Affordable Excellence: A Global Game Changer

It is a rare privilege and a great honour to deliver the convocation address of one of the most admired institutions in the world. IIT, Bombay has demonstrated as to how a combination of a great ambition and ambience can lay the foundation of a world class institution, that can reach unusual heights of excellence and relevance.

My association with IIT (Bombay) is an old one. Years ago, I was a member of the Governing Board. I remember playing a small role in the creation of Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management. IIT(B)-Monash Academy is a much admired model of a unique international partnership between two great institutions. It has been a privilege to have been involved in its formation, its growth and now as the chair of its Research Advisory Council. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the presence of my esteemed friend, Prof. Alan Finkel, the Chancellor of Monash University and our Monash colleagues amongst us today.

I want to begin by congratulating the graduands of the day. India’s image is changing from that of a third world country to a potentially the third most powerful country in the world and you will be the builders of this future India. You are entering a world, which is exciting as well as challenging. I say challenging, since we realize that we are living in a VUCA world, which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. But you are fortunate that your alma matter has equipped you fully with skills and tools to deal with this challenge most confidently.

You have an inspiring past and even more inspiring future. The graduands of this great institution have been iconic achievers, from Nandan Nilekani to Nitin Nohria – from Kanwal Rekhi to Manohar Parrikar – from Arun Netravali to Narendra Karmarkar, and the list goes on.

IIT (Bombay) has seamlessly integrated education, research and innovation. Education disseminates known knowledge, research creates new knowledge and innovation converts knowledge into wealth and social good. What I want to speak to you today is about an important new dimension to this challenge.

I want to put a challenge before the class of 2014. Making high technology work for the rich is easy. Making low technology work for the poor is easy. But making high technology work for the poor is difficult. I urge you to take up this great challenge. I shall explain to you as to what would be the game changing nature of this endeavor not only for India but for the whole world.

The Innovation Buzz

I want to alert you right in the beginning that a lot of what I am going to say is a view from my personal lens. Let me begin by recalling what I had said, when I received the JRD Tata Corporate Leadership award in 1998.

Finally, 1999 should be the year, where we should launch a powerful national innovation movement to propel us into the next millennium. The I in India should not stand for imitation and inhibition, it should stand for innovation. The I in IIT, the I in industry must stand for innovation. The I in every individual Indian must stand for innovation. It is only this innovative India that will signal to the rest of the world, that we are not a hesitant nation, unsure of our place in the new global order, but a confident one, that is raring to go, and occupy its rightful place in the comity of nations”.

I am happy to see a nationwide movement on innovation spreading throughout India. The Indian Government moved from Science Policy Resolution (1958) to Technology Policy Statement (1988) to Science & Technology Policy (2003) to Science, Technology & Innovation Policy (2013). India has declared the decade 2010-20 as the Indian Decade of Innovation. Prime Minister’s National Innovation Council, of which I was privileged to be a member, has helped setting up 31 Innovation Councils in the states and union territories. I can see from my own vantage view point the innovation movement in industry. I chair the Reliance Innovation Council, Thermax Innovation Council, KPIT Technologies Innovation Council, etc. These did not exist five years ago.

But what is the world ranking of India as an innovation nation? We get a mixed message. On one hand, India has slipped in the World Innovation Index (WII) from 64 (2012) to 66 (2013) to 76 (2014). On the other hand, Indian innovation is changing the very dictionary of innovation. We did not have phrases like ‘inclusive innovation’, ‘reverse innovation’, ‘frugal innovation’, ‘Gandhian innovation’ just five years ago. Today they dominate the discussion around the world. There is even a book titled ‘Nanovation’ written by two US citizens, Kevin & Jackie Freiberg. Here, nanovation does not refer to nanotechnology, but to the inspiring story of making of the Tata Nano Car. In fact India is being looked at as a leader in this class of innovation.

Then despite India’s ability to change the very dictionary of innovation, how come we are seeing a fall in our World Innovation Index. It has been a topic of much discussion in the press in the last two weeks. Let me give you my viewpoint. I am a member of the International Advisory Board of World Innovation Index. I have expressed some concern that the current parameters that are used in determining this Index may not fully reflect nation’s true innovation capacity. The current parameters include R&D spend as a fraction of GDP, export of high technology goods, electricity consumption per capita, ease of doing business, etc., where India does not fare well. Further, this index caters only to technological innovation. The other types of innovations, which sometimes have proved to be game changing, are not considered. These include business model, work-flow, system delivery, organizational innovation, etc. And India excels in these. Innovation done by formal systems for the people are included but not the grass roots innovations, which are innovations done by the people, for the people. I chair the National Innovation Foundation. Over 200,000 of such grass roots innovations are listed on our web page. None of these count for the World Innovation Index.

Understandably, World Innovation Index presently uses some input and output based measurable parameters. But we must go beyond the current methods to assess the true innovation capacity.

Making Impossible, Possible

Let us ask some simple questions.

•    Can we make a high quality Hepatitis-B vaccine priced at US$20 per dose available at a price that is 40 times less, not just 40%?
•    Can we make a high quality artificial foot priced at US$10,000 available at a price that is 300 times less, not just 30%?
•    Can we make a high quality cataract eye surgery available, not at US$3,000, but a price that is 100 times less, not just 100%?
•    Can we make an ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower, not just 20%?

Incredible as it may sound, all such impossible looking feats have been achieved by Indian innovators. And this has captured the imagination of the world to an extent that a new term `Indovation’ is beginning to do rounds now!

And why is this? Because such `Indovation’ is achieving, what at first sight looks impossible, namely `affordable excellence’. We normally assume that what is affordable cannot be excellent. And what is excellent cannot be affordable. But Indian innovators have demonstrated a special talent to make this impossible, possible.

Affordable Excellence: An Example

Let me begin my explanation of the concept of affordable excellence with a personal experience. In my mother’s name, I have created an Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award. This is the fourth year of the award. It is given for designing and developing a technological solution that leads to inclusion ¬– meaning that millions of resource-poor people can benefit from it. But there are two conditions. First, it must belong to the category of affordable excellence. Second, it must be not just the “best” practice, but the “next” practice.

One of these awards was given to a 28-year-old innovator, Myshkin Ingawale. He found that women in villages were dying of anaemia because their low haemoglobin levels were not detected in time. He found out why: many of them were reluctant to give their blood. So he decided to create a non-invasive diagnostic tool, something that has never been achieved before. He used photoplethysmography, spectrophotometry and an advanced software for photon scattering to create ToucHb. This was technological `excellence’ achieved by using cutting edge technology, and not jugaad. Furthermore, he reduced the cost per test from Rs. 100 to Rs. 10. This was `affordable’. So he achieved `affordable excellence’.

ToucHb was a technological innovation. But there are many non-technological innovations. For example, India’s Aravind Eyecare Hospital performs ultra-low cost cataract surgeries with quality that even surpasses the international benchmarks. This is achieved by doing work-flow innovations, with more efficient and innovative use of scarce (and highly-paid) surgeons: rather than having a surgeon perform the entire surgery, each medical personnel performs a specific task during the operation. Aravind Eye care model has spread in 17 Countries now! Similar workflow innovations have been used to perform low-cost open-heart surgeries (at a cost of US$3,000) at the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital in Bangalore with success rates that match their western counterparts. You will soon see the Narayana Hrudayalaya innovation on affordable excellence in a 2000 bed hospital in Cayman islands near Florida!

Challenge for the IITians

Now here is the challenge for IITians. Innovations leading to ‘affordable excellence’ would not be just to produce low performance, cheap knock-off versions of rich country technologies so that they can be marketed to poor people. That is easy. Can you help in harnessing truly sophisticated science or technology or truly creative non-technological innovations to achieve quality goods and services that are affordable to many, not just a privileged few?.

To put it differently, in terms costs, getting `more from more’ is easy. Getting `less from less’ is easy. Jugaad, which has given a bad name to Indian innovation has done this. It is `less for less’ with cost as the only consideration. The idea in Jugaad is to get around somehow, with no consideration to safety, environment, etc. That is not my idea of my India. As IITians, we must accept the challenge of doing `more from less for more people’ not just for more profit.

More from Less for More

I and late C.K. Prahalad wrote a paper titled ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’ in Harvard Business Review (HBR) in the July-August 2010 issue. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the last paper that the legendary CK, as we fondly called him, wrote. There we discussed as to how the combination of scarcity and aspiration had helped India develop its own brand of innovation – getting more from less for more people. This was called the MLM paradigm, i.e. ‘More from Less for More’. This paper provoked worldwide discussion and debate. In fact only six months after the paper was published in HBR, the World Economic Forum had a special session on ‘More from Less for More’ on 16 November 2010!

In this paper, we had first analysed the contextual factors that had undoubtedly facilitated the growth of India’s ability to achieve `affordable excellence’. Let us examine these in some detail.

Indian Strengths in MLM

First, India’s political leaders experimented with socialism for more than four decades, which kept out foreign capital and technologies, but spurred local innovation. India developed some of the lowest cost nuclear weapons, space launching vehicles, supercomputers, etc. And we have kept up these good habits. The Mars mission, which has sent Mangalyan in the space, just cost us US $ 80 million – not a billion dollars!

Incidentally, Managalayan would have traversed around 6000 Kms towards the Mars during the 30 minutes of my convocation address,

Second, the Indian economy didn’t start growing until the 1990s, so local companies were small. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, developed a penchant for undertaking small projects with huge capital efficiency, a good habit developed in bad times, which they have maintained in good times too!

Third, local companies knew that while India has both rich and poor people, catering only to the rich limited their market. Most targeted the aspiring middle class family, which lives on $5,000 a year. As a result, they were forced to create products that will straddle the whole economic pyramid, from top to bottom.

And fourth, the most important driver happened to be India’s innovation mind-set. Some Indian leaders had the audacity to question the conventional wisdom. The mix of miniscule research budgets, small size, low prices, but big ambitions had created the need to think and manage differently. Indeed it is fair to say that the combination of extreme scarcity and extreme aspiration ignited the Indian innovation.

Spreading  Message Globally

The concept of affordable excellence is spreading worldwide now. My own TED lecture on the subject of affordable excellence has received more than half a million views in a short time. Why is there so much interest?

The emerging economies are going for it, since they see that the income inequality between the top of the economic pyramid and the bottom of the economic period is increasing. And this is causing social disharmony. It will take generations to reduce the income inequality. So what do we do  to meet this challenge? Can we create, despite the income inequality, an access equality-access to education, health, communications, financial services and so on. The answer is yes. And the way to do it is by doing the innovation leading to `affordable excellence’.

The best visible example is the spread of mobile phones, over 900 million of them, covering slum dwellers, rickshaw pullers, and so on. And mind you, this resolution was possible because of a combination of policy innovation, technological innovation and a unique Indian business model innovation, as Prahalad and I have explained in our HBR paper.

From my personal lens, I am seeing this growing awareness about affordable excellence around the world. I was invited by the European Commission to do a strategy paper titled “Organising Inclusive Innovation for Accelerated Inclusive Growth” in May last year.

On 11 March this year, I gave a talk on ‘Innovation under Adversity’ in Innovation 2014 organised by European Union in Brussels, speaking to an audience of around 2000. At the end of the talk, someone asked a question: what does it all mean for European Union. And someone else answered it on my behalf. He said ‘Prof. Mashelkar’s plea for affordable excellence is to ensure the magic of access equality despite income inequality. And EU needs it as much as India and China do. Look at the income inequality in EU’s 28 member states’!

I understand that discussions are currently on for including affordable excellence as a theme in EU’s Horizon 2020 program, whose aim is to increase the EU competitiveness? And how will this increase EU’s competiveness? EU realizes now that quality, sustainability and affordability together are going to be the key to EU’s competitive advantage, not just the first two on which EU had focused so far.

Enterprises Going for Affordable Excellence

Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric had recently said `If we do not come up with innovations in poor countries and take them global, new competitors from the developing world – the Mindray, Suzlon and Goldwind will. That is a bracing prospect.’ And he is not wrong at all. Look at these examples.

India’s Mahindra & Mahindra sells small tractors to American hobby farmers, challenging John Deere’s market share. China’s Haier has undercut Western competitors in a wide range of products, from air conditioners and washing machines to wine coolers. Haier sold a wine cooler for half the price of the industry leader. Within two years, it had grabbed 60% of the American market.

So Jeffrey Immelt sees the threat and he has jumped into the fray by doing what he calls as `reverse innovation’. GE’s Vscan, a portable ultrasound device was developed in China. As against the standard ultrasound machine, costing around $ 20,000, Vscan costs just $ 1500! It is now a big hit in rich and poor countries alike. The same is true of what GE healthcare in Bangalore did for electrocardiogram (ECG) machines. Their team created a portable high quality ECG machine for just $ 600, as against the standard $ 10,000 machine. This has become a big hit too. And it is not GE alone, several companies are going for affordable excellence.

Academics & Affordable Excellence

And it is not just the enterprises from advanced nations that are getting involved. Top academics of the world are getting involved.

On the 6th of August, I read the report that Harvard University researchers have created an inexpensive detector, just costing US$ 25, that can be used by health care workers in the world’s poorest areas to monitor diabetes, detect malaria, discover environmental pollutants, and perform tests that are done by machines that cost of thousands of dollars. The leader of this innovation team is George Whitesides, who, by the way is the highest cited scientist in the world with a staggering h index of 169!

My question is that these are our problems. Why should we wait for MIT,Harvard and Stanford to solve our problems? Can we not do this in our IITs? When I look around the talent in front of me, I know that we certainly can do it. Did we not do Akash, the US $ 35 tablet? We did. Should we not do more?

At IIT (Bombay) our mandate is `excellence and relevance’,. We must turn our `relevance’ lens on `affordable excellence’. And by the way, unlike the popular perception, relevance and excellence can go together. The research paper on the US $ 25 sensor by George Whitesides is published in the August 2014 issue of the Proceedings of US National Academy of Science, one of the topmost journals in the world.

Final Words

I am a great admirer of Techfest, this unique student organized body from IIT (Bombay), which has caught the imagination of the young innovators al and the world. I suggest that the entire Techfest 2015 could just have one theme – affordable excellence! I have been giving away the Gandhian Young Technologist Innovation Awards based on a national competition for the last two years. I have personally witnessed the power of the young in using cutting edge technology to create affordable excellence. There is a nice definition of an innovator. It is that `innovator is one, who does not know that it cannot be done’. And one young do not know that it cannot be done. If the young of this nation are set challenges on affordable excellence, they will show how impossible  can be made possible. Techfest should start this as an event. I am sure it will lead to a big national movement.

I wish to remind the class of 2014, that our dream ultimately is not about `some Indians’ doing well, but `India’ doing well. It is not about just creating `value for money’ but creating `value for many’. And it is also about innovative India rapidly moving, through the affordable excellence route, to becoming a truly inclusive society.

My friends, ”affordability” brings equity and “excellence” brings competitiveness. And “affordable excellence” has the power to put smiles on the faces of all seven billion people in the world, not just a few of them. I urge the class of 2014 to take up this grand challenge of putting  smiles on the faces of all, not just some.

I always say that there is no limit to human imagination and human achievement. Your journey on the limitless ladder of excellence will take you to new heights, which are unparalleled, provided you decide not to put any limit on your imagination on what you can achieve. This, along with the spirit “yes, I can” will help you achieve so much that you, your family, your alma-matter, your country will be proud of you. I extend my very best wishes to you on this exciting journey.