Convocation Lecture NIIT University – Building India as a Leader Amongst Innovation Nations


“Distinguished Founder Shri Raji Pawar, Distinguished Co-founder Shri Vijay Thadani, President Prof V.S.Rao, Members of  Board of Management, Deans, Faculty, proud graduands of the day, their equally proud parents, ladies and gentlemen,
I want to begin by heartily congratulating the graduands of the day. This is a very special day in your life.

When my generation graduated, India was a third-world country. When you are graduating, India is well on its way to become the third-largest economic power in the world.

And my friends, it is you, who will be charged with the responsibility of building a great future for our great nation.

You all are also 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.

They say that institutions can’t build the future of the young, but they can build the young for the future.

You are fortunate that this great University has equipped you fully with skills and tools to deal with this challenge most confidently.

May I begin with some personal remarks? I have been an ardent admirer of our Founder, my dear friend Raji Pawar, for close to four decades now.

I distinctly remember Raji and I travelled together in a flight. It was he, who told me that the 21st century will be the “Century of the Mind”.

That was an inspiring thought by a great thought leader. It was an inspiring moment for me.

In fact, that became the theme of my Presidential address in the 87th Indian Science Congress that was held at the dawn of the new millennium in Pune.

While ending my Presidential address I referred to what Raji had taught me.

I said “Next Century will be the century of mind and India will have the legitimate right to lead. Next Century will belong to India, which will become a unique intellectual and economic power to reckon with recapturing all its glory, which it had in the millennia gone by. And I believe this will happen as this dawn of new millennium turns into a morning, and what a glorious morning would it be for my India.”

And then there was not only thought leadership but also action leadership. Today we talk about Start-Up India. But it was 36 years ago that NIIT, a great start-up was founded by Raji Pawar and Vijay Thadani, two great thought and action leaders.

Creating job – oriented educational courses is always the need of the hour. NIIT was a pioneer in that and that too well ahead of time.

Speed, scale and sustainability matter the most. How do you scale the institutional outreach though?

NIIT found an innovative way for rapid scaling. It created the first franchise model in IT education.

This model worked like a charm. It helped NIIT scale from 7 centers in 1989 located only in India to 3500 Centers located across 40 Countries.

NIIT is a text book case showing how to build an exponential organization.

Great leaders do not believe in just `doing well’. They believe in `doing well and doing good’.

Doing well for their stakeholders but also doing good for the society.

So NIIT was followed by NIIT Foundation, which is a not- for- profit education society. It has a noble mandate to `reach the unreached, uncared and unattended to ensure inclusive development of India’.

And then the NIIT University was born in 2009 with an avowed objective of the University becoming an institution of higher learning, creating original thinkers that will lead the future knowledge society.

I am proud to have been the Founding Professor of NIIT University. And I am so proud to see the great progress that the University has made in such a short time.

Apart from becoming a `University of the Future’, NU wants to be a role model of `learning, research, innovation and sustainability’. This is a great aspiration.

Out of these four, let me just pick up the issue of `innovation’.

Why innovation? Because innovation is going to be the instrument of India’s development, it’s growth, it’s competitiveness, it’s standing in the comity of nations.

I am passionate about innovation. Let me begin by recalling my closing remarks in my acceptance speech that I delivered while receiving 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”.

Extending this statement 20 years later, I would say NIIT has not one `I’ but two `Is’ in its name.

So, its responsibility is double.

Those two Is in NIIT must stand for `incredible innovation’.  And what kind of innovation should it be?

President Obama had said in his speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 that “education and innovation are going to be the key for the future”.

I would go a step further and say that `education in innovation’ and `innovation in education’ are going to be the key for the future.

And I am delighted to see that NIIT University is pushing hard on this twin strategy. And this augurs well for building the future of an innovative India.

But what about the present? How is India doing in terms of innovation, in terms of its world ranking?

Global Innovation Index (GII) is a good indicator, which captures the innovation ranking of over 140 nations.

India’s rank slumped from 62 (2011) to 64 (2012) to 66 (2013) to 76 (2014) to 81 (2015).

But here is the good news. India is rapidly bouncing back from 81 (2015) to 66 (2016) to 60 (2017), a jump by 21 ranks in just two years!

We must continue this rapid rise so that India will move into the league of top innovation nations, and sooner, rather than later.

These GII rankings are important, but they don’t tell the real story of innovation in India. Why? Because India has a very special way of doing innovation that does not get counted in the GII rankings.

I am proud to say that this special way of Indian innovation has changed the dictionary of innovation itself.

Phrases like `frugal innovation’, `inclusive innovation’, `reverse innovation’, `Gandhian innovation’ did not exist in the innovation dictionary just 10 years ago.

They very much dominate the innovation agenda of the world today.

So, what is the magic of Indian innovation? 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 ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower, not just 20%?
•    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 10%?

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!

Unfortunately, the word Jugaad has also dominated the innovation dictionary – and that also came from India.

But Jugaad means a quick fix in a resource poor situation. It has cost as the only consideration with no concerns for safety, environment, aesthetics, etc.

That’s not what India should be striving for.

Instead the real strength of Indian innovation should be in delivering `affordable excellence’.

`Affordable excellence’ itself appears like an oxymoron, because we generally believe that what is affordable can’t be excellent and what is excellent can’t be affordable.

But the examples I cited just now themselves show affordable excellence.

Affordable, since the prices are lower by 20 to 300 times. Excellence, because high quality is delivered in all cases.

And let’s look at another striking example, which was proudly mentioned in 2015 NU Convocation address by my friend Dr. Kasturirangan. The story of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and Mangalayan.

And what did the Indian mission cost? 78 million US dollars.  How much did an equivalent US mission cost? 671 million US dollars.

And by the way, this almost tenfold reduction in achieving the same objective was not due to our lower manpower costs. It was because of the innovative way in which Mangalayan went to Mars.

Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, in his Independence Day speech this year, emphasized that young students must aspire to become job creators rather than just job seekers.

I am so happy to see that NU is focused on creating more job creators.

From the perspective of building India as a leading innovation nation, the start-up India movement is very critical.

For this, we need to build a robust national innovation ecosystem. The essential elements of such a national ecosystem comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs.

Beyond mere research labs, it includes idea incubators, technology parks, a conducive intellectual property rights regime, balanced regulatory systems, strategically designed standards, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’,  but ‘patent, publish and prosper’, scientists, who have the passion to become technopreneurs, potent inventor-investor engagement, not just venture capital but ‘ad’ venture capital, and finally, passionate innovation leaders.

I am very happy to see many commendable initiatives that our Government has taken in recent times to improve the innovation ecosystem for our start-ups.

But there are some very important fundamentals that we must get right. These are Talent, Technology and Trust. Let me explain.

I recall Bill Gates narrating this story in an exclusive dinner – cum – discussion, which I was privileged to attend in New Delhi some years ago.  He then mentioned about the remarks that he had made at the Harvard University Commencement 2007.

After acknowledging the fact that he was the most successful drop out from Harvard University, he said, and I quote him from his Commencement address.

“One of my biggest memories of Harvard came in January 1975, when I made a call from Currier House to a company in Albuquerque that had begun making the world’s first personal computers. I offered to sell them software.

I worried that they would realize I was just a student in a dorm and would hang up on me. Instead they said: “We’re not quite ready, come see us in a month,” which was a good thing, because we hadn’t written the software yet!

From that moment, I worked day and night on this little extra credit project that marked the end of my college education and that was the beginning of a remarkable journey with Microsoft.”

This tells you the importance of trust.

The company in Albuquerque did not hang up the phone after a youngish voice made an audacious offer of supplying software in those early days of personal computers. They trusted him.

And look at the audacity of young Bill Gates, who offered the software that he did not have. Why?  Because he had the trust in himself that he would deliver.
Our young generation needs to have this confidence. I was a witness to this new confidence in our young generation recently.

I was speaking to some young students a few months ago. The title of my talk was `Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’.

I said “Satya Nadela is the CEO of Microsoft. Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google, may be one of you will be the Shiva, who might become the CEO of Apple”.

One of the young students got up and said “Sir, you are out of tune with the realities. Your generation was one, whose only dream was to go to USA, somehow. The next generation was more ambitious. They didn’t just want to go to USA but land jobs in Microsoft and Google. The next generation was even more ambitious, they wanted to become CEOs of Microsoft and Google. Not our generation. Sir, we want to create our very own Microsoft, our very own Google, here in India”.

And this aspiration is wonderful! But while aspiring to be billionaires, you must also think of the hundreds of millions of `have nots’ in our nation.

I am very happy to see the emphasis of NIIT University on the 4 CS, namely, creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

But I will like to add a fifth C – namely compassion; compassion for the `have nots’ in our society.

Let me give you some examples of young innovators with compassion.

In my mother’s name, I have created Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award.

This is given for those innovators, who create compassionate innovation, who make high technology work for the poor, who go for `next practice’ rather than `current best practice’.

Let me tell you about the last three winners.

Last year it was Mihir Shah. He was pained by the fact that poor women die of breast cancer, because the diagnostic tests are expensive.

He created `ibreast’ examination, which is simple, accurate, and affordable. It is painless because it is non-invasive. Does not require mammography.

How much does a test cost? Just one dollar per test! Why did young Mihir do that? Because of compassion in his heart.

Earlier, Rahul Rastogi was the winner. He created a portable 12- Lead ECG machine of the size of a match box. Cost per test? Not 200 rupees but just 5 rupees.

Why did young Rahul do that? Again, compassion in the heart.

Earlier, the award 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 was never achieved before.

He used photoplethysmography, spectrophotometry and an advanced software for photon scattering to create ToucHb. He reduced the cost per test from Rs. 100 to Rs. 10.

Why did young Myshkin do that? Again, compassion in his heart.

In fact, I would say that the three qualities that you all must develop are innovation, compassion and passion.

That’s the only way we will create a better world.

So, my friends, my dream is that India should be a world leader among the innovation nations in the domain of compassionate innovation by following the path of affordable excellence.

Finally, a question that I am often asked is “Can you share with us any learnings from your own life that have worked for you?”

So, my friends, I give you the gist of ten lessons that have helped me in my life.

First, your aspirations are your possibilities, keep them always high.

Second, unlike instant coffee, there is no instant success. Work hard, success will follow.

Third, work hard in silence. Let success make all the noise.

Fourth, persistence pays. It is always too soon to quit.

Fifth, don’t wait for opportunities to knock on your door, create opportunities, build your own doors.

Sixth, you can do anything but not everything. So, choose. Focus.

Seventh, be curious forever. Creativity follows curiosity. New creation follows creativity.

Eighth, when someone tells you it can’t be done, take it more as a reflection of his limitation, not yours.

Ninth, `I’ in each one of you must stand for innovation, not for inhibition or imitation. It is better to fail in originality, than succeed in imitation.

Tenth, there is no limit to human imagination and achievement, except the limits you yourself put on your mind. So, go limitless. Outperform yourself.

My young friends, it has been such a privilege to speak to you all. You are the creators of new India of our dreams.

All my best wishes are with you in your exciting journey on this limitless ladder of excellence and achievement.

Thank you.