How India Can Leverage The Innovation Philosophy

How India Can Leverage The Innovation PhilosophyThis month’s announcement of Indian-born Satya Nadella’s elevation to the top job at Microsoft has triggered some soul-searching among the Indian intelligentsia about how the best and the brightest from India tend to leave for foreign shores in search of better opportunities, instead of investing their intellectual capital at home.

A country of 1.2 billion with some crucial problems like poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and lack of public health facilities, India needs innovation at the grassroots, and as a corollary, an ecosystem that supports such innovation where it is needed most.

Partnerships, not prescriptions
In the past, India would have looked for aid from developed countries, which would be willing to provide it, along with a lengthy list of prescriptions on how and where that money should be used.

Happily, that model has given way to a new range of partnerships between leading Indian and foreign organisations, where Indians are innovating right here at home. One such partnership is the Stanford-India Biodesign Program (SIB), which was set up in 2001. Since its inception, it has focused on developing medical devices that solve specific challenges seen in the Indian scenario. A three-way collaboration of Stanford University, IIT-Delhi and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), this programme stands out due to shared technological expertise and joint funding that comes from the Indian government and US sources.

But the SIB programme, supported by Indo-US governmental efforts, is not the most revolutionary aspect of India’s changing innovation ecosystem. Some of the current developments are even more encouraging. For instance, there is Google’s Impact Challenge and last year, the Internet giant funded a few social innovations in the country for the first time.

From integrated water and sanitation systems for rural India to motorbike-borne science labs to get rural Indian kids excited about pursuing science and technology, Indians are being given a chance to determine their own innovation priorities and how to go about it. Consequently, an Indian Norman Borlaug may now use a homegrown innovation to benefit the entire mankind.

A desi model
Indians also have to be smart about innovating things the Indian way. Leveraging global benchmarks such as venture capital, ease of doing business (India currently ranks an unenviable 134th in this area), intellectual property protection and market access is important, but just copying another country’s model will also have its pitfalls.

So it is extremely unlikely that anyone but Ratan Tata would have been able to realise his dream of Nano, the super low-cost car. Tata had the capital to back such R&D and the organisation to endure the legal and political battles that accompany any large industrial project in this country. There is a reason why we can’t produce another Elon Musk in India. But even he had to move from South Africa to the US to pursue his dreams.

However, we can and have produced a Phanindra Sama, founder of redBus, an online booking site for inter-city buses that largely operate in the unorganised sector but carry millions of passengers daily. India’s large pool of IT-savvy professionals is a cliché but it took Sama’s imagination and a few millions from India’s growing VC community to create long-term value.

Unlike Sama, Mansukhbhai Prajapati does not figure on VC watch lists. But that doesn’t make his invention of a clay fridge called Mitticool (it needs no electricity) is any less cool. Frugal innovation is the buzzword when it comes to grassroots innovation in India and it is being championed by its very own Vinod Khosla, Professor Anil Gupta and his Honey Bee Network. E.F. Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ principle is driving a new model of Indian low-cost, but high-impact innovations.

Another benefit of flying under the radar with such innovations is that they don’t run into the typical problems of red tape and special interests that seem to bedevil the ‘big bang’ approach to innovation, where scale becomes a pre-condition for success.

Implementation beats intent
India is no different from other countries when it comes to the biggest enemy of innovation – poor implementation. When the world’s cheapest tablet Aakash was announced, most of us expected a grand repeat of the success we had with Nano. The Indian government also jumped on the bandwagon but in hindsight, that was one of the reasons for failure.

There is a cautionary tale here for the well-intentioned folks who advocate massive institutional support for specific innovations. That can sometimes make innovators cocky or worse, sloppy, as a lessening of the fear of failure sometimes creates the conditions for falling short.

Institutions need to contribute in order to strengthen the ecosystem – it should be their dharma. Leave it to the Indian innovator to do the rest.

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