCBS's intellectual environment, would be the precise combination needed to pursue high impact collaborative research. The team from inStem, NCBS, Kyoto and Stanford, he added, make a world-class team and if anyone can solve these questions in cardiomyopathy, they have a good chance. Dr. Wadhwani said that he had an 'emotional investment' in India and the Foundation was not looking to measure their returns on the funding. Dr. VijayRaghavan shared that 'there was no bargaining, we got what we asked for'. This amazing good-will, understanding and flexibility, he emphasized, will help the scientists who are on the brink of doing world-class work to catapult across the threshold.
The grant, amounting to about 7.5 crore (US$ 1.5 million) would fund, among other things, the movement of researchers across countries, the purchase of instruments, and other requirements not covered by conventional grants. This would supplement the existing infrastructure and increase productivity. Dr. John Mercer at inStem, whose lab will be a beneficiary of this grant said that with this funding, his collaboration with Dr. Jim Spudich of Stanford and Dr. VijayRaghavan will focus on mutant proteins that cause cardiomyopathy. This would include biophysical and biochemical characterization of the proteins and ultimately trying to figure out how different mutations cause different cardiomyopathies.
Dr. Wadhwani, who is an IIT graduate and a Ph. D., and had later started a business, shared his view on how to make this science-to-industry transition. One way for scientists to start a business, he suggested, would be to take a good research idea and then convert it into a therapy. This therapy needs to then be integrated into a business plan. He shared his willingness to train scientists at this stage and prepare them for entrepreneurship.
Replying to a journalist on whether this was the first of a series of Wadhwani Foundation grants, Dr. Wadhwani, with a smile on his face, asked us to keep our fingers crossed as 'hopefully there will be more coming'.
Acknowledgement: The author thankfully acknowledges Dr. John Mercer, Faculty, inStem for editing the portion of the text describing how his lab would benefit from the grant.