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Innovation: Where has India succeeded and failed

By Arindam Banerji
Last updated on: August 12, 2004 13:13 IST
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Part I: Can India produce billion-dollar innovations?
Part II: How India can innovate like the US

In the third of this four-part series, Arindam Banerji discusses how can India start institutionalising innovation without resorting to large-scale changes that need huge political capital.

Before we get carried away, the key question here isn't one of trying to copy American practices into Indian circumstances. Nor it is a move to suggest that innovative ideas in India, must look like those in the United States.

The question is a much deeper one. Without resorting to large-scale changes that need huge political capital, how can we start institutionalising innovation in India?

What are the small steps that reachable people like Non-Resident Indians, Indian industrialists and some open-minded politicians can take on?

Where can we best focus our attention to get measurable forms of success in the short term, while relentlessly moving us forward towards the long term?

But first, we must understand what India is doing today towards institutionalising innovation. 

Rural and Indigenous Innovations

One style of innovation that really works in a country as large and diverse as ours, is grassroots innovation: this includes inventions for a milieu that is quintessentially Indian.

These inventions are probably difficult to migrate from our culture, traditions and environment to that of other countries, but they are critical to how Indian ingenuity can be directly used to transform our circumstances, in ways that elite corporate research laboratories never can.

These rural and indigenous innovations come from two sources: first, farmers, semi-literates, illiterates, slum-dwellers who have managed to change things by marrying their own innate genius to their inherent understanding of ground conditions; and, second, innovations taken from more traditional sources such as universities and independent engineers that are then adapted back to suit Indian traditions and conditions.

Some key examples from the BBC and include:

  • Balubhai Vasoya, from Ahmedabad in Gujarat has developed a stove that uses both kerosene and electricity. A six-volt electric coil heats the kerosene, converting it into gas which burns with a blue flame. It saves 70 per cent on fuel compared with conventional stoves running on LPG. 'One litre of kerosene lasts for eight hours; and in 20 hours, the stove uses one unit of electrical power. So running it for an hour costs one-and-a-half rupees in total. No smell, no smoke and it burns like LPG.'
  • Mansukhbhai of Gujarat could not afford to buy a tractor, so he created an Enfield diesel motorcycle with a difference: by removing the back wheel and replacing it with a spiked cylinder, his motorcycle now doubles as a tractor.
  • Anna Saheb Udgave, a 70-year-old farmer from the Sadalga village in Karnataka's Belgaum district, developed a low-cost drip irrigation system to fight water crisis in his village. He improved upon his innovation and turned it into a mega sprinkler, and called it Chandraprabhu Rain Gun. Other impressed farmers of the same village slowly started using Anna Saheb's rain gun in their farms. Now, the farmers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka are also using it successfully.
  • Deepasakhti Pooja Oil, a blend of five different oils in a ratio prescribed in the Indian shastras does not produce any soot but gives a bright flame. It lasts longer and the fumes produced repel disease-causing bacteria. It is now being commercially manufactured by KP Castor Oil Works in Coimbatore.
  • A banana stem injector developed by Manoharan, a lathe owner of Batlagundu in Tamil Nadu, is similar to a syringe which can be used to inject pesticides into the psuedo-stem of the banana that is diseased. 'It helps manage indiscriminate pesticide application in banana cultivation, leading to a 20 percent cost saving in farming operations'
  • A manual milking device -- J S Milker -- is another innovation that has found acceptance in the rural areas. J S Milker is manufactured and marketed by J Support Industries headed by Joy John of Pothanicad, Kerala. J S Milker is a simple vacuum driven portable machine, which can be used to milk cows effortlessly. J S Milker is so successful in South India that RIN (see below) is planning to market it in Gujarat, where there are several milk co-operatives.
  • A solar water harvester conceived by Deepak Rao of Chennai has received a grant of Rs 190,000 from the Techno entrepreneur Promotion Programme of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. It uses solar energy to convert non-potable water into potable water. The product is still going on, and we are yet to commercialize it. From a 1 square metre model, we can have 5 litres of pure water per day. We are looking at it from a domestic point of view, especially in Chennai, where water scarcity is a big problem.

But, who is making sure that these innovations see the light of the day and help these innovators shed their cloak of obscurity?

Two key organisations are doing yeoman work in this direction:

  • The National Innovation Foundation, set up initially under Dr Mashelkar, is 'building a national register of grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge; it has set up a micro-venture innovation fund for individuals who have no bank account and who cannot produce any balance sheet and yet have innovations that warrant investment of risk capital.' NIF has set up a national innovation competition, for which the winners have included an eighth standard dropout, who developed a complex robot, the farmer who developed a unique cardamom variety and 'an illiterate individual, who had developed a disease resistant pigeon pea variety.'
  • RIN, Rural Innovation Network, is the brainchild of Paul Basil from Moovattupuzha in Kerala. The organisation focuses on promoting rural innovation-based enterprises and is a business incubator that turns grassroots innovations into commercial enterprises. 'RIN uses multiple points like Chennai's engineering colleges, agricultural universities, research institutions, patent offices, local fairs, exhibitions and banks to identify innovations. Once identified, RIN does a market research of the product to find out whether the idea is commercially viable. Then, they refine the products by making the innovations market-friendly, which means a lot of engineering work and overhauling.' In most cases, the innovator passes on the technology to an entrepreneur or a company for a royalty. So what is the role of RIN in this? 'We are just enablers,' says Basil. "We basically provide consulting inputs to, both, innovators and entrepreneurs. Our job is to tie the loose ends. There are several private entrepreneurs out there who want new products. We also help the entrepreneurs develop markets.' RIN now has 11 innovations that it is working on and wants to increase the number to 20 in the next one of two years.

The most successful product marketed by RIN till date is the rain gun, created by Anna Saheb. When RIN found the marketability of the product, they brought in the Chennai-based Servals Automation Pvt Ltd and the company signed a technology transfer agreement with Anna Saheb. Anna Saheb got a fixed royalty for his innovation, and RIN filed for a design registration (and marketing rights) of the rain gun.

Mumbai-based Aavishkaar India Micro Venture Capital Fund made an investment of Rs 800,000 to pick up a 49 percent stake in Servals Automation. According to RIN, this is the first such micro venture investment of its kind in India, if not the world over. So far, 60 rain guns worth Rs 200,000 have been sold.

Academia-Industry alliances

A calculation by the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says 50 of India's 250-odd universities are active in academia-business liaisons. The interaction between academia and business can take many forms -- new start-up companies by academics, consultancies, joint ventures between commercial and academic organisations, and even 'blue-skies' projects that entail industry sponsorship of research in an area where the outcome is not clear.

Of these, institutional collaborations with industries are perhaps most common, such as:

  • Shantha Biotechniques funds research in academic centres as far apart as AIIMS, New Delhi, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.
  • IISC has about 400 collaborations, its partners ranging from Cadila (pharma) to HFCL (telecom).
  • The IIT-Delhi campus hosts labs for, among others, IBM, Tata Infotech, Motorola. Samsung India Electronics is working with IIT-Delhi for new designs of colour televisions, washing machines and air-conditioners to suit the Indian market. The company also plans to set up a consumer laboratory at IIT, where industrial designs students will work on projects sponsored by Samsung.
  • Scientists from the Amritsar-based Guru Nanak University provide quality control consultancy to textile and agro-based units, including food giant Nestle.
  • Minati Das of Dibrugarh University has set up a world-class research facility in petroleum technology -- along with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Indian Oil Corporation -- which also provides technically qualified local manpower to ONGC and IOC.
  • FMC Corporation, a leading producer of chemicals for industry and agriculture, has established an R&D centre at the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bangalore, to drive research for its agriculture products business.
  • DuPont has had profitable alliances with national research laboratories under the CSIR, since 1994. DuPont Textiles and Interiors and the Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory have extended their research alliance for another five years. Dupont Polyester has entered into a strategic alliance with Reliance Industries to jointly develop advanced polyester process and product technologies in India.
  • Some of these alliances have re-written Indian scientific history. In Hyderabad, a contract between Shantha Biotechnique and CCMB led to India's first recombinant DNA-based vaccine, Shanvac, for Hepatitis B, transforming India's medical biotechnology industry. Midas Technologies, incubated by IIT Chennai's Tenet Group, proved that cheap rural connectivity could be married to a sound business plan. It made possible WLL, now adopted by many telecom companies. The returns are not limited to India. Software developed by the National Aeronautical Laboratory, Bangalore, determines aircraft landing frequency at British airports. -- India Today

Most big academic institutes now also have specific business development wings. IIT-Delhi's Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer, set up in 1992, was the first such wing at any IIT.

Seen as a prototype by other universities, it provides seed money and infrastructure support to a start-up for up to a year and such support for institutionalised innovation are beginning to yield results:

  • In 2001, four scientists from IISC -- Vijay Chandru, Swamy Manohar, Ramesh Hariharan and V Vijay -- proved they could successfully explore new frontiers beyond the realms of pure science. With an initial contract of Rs 1.5 crore, they launched Strand Genomics, India's first biotech company spun off from an academic institute. Today Strand Genomics has an office in San Francisco, investment of about Rs 22 crore and 100 employees. -- India Today
  • Five graduates and five professors at the computer sciences department in IIT-Delhi launched Kritical Solutions Private Limited a year ago with an initial seed funding of Rs 10 lakh. Their projects range from security solutions to sensor networks, many of them extensions of graduate theses. One project, looking at more effective, computerised screening of automobiles, could go a long way in preventing another attack like those in Mumbai recently. -- India Today

Other points of light

Finishing school for Innovation: 'NirmaLabs, an incubating initiative of Nirma Education and Research Foundation has established a fund of Rs 5 crore to support the incubation programmes. With a commitment of Rs 20 lakh per project as initial seed fund, the incubation programme enables participants to develop the concept further to a funding level. The programme is initially focusing on the IT, communication and entertainment sectors, with expansion in other sectors to soon follow. However, this is where this effort starts breaking off from other incubators.'

'NirmaLabs approach to incubation of high-technology, wealth-generating ventures is based on its ability to groom potential individuals to think differently with a global understanding of technology and markets and with sensitivity to challenges of high growth businesses. The three-staged programme commences with an eight-month grooming phase, during which the candidates will be groomed to identify an enterprising idea.'

'The incubation phase that follows soon will have mentors and venture capitalists acting as catalysts allowing the idea to be developed into a fundable enterprise. In the last phase, individuals will be allowed with opportunities for strategic networking.'

Co-ordinated research in strategic areas: Key strategic areas, where a national presence is required cannot be done in a handful of research labs or be looked into from a few angles only. One such area is the work on smart materials.

'Smart materials are the next frontier in engineering and manufacturing. What are they? Materials that respond to changes in temperature, moisture, pH, or electric and magnetic fields. Smart materials are poised to emerge from the lab in a wide range of medical, defense and industrial applications.'

'Understanding and using these advanced materials in your new product development efforts may make the difference between success and failure in today's intensely competitive markets.'

Nirupa Sen of JNU has put together an excellent article on the sum total of the work going on in India on smart materials, which gives us an idea of the spread of the research and the disparate angles from which this work is being carried out.

So, for example, design centres for smart materials include Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Solid State Physics Laboratory, Delhi, IIT-Kharagpur, IIT-Bombay and IIT-Madras.

Manufacturing centres, include 1. Semiconductor Complex Limited, Chandigarh (which has a national foundry for MEMS devices), and 2. Bharat Electronics Limited, Bangalore (which is also being augmented for such purposes).

National Programmes of research in the area, include:

1. National Programme on Smart Materials -- NPSM is a joint programme run by DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), through the Aeronautical Development Agency, Department of Space, Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Information Technology, and CSIR.

Aerospace has been identified as a major area of application of MEMS. The programme's aerospace division is concerned with R&D in devices used for sensing pressure, acceleration, rotational speed, temperature, strain, fibre-optic devices, actuators (piezo-ceramics, piezo-polymers, electro/magnetostrictive shape memory alloys, and the related chemicals and materials).

Currently, there are 30-odd research efforts funded across the nation under this program, in places like IITs, national labs and even smaller universities.

2. Development Initiative for Smart Aircraft Structures -- DISMAS: Executed by ADA, it is a five-year project sanctioned by DRDO in April 2001 at a cost of Rs 19.26 crore.

Areas of work are: Smart Health Monitoring; Vibration and Noise Control; Active Shape or flow control which is also known as Morphing; Conformal Antenna and Radome.

The Light Combat Aircraft has been identified as the platform of choice for developing and testing these concepts.

This is an example of how broad research areas must be attacked in a country like India -- the logistics of smart materials research in India is not a perfect example, but certainly a good one to start from.

It is not that we do not understand the need, but consider the meagre resources that we are putting into this:

The CSIR, under the leadership of 'CEO' R G Mashelkar, has now launched what he calls 'the largest post-Independence knowledge network,' the Rs 250-crore, five-year New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative. It aims at bringing together industry and academia to focus on innovation in 14 niche areas, including nanotechnology, climate modeling and fuel cell power. The idea is to make India a world leader in these areas. NMITLI is already working.

14 key areas and only 250 crore!

How do we expect to create an earth-shaking innovation every few years with this?

But, the broader question is where are the key gaps in our innovation infrastructure that India needs to fill in and how should we go about doing so?

More on this tomorrow.

Don't miss the final part of this series tomorrow: The path to Super-Innovation in India!

Arindam Banerji is a scientist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He took the usual route of going from the IITs, through a PhD in the US, to finally working in sundry research labs.

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