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How India can be the most innovative place on earth
Anand V Chhatpar | December 26, 2005
The author is CEO, BrainReactions LLC, and has been named among the Top 5 entrepreneurs in the US under the age of 25 by BusinessWeek.
I lived in India for 19 years, and feel fortunate for my wide range of experiences in this blessed land. Born in a business family with a silver spoon, I never had any shortage of resources for learning and growing.
I grew up with the strict discipline enforced by my parents and grandparents and the high standards set by them. I was a class topper all throughout my primary and secondary school, and received tremendous love and support from my teachers and friends.
After my 10th grade, when I went for my diploma in computer engineering to Government Polytechnic, Mumbai, I got to see a very different side of life. I learnt to do hard work with my hands as I learnt things like carpentry, welding, plumbing and smithy along with the basics of technology and engineering.
I commuted in crowded local trains for one and a half hours each way every day to and fro my college. I still remember sitting around a table in the canteen with friends who had come from various remote villages of the state and who were used to studying under the street lights because they did not have an electric connection in their house.
I had friends who had gone through great troubles to afford their education. These sons and daughters of farmers and labourers had, through their perseverance and undying hope, reached a stage where they could finally rub shoulders with the rich kids who could simply get in to colleges by paying huge donations. I knew that a change was in the air.
During my diploma days, I had both a research-oriented focus and an entrepreneurial drive. My internal drive has always been to do something different and stand out from the crowd. I found that many well-established people in India are closed to new ideas. There was often a cynicism about India in those days, and people who I approached with radical and modern ideas used to discourage me or be critical of these ideas.
My friends -- Atul, Sidharth -- and I, using our own research and self-study, started a software and Web development company while I was still pursuing my diploma. We did some innovative work for the time, but always had trouble collecting payments from our clients.
Indian businessmen have the tendency to bargain hard and yet not pay on time, or sometimes, not pay at all.
To pursue my academic and research interests, since it was not possible to do research at the undergraduate level in India, I decided to go to America. The environment I found there has completely changed my thinking.
I became great friends with Osman Ozcanli who was an international student from Turkey, and an incredibly creative and positive thinker. Constantly challenging himself to think of ways to improve everything he touched, his imagination and 'everything is possible' attitude were very inspiring for me.
Having made friends who had come to America from all around the world, I got a truly global perspective. Religion, race, and socioeconomic class become completely unimportant to me as soon as I realised that people are part of this global human race before anything else, and people who are essentially good and care for others are respected everywhere.
Osman and I together designed several inventions and participated in invention and business plan contests at our university. We lost several times with multiple different invention entries. "We never give up" was our motto. It took us 12 prototypes before we could finally win the Tong Prototype Prize in 2002 with the OZ Pack, our ergonomically designed stationery binder.
Osman went home to Turkey that summer and found manufacturers for the product. He even found retail distribution through a chain store called Migros. All of a sudden our product was in 72 retail outlets all over Turkey and we could see people using it. It is the most amazing sight to see random people on the street carrying around and using a product that you designed.
I also found stores in the United States to test market our OZ Pack. We both had no business education, but we were making it happen. Action, I realised, can make any idea a reality. Just start and keep trying until you get what you want.
Osman and I also did an internship together at a place called Concept Studio in a company called Pitney Bowes. There, we learnt the formal techniques of customer-centric innovation, ethnographic research, brainstorming, prototyping, and market validation.
I realised that innovation can be systematically taught. I wished there was access to such knowledge in India, where the potential for improvement and innovation was much greater. We had the good fortune of working under great mentors: Tom Foth, Brian Romansky and Jonathan Wolfman, all of whom are prolific inventors.
I filed several invention disclosures while working there and now have four issued US patents to my name, whereas three more are pending.
I also learned in Pitney Bowes how corporations stifle creativity. Outside our small Concept Studio subgroup, people used to work in cubicles. They had to follow policy manuals for everything: even the margin on the letterheads was pre-decided for them and they had to go through political hoops to get approvals for almost every decision.
When Osman graduated and moved to Chicago to work with Inventables, we could not keep the OZ Pack going. However, brainstorming and innovation was in my blood now and I could no longer imagine working in a traditional type of job. I used to organise brainstorming parties on campus calling some of my most creative friends and people that I had met at the invention contests.
At one such party, Nate Altfeather, winner of the $10,000 Schoof's Prize for Creativity, suggested that I start such brainstorming for companies as a professional service. No such business existed at the time, so it was a doubly exciting project for me.
Nate and I formed BrainReactions LLC to tap into creative young minds and innovate new ideas for companies. We had to do several brainstorms for free for non-profit clients and friends before we had improved the process to a level where we were able to approach for-profit corporations to be our clients.
The breakthrough came when after making over 30 phone calls, Tom Foth, my mentor from Pitney Bowes, referred us to the vice president at Bank of America, and we had our first paying client!
Bank of America was impressed with our work and we got great testimonials from them that got us attention from the media and from other companies who wanted to try us out.
I was still a student then, attending my college classes every day, and immediately after class making phone calls to CEOs and vice presidents of Fortune 500 companies to run my business over nights and weekends. Over time, we improved our systems for finding and ranking our idea generators which ensured superb results for our customers.
The idea generators we had chosen were also winning invention contests and business plan contests after we had found them through our system, so that further validated that our process worked. Our successes with new clients made our marketing change from lots of outgoing cold-calls to returning incoming contact requests through our Web site.
I was at the risk of dropping out from college during my final year, but I stuck with it, spending almost no time studying during the last semester. It was a time when I had stopped caring about my GPA, which was a perfect 4.0 at the time, so it dropped minutely by the time I graduated and became full-time with BrainReactions.
Within six months of being the full-time CEO at BrainReactions, I was named by BusinessWeek as one of the top 25 young business leaders in the US, and the readers of the magazine voted me into the top 5, with me being the only Indian in that group.
The following month, we received opportunities to work for the United Nations and were also invited to Japan by the Japanese External Trade Organisation. The Council for Competitiveness invited me to share ideas on how to make America more innovative and competitive globally.
Meanwhile, I came to India to visit my parents and was awestruck by the development taking place in the top-tier cities. The IT/BPO sector had started booming, high paying call centre jobs were available to graduates straight out of college and there was new infrastructure being built everywhere.
India's top 5 per cent now had the same infrastructure that was available in Silicon Valley. Their payscales had increased but their job satisfaction had decreased, with peak attrition rates as high as 43 per cent.
Therein lay a huge opportunity. The people in Bangalore used the same Dell Inspiron computers, the same broadband Internet connections, the same Microsoft Windows platform PCs, the same programming languages and databases used in Silicon Valley, but the people in the US were making multi-billion dollar Google, while the people in India were still testing office applications and doing grunt-work for American companies. Why?
In fact, almost 40 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups have been formed by Indian entrepreneurs. Why then were the entrepreneurs in India still doing work on contract in the service sector and not innovating products for the world?
Globally, India was being heralded as a software powerhouse, but I did not have a single programme on my computer that was made by an Indian company. It was time to change things. Indians deserved to have access to the same tools, techniques, processes and training for innovation that was available in the US.
India can be the knowledge powerhouse of the world. We cannot only make products for the world, but create jobs in other countries, especially in the US. My mission was now to drive this change.
With the help of Atul Khekade, my friend from college and my business partner from my earliest start-up, I established a programme called Innovation Trip that could take Indian leaders to the US and get the best of breed experts to train them on all the various topics required to establish a successful innovation pipeline.
MIT and Stanford are considered the innovation capitals within the US, so we decided that those have to be on the tour. To present the workshop on finding disruptive innovation opportunities, we approached Innosight, the company of Clay Christensen, who has written the book on the topic.
Similarly, for teaching customer-centric innovation methods to act on the new market opportunity, we brought in Icnivad that had established itself as the leading innovation house for knowledge processes within Fortune 100 companies.
At Stanford, we brought in Originaliti, a well-known Silicon Valley-based company that would provide insight and training on creating a culture of creativity and innovation within the company.
Finally, we brought in Ken Tanner, author of several books on employee retention and recruiting excellence, to present a workshop on retaining employees and on anti-poaching, which is a huge problem in India.
With the programme in place and with the support of Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Services Companies; Pradeep Gupta, CEO of Cyber Media; Pankaj Agrawala, joint secretary of IT, and other top CEOs in India, Innovation Trip has seen a prominent launch.
Today our target should not be to serve 300 of the Fortune 500 companies, but to be 300 of the Fortune 500 companies. We can, we will, and we are taking action towards making India the most innovative place on earth.
Indians are naturally creative and intellectual. Our heritage is rich with diverse thoughts, ideas and prominent scientists. Our culture has taught us tolerance and positivity in the face of adversity.
There is nothing stopping us from channeling our creativity into innovation for the world. Let us learn the best from the West, and enhance it with our eastern mindset and give back to the whole world. Its time for this giant nation to stop following and start leading.
Let us say 'no' to grunt work, let us do something new! Innovate India. Innovate!