Transforming the innovation landscape of India

Keynote by Anil Gupta at India’s National Competitiveness Forum

There is a lack of hunger in the industry. The first dimension of that lack of hunger is that if there is a pot of gold lying in front of us, we would normally expect a chaos in India and maybe a queue in Europe, but nevertheless, we would expect a lot of people wanting to have a share in that part. By pot of gold, I mean the large number of young people solving problems, but we do not have people willing to take that pot of gold in our country. There is neither chaos nor queue. 

This can be better illustrated with an example. Millions of people are affected by Tuberculosis, and Indian government has even taken the decision to eliminate it by 2022. Now, three students from IIT Delhi realized that identifying the bacterium for TB requires a special kind of microscope called fluorescent microscope. It normally costs anywhere between Rs 3-5 lakhs, and sometimes even Rs 10 lakhs, which means that primary health centres in this country will never have a fluorescent microscope. If identified early, TB is curable, and otherwise, it is very difficult to control. So, the three students took an ordinary microscope of Rs.10,000 and attached another Rs.10,000 device, which makes it a fluorescent microscope. The problem was solved. One would expect that all those industries in medtech sector who want to have a scale, who want to reach millions, about 650 thousand villages of this country would have a queue outside this innovation, outside these three people’s lab. On the contrary, nothing happened.

Another example of innovation in health sector is with regards to the sterilization process. Doctors need to sterilize the calipers, forceps and spatula soon after using it on a patient. Sterilization means autoclave. It involves heating these tools on the flame and then cooling down. Autoclave needs energy, and when there is no power, the substitute is fuel or gas, and it takes some time for autoclaving. A group of students developed a small solution of Rs.500 with a solvent of only Rs.200 a litre, which sterilizes devices in only two minutes. The cost of a sterilizing devices is Rs.500. it is not only useful for the primary health centres, but also for frugal hospitals and for camps organized on the field. Here again, there is no queue.

If we really want to transform not only Indian industry but also Indian industries’ leveraging capability globally, the first thing we need to do is go towards innovation playground where both inside-out and outside-in is aggressively pursued.

Besides health sector, there are a large number of innovations in material science, steel, and food as well, yet not many are getting traction. There are opportunities where needs are clearly articulated, gap is obvious, functionality is clear and the problem has been solved, but they don’t get scale. A young student of eighth standard, Shalini from Patna had sent us an idea that could make the front legs of a walker adjustable for stairs, which is a problem faced in walkers made in the USA and Europe as well. Our team got the walker with flexible legs made, and it is in the market now. However, less than thousand pieces have been sold. The walker is meeting not just Indian need but also global need, but despite the low cost of Rs 1500 and potential for global demand, these small entrepreneurs having non-exclusive license are not getting traction. The problem is perhaps we are suffering from a syndrome called not-invented-here, so if it is not an innovation from our own workshop, our own lab, then we do not find it interesting. But the open innovation framework meant that we will seek insights from anywhere.

If we really want to transform not only Indian industry but also Indian industries’ leveraging capability globally, we need to first go towards innovation playground where both inside-out and outside-in is aggressively pursued. Tesla is an example of inside-out. They opened all their patents because they wanted competitiveness not with others but with themselves. They wanted more companies to come in the market so that there are more charging stations, so that people are encouraged to take electrical car for longer distance without worrying about the availability of charging stations. Nobody would set up charging station only for one company, and they knew that by the time other people copy their technologies, use their patents and develop good batteries, they would have come out with new innovations.

India is becoming a consumer of knowledge. Based on the total gigabyte that we consume in terms of downloads, we are the biggest consumer in the world. In comparison, we are uploading much less, or in other words, we have downloaded more knowledge than we have shared. Does it mean that we think there is no lesson in our companies which can improve the performance of the industry and not just the firm? Sharing our knowledge will not affect our performance because if our other company, colleague and competitors also improve their performance, we will have incentive to do even better. There will thus be a continuous innovation in our company because we will be creating our own competition by giving others the knowledge that we have which they can use and perform better. This is what leaders do. 

IBM opened many patents on $1 license because they want others to have access to the knowledge they have but cannot find use for. By doing this, they are inviting other creative people to use their intellectual property and find use for it. So, the 

You know how many patents IBM opened on Re.1 license, $1 license? Why did they do that? Because they want you to know “something which I can’t find use for, somebody else can find use for. Let me find out who is that creative person who knows better than me as to how they can use my intellectual property.” Wonderful idea. So, the second suggestion is, we have an indicator in our board meeting to see how much of content, how much of data, how much of insights, and how much of experiences in solving different problems did we share with others. This can lead to competition through collaboration. 

Frugal, inclusive and sustainable innovations are the need of the hour.

The third suggestion is to create ecosystem maps. In Industrial ecology, a waste is defined as a material for which use has not yet been found. Zero waste economy is possible. It is a well-known principle that those who waste less and those who use energy better are more competitive. For example, a Steel plant generates a lot of slag as a by-product, which can be used by the construction business to make prefabricated blocks. Lots of houses can be built at very low cost using a waste material that steel plants have in thousands of tons. But we are not doing it. We are not thinking together to create such exchange where people find opportunities. The Government of India talks about circular economy, but we cannot make a circular economy without creating such an exchange.

The fourth suggestion takes inspiration from the Shodh Yatra where people walk for miles. We could have Shodh Yatras on the industrial floor, the shop floor. There is hardly any shop floor where somebody has not modified a machine that was imported and/or manufactured for suiting the local conditions. The innovative ideas given by workers at the shop floors help companies solve problems or cut costs, but they do not have a list of those workers and they ideas they shared. We don’t have a record of ideas that our own people have developed in our own company. The idea of industrial Shodh Yatras is to maintain such a record by taking the time to walk through the shop floor, going to the people and ask them for any idea that they have. If they have been working with the same machine for 20 years, it is impossible that they would not have thought of improving it.

The fifth suggestion is to have incubators in the industry. Most incubators in the country are in academic institutions. The ones which are in the industry are for only internal people. If the innovative ideas by the youth are incubated, they will get much better, become more practical and become products much faster. We don’t have such places, but we can begin to work towards it. It is economically feasible and does not require much space, around 5,000 square meters. Young people can be invited to test their ideas and use the resources and guidance available in these incubators. If young people come around, they will infuse some energy, they will work day and night, and inspire some others too. Surely, innovative solutions can emerge out of it.

Intellectual Property Right (IPR) is a very important instrument. There are good innovative solutions developed by people which they could not carry on, could not find market for, or maybe he/she was ahead of the time. This is why there is a long list of abundant and expired patents existing today. These are open source high value intellectual resources waiting to be used. At USPTO, we have compiled a database of all such patents in the last 20 years, so it can be used.

There are thousands of college projects that have led to nowhere, but these are half-baked bricks that still have potential to build buildings. We created a database at pooling 200,000 engineering projects done by 550 thousand students of this country. Now these half-baked bricks are available for all to combine them, bake them and converge them. If you like it, you can also send a small contribution to the department where this student had studied, and if you can locate the student, you can reach out to them and thank them for the work done by them that helped your company. These students are coveted by the industry around the world, but their work had not been tracked yet.

Thus, there are building blocks of innovation at all levels. It is in patent office, in the student projects, and so on. We must think of ways in which we can engage the young people of this country who are willing to do something for the whole world but are not being challenged enough. The biggest regret that a young person has today is not that the person is not finding opportunities, but that they are not finding a challenge. The entire transformation that we have been able to achieve is by putting challenges in the hand of the people.

Frugal, inclusive and sustainable innovations are the need of the hour. Frugal and inclusive are not enough. A Re.1 sachet is frugal and inclusive but the cost of collecting that plastic piece from 650,000 villages of our country is so huge that it is not frugal anymore. It is not frugal for the environment, for the earth. Hence, it should be sustainable too. Low cost is not frugal unless it is low cost for the earth as well. It should be low cost for the company, the consumer, the supply chain as well as the earth, then it is frugal, sustainable and inclusive.

We can change the situation and get a more agile, more responsive, more reciprocal open innovation system where we invest in the idea that are not only going to be used today or tomorrow but also sometime in future. It is possible if we change our minds to think of innovation in the ways mentioned.

The society that grow invests in ideas that may not have any utility for next 10-30 years, but they invest in future. We should look far and recognize that if we need to support the innovation ecosystem, we must think of supporting innovations that are not necessarily useful for our own company, that are not immediately useful, and innovations which are not necessarily coming from our company. If we can do that, there will be a buoyancy in the innovation ecosystem and it will spur the whole economy.

Previous Panel Discussion on Competitiveness: Triumph of Regions
Next On Governance