Dr. Rashmi Pimpale, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of RICH, Hyderabad

The Research and Innovation Circle of Hyderabad (RICH)  was launched in 2017 by the Telangana government as a ‘one-of-a-kind initiative’, with the goal of mining innovations from research labs and bringing them to market. “We called it ‘unlocking the national treasure’,” said Rashmi Pimpale, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of RICH. Registered as a Section 8 Company under the Companies Act of 2013, RICH is one of the first Science and Technology (S&T) clusters envisioned by the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India. RICH acts as a facilitator to foster greater collaboration between the different entities that operate in the research, innovation, and commercialisation space. 

Now, five years on, we spoke with Ms. Pimpale, who elaborated upon RICH’s vision for transforming India into the global centre for S&T. She also shared some success stories of the organisation and provided us with some wonderful insights from her professional journey. Starting out as a young pharmacist, Ms. Pimpale worked in the pharma industry for over a decade before joining RICH as the director of the life sciences vertical, and then moved up to take the helm of the organisation as the CEO. 

The organisational structure of RICH

RICH has a rather lean structure, with a team of 11 people, including the Director General, sector heads—who are subject matter experts and lead each of RICH’s three main verticals: food and agriculture, life sciences, and sustainability; project managers who assist the sector heads, a business manager who handles the administration, accounts, and HR; a communications manager who handles social media and PR, and an information analyst who looks after the databases. In addition, RICH also has a coordinator who works closely with the CEO and acts as a link between the different verticals, especially for the high-impact projects. These people form the core team of RICH.

But given RICH’s role of facilitating collaborations for any given project, how does a team of a mere 11 people manage to connect with so many stakeholders for so many projects? Through its unique model of operation: Ms. Pimpale clarified that though all projects and activities at RICH are managed and implemented by the core team, RICH also acts as a convenor by roping in relevant external experts. Each project is led by one of the sector heads who creates multidisciplinary working groups comprised of representatives from the participating stakeholders such as research and academic institutions, industry, government partners, NGOs, and so on. 

Ms. Pimpale further highlighted that although RICH is a government-launched initiative, all its team members are hired from an open market through a rigorous screening and interviewing process, and hold remarkably high professional qualifications and experience in their core sectors. 

RICH’s vision for the next 25 years 

While discussing the conception and current objectives of the three verticals, Ms. Pimpale said, “When we step back a little and look at how we've chosen the three focus areas, that's been a very strategic decision.” 

Speaking of the life sciences vertical, she said that it was envisioned to harness the fertile innovation ecosystem of Hyderabad, which, being the pharma capital of India, is home to 800 life sciences companies with a combined value of about $50 billion, and contributes to about 35% of India’s total pharma production. The primary objective for this vertical is to strengthen the position of Hyderabad as the life sciences capital of Asia, with a special focus on med-tech innovations. 

The agriculture vertical was conceptualised keeping in mind Hyderabad’s distinction of being the seed capital of India, and the fact that Telangana produces over 20 lakh tonnes of seeds annually, which are cultivated over seven lakh acres of land and contribute to 60% of the national seed requirement. The main objective of this vertical going forward is to position Hyderabad as a global leader in precision agriculture—one that supplies quality seeds to farmers in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner and empowers farmers with climate-resilient technologies. 

Speaking of the sustainability sector, Ms. Pimpale said that although it is a relatively new area for RICH, the primary focus areas chalked out are energy, electric vehicles (EVs), and waste management. 

Ms. Pimpale stressed that one of the most important factors to consider while transforming India into the global centre for S&T is enabling the faster adoption of newer technologies. This is now a national goal and RICH is aligned with this goal through its various flagship programmes to identify innovators who can solve societal challenges and empower and support them in their journey towards commercialisation. 

“The focus of our work is to identify complex problems, engage various stakeholders to create a network of individuals and organisations that could solve these problems, and bring them together to work towards that common goal. In this process, we hope to improve the local and global connectedness of the research and innovation ecosystem players and drive a lasting change—I think that will be the core of what we do even going forward.”

RICH brings together various kinds of stakeholders in the research and innovation ecosystem to accomplish this goal. Anyone from scientists to start-ups and individual grassroots innovators can seek support from RICH in the form of incubators, accelerators, funders, mentors, regulatory experts, and intellectual property experts, to bring their product to the market. 

Flagship programmes and success stories of RICH

When asked about the different flagship programmes of RICH, Ms. Pimpale began by describing the National Reagents Consortium project spearheaded by the Office of the PSA, which was crucial in solving supply-chain problems during the pandemic, through the setting up of systems to manufacture reagents indigenously, quickly, and affordably for RT-PCR tests. She further added that the project was a classic example of different entities (government, research institutions, the industry, start-ups, and micro, small and medium enterprises) coming together and solving a big national problem, thus implementing RICH’s vision perfectly. Some of the other flagship programmes and success stories from the life sciences vertical that she spoke about were: AID, the Acceleration Initiative for Devices and Diagnostics programme; Project Tej, the next step after AID, where start-ups are connected with hospitals for clinical validation; and Mission 10X, which assists deep-tech and med-tech start-ups in commercializing their market-ready prototypes. All of RICH’s initiatives can be explored on their website, Visit here

Elaborating upon the social gap that RICH fills through these projects, Ms. Pimpale explained that, unlike digital start-ups, life sciences and agriculture start-ups require clinical and field trials to get their products to the market, and usually, start-ups find it difficult to get their foot in the door with a hospital, government department or a research institution, due to lack of credibility or connections. This is where RICH comes in. Apart from initiating collaborations between start-ups and the relevant entities, RICH also coordinates interactions between all incubators and accelerators in Telangana by organising monthly meetups and knowledge-sharing sessions as part of their efforts towards consolidating the strength and expertise of the local ecosystem. 

Further, while talking about the agricultural sector, Ms. Pimpale  said that, unlike other sectors, the range of stakeholders in the agricultural sector is quite large and diverse—spanning from a rural or tribal farmer in the remotest location of Telangana to a tech-savvy start-up. Highlighting the various initiatives in the agriculture vertical at RICH, Ms. Pimpale spoke about emerging technology pilots conducted in collaboration with PJTSAU (State Agriculture University), Department of Agriculture, Emerging Technology wing of government of Telangana and AgriTech start-ups; data standardisation efforts conducted in partnership with the Department of Horticulture and the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM); and various capacity-building activities at Tier 2 and Tier 3 educational institutions. RICH has also created a compendium of AgriTech startups that highlights promising technologies and innovations in the spheres of sensors, robots, platforms, farm machinery, and drones, among others.

Recently, RICH has also begun leading the Kisan Mitr platform launched by the office of the PSA. Over the past year, RICH has been working extensively with the farmer community to try and understand their problems and figure out interventions that could help them. Talking about the main learnings over the past year, Ms. Pimpale said that “So far, we've had conversations with more than 100 farmers to understand the climate-resilient agricultural practices that they follow. We have received some very interesting insights into this aspect of farming which we plan to document and publish soon.”

Regarding the upcoming developments in the sustainability sector, Ms. Pimpale reiterated that the primary goal here, as with other verticals, is to identify the gaps in the ecosystem and make interventions to bridge those gaps. RICH’s major foray into this sector is through a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the National Institute for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (NI-MSME), for developing a centre of excellence (CoE) on energy and electric vehicles (EVs). She said that the CoE will be the fulcrum for knowledge creation, knowledge management, and knowledge dissemination, and will have multiple components—research, training, and commercialisation. RICH would engage suitable knowledge partners and technology partners with experience in clean technologies for setting up various training centres/labs at the CoE and conduct scientific research in collaboration with premier research and academic institutions. Going forward, RICH’s main focus will also be on working extensively with startups in the energy, waste management, and particularly the EV space—which has a huge potential and is also getting a strong push from the central government.

“I think in all of this, the most interesting part is that when we go looking for solutions for (existing) problems, most of these solutions are found locally, which are being worked on by some innovator or scientist who has identified problems in his proximity and has designed a solution,” said Ms. Pimpale.

The Women in STEM initiative and personal learning

Aside from work in these three key verticals, RICH recently launched the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) initiative in collaboration with the Biocon Foundation. Talking about the initiative, Ms. Pimpale said that it will undoubtedly play an important part in the greater mandate to promote science and technology within the next 25 years, as it focuses primarily on the entry and retention of women in STEM careers. Citing observations from reports by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, she said that the main reason for the skewed gender ratio in STEM careers is the lack of retention, rather than lack of entry of women into STEM fields. She added, “Women are very likely to face the dual role syndrome when it comes to professional decisions. They're largely affected by their domestic responsibility as well. So, current work systems can prove to be a structural impedance for women. In this case, piecemeal interventions are not going to work, a lifelong support approach is needed.”

The Women in STEM programme is RICH’s attempt to address this gap by providing marginalised women students in STEM from tier two or tier three cities with experiential learning opportunities in the form of internships or projects at premier institutes or companies in Hyderabad. Additionally, the initiative will also provide them with mentorship and handholding support beyond the stipulated internship period, by initiating one-on-one interactions with women scientists from all over India. Ms. Pimpale asserted that the main aim of the programme is to create a self-sustaining network of women in STEM who can empower each other and visualize STEM as a sustainable career option.

As the conversation drew to an end, we asked Ms. Pimpale to share some insights and learnings from her journey and how she uses these learnings to steer RICH as an organisation.

She reminisced about the gender-directed roles in the pharma industry and admitted that while not much has changed on that front since she started out, organisations are now beginning to realize the importance of gender diversity and providing better working facilities for women. She also added that it is the responsibility of the leadership to make sure that gender diversity does not remain a mere performance indicator, and create a working environment for women that is conducive to their growth, that makes considerations for the unique social challenges that they face, and one that can help them work their way up the career ladder.

Talking about her own experiences on the way upwards to a leadership position, Ms. Pimpale mused that when one moves on to higher positions of responsibility, it is inevitable to encounter differences in opinions, strong biases, and a lot of unwarranted behaviour. Ms. Pimpale said, “What I think needs to be done is to accept that we all have our innate biases. But, whenever we are taking a major decision, are we able to go beyond our biases and make sure that those biases are not affecting our decisions? I think if we can objectively analyse (the situation), and we have that awareness, a lot (of difficult problems) could be solved.”

While giving a special message to young girls and women aspiring to build a career in STEM or to be in a leadership position, she said, “Women should be more open to speaking their mind, should not be afraid to give their opinions and should not be hesitant to showcase their work.”

Ms. Pimpale concluded, “What I believe is, if you're sincere and thorough in your work, if you are empathetic towards others, and are willing to take people along, then you can build credibility and trust (for yourself and your work). And I think these attributes somehow become your strongest allies, and never fail you.”

About the Author

Madhura Panse is an educator, career counsellor, and freelance science writer.

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