Mr R Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director at Tata Sons Ltd has authored numerous books including his latest, A Biography of Innovations: From Birth to Maturity. He discusses about innovation in India, growth of start-ups and role of government in an exclusive interaction with IBEF. Edited excerpts:
On the global scale, India is finally being appreciated as a possible hotbed for innovation (beyond jugaad). How can Indian companies capitalise on this and keep the momentum going?
I am pleased with the way Indian companies have become aware of the importance of innovation. They just need to persist and focus on innovation because, as my book A Biography of Innovations points out, innovation is not just about creativity, but about focus, persistence, and salesmanship. Using the metaphor of human life, Indian industrial innovation is, relatively speaking, in an adolescent stage—much promise remains ahead. Indians face many challenges which pose unique problems requiring equally unique solutions. With the Indian propensity to communicate ideas, innovation can only improve as the life cycle advances.
Which Indian sectors do you feel hold the most promise in terms of driving forward via innovation? What can the country offer that is unique and provides an edge over competing nations?
What India offers is very distinctive compared to any other emerging nation. We are so used to it that we take it for granted. Democracy, free media, open speech environment, a generally positive legal environment, a long tradition of entrepreneurship—name me any another emerging market that provides all of these together. We may not be a perfect society, but be that as it may, the opportunity for innovation is absolutely fantastic. However, the innovation will, for some time, remain relationship-driven; only progressively will it make more space for process-driven innovation.
“The idea turns, twists, mutates and changes all the time it is being converted into a product.” How can the Government help bridge the gap from idea to product, and implement innovations on a commercial scale?
Frankly, I don’t think government needs to have any major or active role. However, it does need to have a supportive role to play. Innovators need fewer and fewer obstacles. Historically, it’s the government that has often posed many of these obstacles, but that is history. Nowadays, the spaghetti of obstacles is being unwound, albeit gradually. This is one reason why I feel optimistic about the future. The natural entrepreneurship of the Indian will fire on all its cylinders ever increasingly going forward.
In your book, you say that innovation and entrepreneurship are two sides of the same coin that sit in the same bag as ‘change’. The start-up revolution in India definitely changed how Indians viewed entrepreneurship, but has it delivered in terms of innovation?
Honestly I feel that we expect too much from start-ups. If you use the human metaphor, as I have throughout my book, start-ups are infants. They are more likely to represent future potential—not current ability—when it comes to nudging economic growth or job opportunities in the country. I think the excessive froth of awards, free-flowing money from venture capitalists, and exuberant valuations could actually do potential harm to India. However, there will be a course correction periodically. Furthermore, we seem to put the focus mostly on tech start-ups—what about logistics, Ayurveda, farming and other such meaningful domains? Can drones be used to improve the PM’s Swachh Bharat initiative? These are the types of innovation I’d like to see more of.
Risk vs. Reward is an imperative for businesses. But does it become a detrimental constraint for pursuing innovation?
India has imported an all-American model of venture capitalism. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the whole language of the domestic market simulates Silicon Valley. This surely has its place, but it is also not all that there is to innovation. This type of innovation usually benefits the haves. There are millions of have-nots who too are waiting for change, entrepreneurship, and opportunities. They have no access to risk capital because the imported, available capital is what I call ‘impatient capital’.
Through Swachh Bharat, the government is taking sanitation to all parts of the country. What innovations can be looked at in this regard?
I think this is a hugely important question of our times, so much so that I have addressed this subject in my book. Great strides in this realm should not be unexpected. Initiatives like Swachh Bharat could well attract future funding, leading to better innovations in turn. Along with sanitation, we also have to focus on agriculture—I believe that innovation absolutely must thrive in these sectors, and start-up money alone may not be enough.
Whether we are talking about a single individual or a massive corporation, what do you feel is the most critical (make or break) stage in the innovation process?
In my experience, there are two positives to ensure and two negatives to avoid. I would isolate the nurturers and viruses at each stage, but here, I am will take a broader view. The two positives are ‘persistence’ and ‘salesmanship’. No idea is worthwhile—just as no baby is successful—if it cannot be grown with persistence and with advocacy. There are also two viruses or toxins to be avoided; they are ‘narcissism’ and ‘deserving before desiring’.