R. A. Mashelkar

"The next 10 years would be dedicated as a decade of innovation." Thus ended the address of the President of India to the Parliament on June 4, 2009. On June 7, US President Barrack Obama said in Cairo, "Education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century". During June 3-5, the first Global Innovation Leaders Summit (I-20), fashioned on G-20, was held in San Francisco, where I was invited to represent India. I-20 accepted Norway's suggestion of introducing a Nobel Prize for innovation. So it was 'innovation' dominated agenda from New Delhi to Cairo to San Francisco in early June.

For a while now, innovation has become the currency across the world. The European Union (EU) has declared 2009 as the year of creativity and innovation. The names of the ministries of science and technology in Australia, Spain, South Africa, Malaysia and UK have been altered to explicitly include the word 'innovation'. Argentina now has a 'Ministry of Science, Technology & Productive Innovation'!

Why is innovation suddenly so hot? Innovation-led growth, innovation-led recovery and innovation-led competitiveness are not mere slogans, they are a hard reality. The power of innovation to bring about social and economic transformation has been well recognised.

India's innovation cycle

Innovation is all about converting ideas into new or improved products, processes and services. India's world ranking on innovation is low. The World Economic Forum (WEF) produced an innovation capacity index for 134 countries in 2008. India stands at 35 on that index as against Brazil-27, China-25, UK-14, South Korea-9, USA-6 and Japan-2.

Let's look beyond statistics. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT, Madras developed the wireless local loop technology. It got implemented in Madagascar, Angola and Brazil before India! CSIR's New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative gave the challenge and funding for creation of a low cost computer to Vinay Deshpande of Encore. He created Mobilis, a mobile personal computer. But the first one will be produced this year in Malaysia and Brazil and not in India. Due to the limitations in India's patent laws the phytopharmaceutical breakthrough medicine on psoriasis by Piramal Life Sciences will be commercialised first in the west, not in India. And one can go on.

Why do we fail to complete the journey from the mind to the marketplace in India? Simply because India lacks a robust national innovation ecosystem. The essential elements of a powerful ecosystem comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs. Beyond mere research labs it includes idea incubators, technology parks, conducive intellectual property rights regime, enlightened regulatory systems, academics who believe in not just 'publish or perish', but 'patent, publish and prosper', potent inventor-investor engagement, 'adventure' capital, and passionate innovation leaders.

Building blocks

First and foremost, for a robust national innovation ecosystem, we require researchers. The researchers in R&D per million people in 2006 were — India (119), China (715), South Korea (3723), US (4628) and Japan (5300). We need to increase our numbers by an order of magnitude. Both supply and demand need to increase. The government is trying to increase the supply by creating new Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research; IITs and central universities, which is laudable. One million scholarships through the department of science and technology's INSPIRE programme for young students is an excellent beginning to get the best young minds to turn to science. We need to do more.

The demand can grow by stimulating policies that will induce enterprises to undertake more R&D. Creating a competitive environment after India liberalised itself in 1991 has made a huge difference. Neither the Indica nor Nano (cars from the Tata stable) would have seen the light of the day otherwise. India making its patent laws TRIPS compliant in 2005 made the Indian pharma industry move from copying molecules to creating new molecules, and now hundreds of Ph.Ds are in demand.

A robust innovation ecosystem means knowledge partnership between industry and academia. The WEF 2008 report shows that in terms of industry-academia interaction, India ranks 45 as compared to China (23), Japan (21), South Korea (12), UK (9) and USA (1). India has a long way to go in creating organic and vibrant linkages.

Beginning of a change

But things are beginning to move. Recently the cabinet approved the publicly funded R&D Bill 2007 modeled on the US Bayh Dole Act, which transformed the landscape of the university-industry interaction and made academia patent savvy. The share of US universities in patenting prior to 1980 was stagnant for long at 0.003% but increased 10 folds in the next 15 years. It boosted 'technopreneurship' in the academic community.

A robust national ecosystem also recognises that Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge) and Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth) should coexist. George Whitesides of Harvard University is not just the highest cited scientist in the world but has also co-founded over a dozen companies with a combined market capitalisation of about $20 billion! Such academic entrepreneurship does not exist in India. The Cabinet's recent approval, which, in effect, allows academic researchers to convert knowledge into equity is the right step forward. But we need some major change in the mindset of our academics too.

The national innovation ecosystem gets hurt when there are obstacles to innovation due to bureaucratic hurdles, rigid rather than enlightened regulatory frameworks or non-competitive and monopolistic practices. Our research institutes lack autonomy, flexibility and freedom to operate. Their governance structures need to change dramatically. Government departments and ministries dealing with tax, customs, IP laws and standards can play a major role in helping the innovation ecosystem improve.

A robust national innovation ecosystem needs innovative technology and financing mechanisms. What is missing in India is angel funding, early stage financing. Venture capital dealing with technological innovation really needs to be 'ad'venture capital! When CSIR created the New Millennium Indian Technological Leadership Initiative (NMITLI), the government provided early stage financing on risky ideas. Today NMITLI has some world class technological breakthroughs to its credit. With more than 100 private sector companies partnering with over 200 public institutions, it is the largest Indian innovation network ever. We require many more NMITLIs.

Inclusive innovation

The Indian President has proposed the idea of a 'decade of innovation'. The Indian government has committed itself to 'inclusive growth'. Including hundreds of millions of resource poor Indians, who are 'excluded' from access to the essential necessities of life is crucial. These two directional thrusts — the 'decade of innovation' and 'inclusive growth' — should be combined to embark on an innovation-led inclusive growth or, in short, 'inclusive innovation'.

Inclusive innovation will mean getting 'more from less for more and more people'. This means the design and development of products and services with more performance, from less material, less cost, less time, less environmental pollution and for the benefit of not just a privileged few but for more and more people on this planet — in fact, all four billion people, whose income levels are less than two dollars a day.

Corporates have worked hard to get more (productivity) from less resource (human, physical, financial capital) for more (profit, share holder value). But now they must also embrace inclusive innovation by getting more (performance) for less (cost) for more and more (people).

When it came to products and services, 'high price–high performance' was reserved for the rich. Low price–low performance was, of course, for the resource-poor. Can we change this price-performance envelope to say that we will build 'low price–high performance for the resource poor?

An excellent example of inclusive innovation is the Indian car 'Nano'. Tata's people's car is the most inexpensive ($ 2000) in the world with exceptional fuel efficiency and emission standards and yet amazing comfort. This means 'more from less' — but its affordable price also means Nano is designed for 'more and more people' and not an exclusive few.

The real challenge is, even if we succeed in creating a national innovation ecosystem, how do we create a 'national inclusive innovation ecosystem'? We must create incentives that will shift this focus from 'exclusive' to 'inclusive'. We must ensure that the best of minds work on solving the problems of the poor.

Our unique Indian genes to do inclusive innovation became evident to me while chairing the National Innovation Foundation and Marico Innovation Foundation. Anil Gupta's pioneering 'Shodh Yatras' (research marches) have amply demonstrated that even an ordinary Indian in a remote village can innovate. The research by Marico Innovation Foundation in typically Indian innovation has brought out how some Indians make the seemingly impossible possible — examples range from Arvind Eye Care to Cavincare — perfect examples of 'more from less for more'.

During the freedom movement, freedom had become the obsession for every Indian. We need to launch now a national innovation movement, so that innovation becomes every Indian's obsession. Then the dream of 21st century being innovative India's century will certainly come true.

The author is the President of Global Research Alliance and a former Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India.