Where science and engineering meet

Steve Hamm

The Indian IT services companies are often beaten up for not innovating enough—at least when it comes to products and technologies. And TCS’ experience with basic research shows just how hard it is to get the tech innovation wheels turning fast enough to make a sizable new business. The company hired M. Vidyasagar in 2000 to set up an advanced technology lab and placed it in his home town of Hyderabad. The unit focuses on e-security, open source software, life sciences, and Indian languages. At this point, the lab has 85 scientists and engineers. They’re working on some really cool projects, but none of them have translated into big businesses yet.

One that I found especially interesting was a foray into synthetic biology. This is the idea that rather than trying to dissect and understand complex organisms, scientists are now trying to build new organisms from existing components that they already understand. This approach has been talked about for decades but has become a really hot topic in the past 18 months. “In science, you try to understand something. In engineering, you try to build something new,” says Vidyasagar.

TCS spotted this as a coming field of endeavor, did some spade work on software that could be used to manage the organism development project, and quickly landed a customer for its software and services, Codon Devices, a spinout from MIT. These are very early days. There are only a handful of startups working on this science, so there are also very few opportunities for TCS to ply its services. But Vidyasagar believes it’s important for TCS to get in on the ground floor (maybe the basement) of some of the newest trends in science and technology. “It you want to develop a scientific competency you need to get in early while the field is still immature,” he says. “We want to be seen as a thought leader, not a me-too organization.”

Right now, Vidyasagar is working with the executives who lead TCS’ 2,500-person-strong life sciences industry practice to come up with ways to turn interesting experiments like this one into sizable revenue producing businesses. The goal is to come up with strategies and business models so revenues will start rolling in in fiscal 08/09. “We want to go beyond the prestige factor to the money factor,” he says.