Arindam Banerji has been writing a Guest Column on on “Can India produce billion-dollar innovation?” It is a four-part series and the fourth part will come out tomorrow, that is 13th August 2004. Some interesting portions are excerpted below – this is from parts I, II and III. I have also added the links to all the four parts in the end.

India has made rapid strides in the world of research and development in the last few years, but are its innovations world-beaters? In an era that has been dominated by American innovations, can Indian scientists and technologists make a lasting impression? What will it take to institutionalize innovation in India?

Bluntly speaking, Indian research and development has made tremendous progress over the last decade or so and the proof of this increasing Indian ingenuity is literally available in every sphere that you can think of. Clearly, I cannot go into every aspect of this, but let me at least try to delve into a few representative symptoms. . .

R&D Market Size: “R&D (research and development) outsourcing market for information technology in India is estimated to grow to $9.1 billion by 2010 from $1.3 billion in 2003, according to research agency Frost & Sullivan. The R&D outsourcing market for IT in India is estimated to grow from the present size of 1.3 billion dollars in 2003 to $9.1 billion in 2010 at a compounded annual growth rate of 32.05 per cent, Frost & Sullivan, which undertook the study for the department of IT, said in its report. The R&D outsourcing market for telecom in India is slated to grow from $0.7 billion in 2003 to $4.1 billion in 2010 at a CAGR of 28.73 per cent, it said.”-

Earth-changing Innovations: “A research team at the National HIV Reference Centre in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences is developing a vaccine against HIV. The vaccine, called the HIV-1 DNA, has worked on mice and monkeys. The team led by Dr Pradeep Seth is now waiting for clearance to start clinical trials on humans.” — Hindustan Times
Disruptive Research: Outlook India has just published this excellent piece on some of the disruptive research that they found in various parts of India.

Institutionalized Innovation

Okay, so what is institutionalised innovation anyway — encouragement for innovation when embedded deep within key institutions of society allows for a steady stream of high-impact innovations like the Polaroid, cell-phone, Xerox machine, MEMs (micro-electromechanical systems) and so on — the hoops that innovators have to jump through to make a difference gets lowered.
You do not have to be one-in-a-billion to make a difference — being one-in-10-million is good enough. And those numbers make all the difference. It is this improvement of odds that forms the crux of ‘Institutionalisation of Innovation.’

So, ask yourself: would it take one Indian in a 100 million who could — while working in India — come up with something as earth-changing as the jet-engine? Or do you think it would take one Indian in a billion to achieve that feat?
Now ask yourself: what would it take to reduce the odds so that one Indian in 10 million could produce something fundamentally earth-changing like the photocopying machine?
How would we have to change as a society and as a country to reduce those odds of one in a billion Indians innovating the next radical shift in technology to, perhaps, one Indian in a 10 million achieving the same?

If you can figure out the changes, you have figured out how to institutionalise innovation. You have figured out what it takes not only to produce one good innovation every couple of decades, but to produce the kind of steady innovative disruptions that Tables 6-9 indicate.
Look closely, every few years within the US, somebody has come up with and produced an earth-shattering innovation or two. That does not happen by magic or coincidence and it isn’t because the Americans are any smarter than the Indians.
It’s because the US society, academia and industry have institutionalised 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.

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.
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.’
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.

The fourth part talks about how to bridge the gaps between where India is as far as innovation is concerned and where it ought to be.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV