Indians Innovate, but does India Innovate?
Itâ€™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, youâ€™d scoff even more. You could argue that India has always innovated.
Let me give the context: the two-day annualÂ technology conference of MIT andÂ 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 Kumarâ€™s question epitomized the dilemma of many a companyâ€”need-driven innovation versus dream-driven innovation. How do you position the two? Â 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 wasnâ€™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 GEâ€™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 â€“ Director, India Innovation Centre, DSM, the Dutch chemicals and nutrition company. Since I wrote a detailed story of Tata Chemcialsâ€™ green makeover last July I couldnâ€™t help asking him why he left the Tatas. He wouldnâ€™t say much except that he â€œwanted to learn how MNCs innovateâ€.
To be fair, itâ€™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 â€œunusual sandbox, a mix of developing and developed markets featuresâ€ which will drive more serious innovation in the next few years. Till then, SoCoMo will prevail â€“ 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 â€“Â 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. â€œAll of them want to set aside some time on weekends where they can brainstorm potential ideas. You donâ€™t find this kind of energy elsewhere,â€ 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; donâ€™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.