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How to make India a source of global innovations

India needs to make the transition from incremental to breakthrough innovation in the market—like Tata Motors appears to have done with its ultra low-cost car, Nano. Also needed is closer interaction between industry and academia.

Print Edition: August 24, 2008

Spread across 50 acres in Whitefield, Bangalore, GE’s John F. Welch Technology Centre is seen as a beacon of high-end innovation in India. Over 3,500 employees at the centre have filed nearly 700 patents as the centre has evolved into the most publicised success of industrial innovation in India. “Indian engineers have made many breakthrough innovations for us and this is reflected in our rapid growth,” says Guillermo Wille, Managing Director of JFWTC.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a raft of mostly anonymous innovators across the informal sector has devised as many as 75,000 innovations, 80 per cent of them in the last eight years, according to Anil K. Gupta, Executive Vice Chair of the National Innovation Foundation. Despite this impressive growth, critics argue that India has done little to market its skill in this field. According to statistics from a World Bank report, just over a tenth of all funding received in India is seed or early-stage investment.

Experts blame a lopsided education system for this statistic. “There is too much conformity within the education system, and to attempt innovation is considered a crime,” says Gupta. Others such as Rajiv Narang, Managing Director of Erehwon Consulting, a Bangalore-based innovation consultancy, argue that India needs to make the transition from incremental to breakthrough innovation in the market—like Tata Motors appears to have done with its ultra low-cost car, Nano. Also needed is closer interaction between industry and academia.

“Half my students who’ve obtained PhDs have been absorbed by industry,” says Shrinivas Kulkarni, MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science and director of Caltech Optical Observatories, California Institute of Technology. That’s, of course, in the US, where risk-taking is rewarded and innovation fetches a huge premium. India needs innovation-hungry employers and market, too.

Rahul Sachitanand

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