Indians Innovate, but does India Innovate?

It’s a provocative question, I admit. And those who swear by examples of frugal engineering that India has championed would scoff at it. And if you know that JC Bose was the first in the Indian sub-continent to be granted a US patent in 1904, and that the first Indian scientist to start a company and use the proceeds to start a research institute was none other than Sir CV Raman, you’d scoff even more. You could argue that India has always innovated.

Let me give the context: the two-day annual technology conference of MIT and its magazine Technology Review, EmTech India 2012, kicked off in Bangalore yesterday. While some speakers are permanent fixtures in this event*, it is a good beginning in a country that hardly has any conference where a wide variety of technologies, from energy systems to diagnostic devices to network coding are discussed over two days.

So when Vijaya Kumar Ivaturi, former CTO, Wipro Technologies, and co-founder and board member at India Innovation Labs asked his group of panelists if India is innovating (read IP-driven innovation), he got rather mixed responses. A visibly confident and upbeat YV Prakash, former government official and founder of GAV incubator spoke of his start-up that being in stealth mode has sold its product to 100 brands in the country, whereas P Balamuralidhar, head of the innovation lab at TCS, Bangalore, came laden with the confessions of an innovator, so to say.

His answer to Vijaya Kumar’s question epitomized the dilemma of many a company—need-driven innovation versus dream-driven innovation. How do you position the two?  How do you overcome the fear of failure? In a way, how do you move away from thinking small and expecting it to grow big?

That wasn’t music to ears as you often hear Indian companies discuss this in their moments of candor. The fact that this discussion was happening after a morning talk of GE’s 100+ years of innovation, I wondered why is it that Indian companies, even those which make good money, are not able to find a balance between quarter-on-quarter numbers and long-term vision? And then, I saw Murali Sastry, former chief scientific officer of Tata Chemicals who drove innovation at the company for seven years, sporting another designation – Director, India Innovation Centre, DSM, the Dutch chemicals and nutrition company. Since I wrote a detailed story of Tata Chemcials’ green makeover last July I couldn’t help asking him why he left the Tatas. He wouldn’t say much except that he “wanted to learn how MNCs innovate”.

To be fair, it’s not just the Indian companies that are grappling (or need to grapple) with this issue. George Westerman of MIT Center for Digital Business yesterday quoted from his study of 50 companies (each with at least $1 billion in revenue) across several countries where he found that four out of seven employees felt the innovation culture was not what it should be. All 50 companies faced common pressures but having engaged in broadly common activities they had widely different results.

Well, culture does eat strategy for lunch!

Vijay Kumar believes the overall environment has improved in the last four-five years, and hopes this decade will fix the remaining gaps that exist in financing, precision manufacturing, tech adoption, etc. Unlike the developed markets where companies go for differentiation, in growing markets it is scale that drives people and real innovation takes a backseat. But he thinks India today offers an “unusual sandbox, a mix of developing and developed markets features” which will drive more serious innovation in the next few years. Till then, SoCoMo will prevail – solutions in Social Media, Cloud, and Mobility.

In the meantime, ingenious start-ups like Achira Labs will continue to do frugal engineering. Achira is developing a lab-on-a-chip platform for protein tests. Since low-cost, or even high-end, manufacturing in microfluidics is impossible in India today, Achira is testing the innate nature of wicking in silk fabrics to develop their platform.

But if we are looking at the next generation of innovations that will need to go beyond price, functionality, and design – triad that occupies innovators today — to include sustainability, we need to be agile innovators as a country. We are not even close to it but the signs are encouraging. For example, the electric car maker RevaMahinda has developed a new technology (advanced telematics-based system called REVive) to provide remote emergency charge to its customers in case of breakdowns. Meant to address range anxiety among drivers, the technology is completely driven by consumer insight, says Chetan Maini.

The hunger for efficient innovation was apparent at the conference. After his talk, Vishwanath Poosala, head of Bell Labs India, was surrounded by dozens of aspiring young innovators. “All of them want to set aside some time on weekends where they can brainstorm potential ideas. You don’t find this kind of energy elsewhere,” says Poosala.

Can we, collectively, harness this energy notwithstanding the economic slowdown, policy paralysis, political drama, and what have you?

*Note to organizers: Please get speakers from other towns and cities; don’t reduce EmTech to a Bangalore event.

UPDATE: I stand corrected. Organizers say of the 75 speakers at EmTech, 55% came from Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kasaragod, Mumbai and Pune.

9 comments to “Indians Innovate, but does India Innovate?”

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  1. Sudeendra Koushik says: -#1

    I am a staunch supporter and believer of innovation. To me innovation is not in technology alone. In my talks on innovation i do refer to social and commercial innovation as separately possible things. Indians ARE innovative but the motives for innovations are to be understood. How do you explain a tea shop at a roadside allowing mobile users away from home to charge their phones for a small fee ? not innovation – yes it is ! a customer need has been met. There are so many such examples – and unfortunately not all are as positive as this. Many are positive induvidually and negative for the community. So in MHO we are misdirected and lack of leadership as someone said does make a difference – to align induvidual and collective goals. Else how can indians innovate elsewhere and not in india ? we had lot of innovation through many centuries right from aviation to chemistry to yoga to wireless communication more recently. but we hav a problem today and we need to fix it – good news is capability is there !

  2. Indian education system is not based on merit. IF u have minimum reservations of 50% to 82% in Govt jobs and academics how can u expect innovation???

  3. Basically I understand there are two reasons for lack of innovation in india
    lack of risk taking ability.poor indian needs to support his parents, wife and children. And government has hardly any support for ppl wanting to innovate.
    Culturally we are not brought up in an environment which fosters innovation and leadership. remember greg chappels comment on leadership in the indian cricket team. Unfortunately that’s true.and yes innovation got to do a lot with leadership.

    bdw I am an indian and I have no problems accepting the truth.

  4. In my career of 10+ years, I have never seen Indians working together voluntarily, the word ‘voluntarily’ is a scalability issue here. About Intelligence, you are bringing IT people (most of them have done outsourcing, yet to see Indian IT product company making making mark in this world). Most of these speakers must be reading reserach information from all over the world and showing that ‘intelligence’ in that conference. WHY WOULD YOU EVEN INVITE IT GANG AS SPEAKERS IN INDIA? Outsourcing is just plain ho business. So, anybody in India who is in IT industry is not worth talking about innovation.

    • Seema Singh says: -#2

      @Rahne: Being based in Bangalore, I can relate to what you are saying, after all every other person on the street seems to be woring in the IT industry here. I’d like to clarify that people don’t discuss/present papers in this conf. That’s left for a few academics, mostly from MIT. That said, I have a counter-intuitive point to your argument about IT professionals not worth talking about innovation? From experience I can say, these guys might not be doing much of innovative work but they understand the value and charm of it. Didn’t PB Shelley say: “…We look before and after and pine for what is not…”

      • @Seema, I wasn’t talking about academics here. I was talking about actual products or at least prototypes based on innovation. IT industry in india is service industry based on using products (6 sigma, ISO and what not), not innovating products. One day, I will write a book about IT scam of india right from 90s to present day.

        • Seema Singh says: -#4

          @Rahne: I did get your point about IT services folks. But I think even there there’s ennui and some are looking for more meaty, challenging roles. Anyway, I’d watch out for your book. Meanwhile, why don’t you leave some teasers here, some food for thought for our readers?

  5. shivraj kalloli says: -#1

    Indians innovate, but India cant innovate because , major problem is corruption and politics

    Indian people are very brilliant but Indian government don’t know how to use them in growing country

  6. I love this author and the questions she asks. I am yet to even read the article.
    Its a provocative question which I have trying to answer almost daily studying in US. Why do Indians have to come all this way and why is India so poor if Indians are so highly intelligent and recognized in the US. Are we worth all that the world thinks?

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