Log On To The Power Of Ideas – TOI, 8 Aug 2009

“The next 10 years would be dedicated as a decade of innovation” were the words used by the President of India to conclude her address to the Parliament on June 4. On June 7, US President Obama, in his Cairo address, said “education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century”. During 3-5 June, the first Global Innovation Leaders Summit (I-20), fashioned on G-20, was held in San Francisco. I was invited to represent India. I-20 accepted Norway’s suggestion of introducing a Nobel Prize for innovation. So from Delhi to Cairo to San Francisco, the buzz was around innovation.

This ‘buzz’ has been around for a while though. For instance, the names of the ministries of science and technology, in Argentina, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Malaysia, UK, etc. have been changed with the word ‘innovation’ explicitly included. So why is innovation suddenly gaining such a currency?

Innovation Led Growth, Innovation Led Recovery, Innovation Led Competitiveness are not mere slogans, they are a hard reality.

Innovation is all about converting ideas into new or improved products, processes and services. India’s world ranking on innovation is low. Among 130 countries, India is ranked only 41 in the innovation index (www.siliconindia.com). Even Malaysia (25) and China (37) are ahead of India. Singapore and Korea are in the top 10.

Look beyond statistics now. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT, Madras develops the wireless local loop technology. It gets implemented first in Madagascar, Angola and Brazil before it does so in India! CSIR’s New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative gave the challenge and funding for the creation of a low cost computer to Vinay Deshpande of Encore. He created Mobilis, a mobile personal computer. But the first Mobilis will be produced this year in Malaysia and Brazil and not in India. Due to the limitations in India’s patent laws the phytopharmaceutical breakthrough medicine on psoriasis by Piramal Life Sciences will be commercialized first in the west, not in India. And one can go on.

Innovation converts knowledge into wealth. We should recognize that Saraswati and Lakshmi should coexist. George Whitesides from Harvard is the highest cited scientist in the world – and the market capitalization of his research based companies is over USD 20 billion! Such academic entrepreneurship is missing in India. Indian genes express themselves in silicon valley. But not in Indus valley. Why?

Why do we fail in completing the journey from an Indian mind to an Indian market place? Because India lacks a robust national innovation ecosystem. The essential elements of a powerful ecosystem comprises physical, intellectual and cultural constructs. Beyond mere research labs it includes idea incubators, technology parks, conducive intellectual property rights regime, enlightened regulatory systems, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’, but ‘patent, publish and prosper’, potent inventor-investor engagement, ‘ad’venture capital, and passionate innovation leaders.

The unique genes of almost every Indian for innovation became evident to me while chairing the National Innovation Foundation and Marico Innovation Foundation. That even an ordinary Indian in a remote village can innovate has been demonstrated by Anil Gupta’s pioneering Shodh Yatras in villages. The research by Marico Innovation Foundation in typically Indian innovation has brought out how some Indians make the seemingly impossible possible – examples range from Arvind Eye Care to Cavincare.

Gandhian Engineering is getting ‘more from less for more and more people and not for exclusive few’. India uniquely excels in such innovations. Tata’s Nano car ($ 2000), low cost, advanced hepatitis-B vaccine (18 cents), cheapest mobile phone call (1 cent), etc. are brilliant examples of Gandhian Engineering.

Paradigm shifts are occurring in the Indian innovation landscape. Earlier, Indians only created products that were new only to India. Now Tata’s Nano is a product that is new to the world! Our pharma industry is now creating new molecules, not just copying them. Reliance grew through scale, scope and cost. Now it has embarked on innovation led growth. Reliance Innovation Council under my chairmanship comprising world’s thought leaders, Nobel laureates, etc. is just the first step of Reliance’s ambitious journey.

Such and other recent pathbreaking events compel me to make five suggestions to kick start the ‘Indian Decade of Innovation’.

First, change ‘Ministry of Science & Technology’ to ‘Ministry of Science & Innovation’, boldly bringing the innovation agenda upfront.

Second, create an ambitious National Innovation Policy, going way beyond our Science and Technology Policy (2003).

Third, set up a powerful mechanism to implement this policy by creating National Innovation Council comprising world class innovation leaders. Make the council autonomous, empowered and accountable. Give it the mandate of putting India among the top 10 innovative nations within this ‘Decade of Innovation’.

Fourth, drive ‘Inclusive Growth’ by launching an ‘Indian Inclusive Innovation Initiative’ through the tenets of Gandhian Engineering.

Fifth, launch a National Innovation Movement like our freedom movement, so that innovation becomes every Indian’s obsession.

Then the dream of 21st century being innovative India’s century will certainly come true.