India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 2: Of Industry-Targeted Degrees, Water, and Spinoffs
Chandigarh, Sunday, December 7—I drove straight north from Delhi to Chandigarh about 300 km, on a much improved four-lane highway. Chandigarh is a planned city that was designed by the French architect Le Corbusier in the late 1950s. It remains a delightfully livable city that the rest of India has failed to emulate. I am attending the wedding of my cousin’s daughter, a recent dental school graduate, to a young engineer who works with Tata. The local TiE chapter has also invited me to speak to their members tomorrow.
I have met several entrepreneurs who have returned from the U.S. to take care of aging parents and then set up businesses here. Chandigarh is considered to be a tier 2 city (tier 1 being Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Chennai), in the same league as Pune and Ahmedabad. In reality those cities are far more industrial, including technology-related industry, than Chandigarh. There is a nascent life sciences industry forming, especially around agricultural products: Chandigarh is the capital of Punjab, India’s bread basket. However, most of the entrepreneurs I met had small outsourced information technology businesses with customers primarily from the U.S..
There is an excellent engineering college in Chandigarh, and I had the chance to meet with the director of the college, Manoj Datta. He is busy setting up new degreed programs to respond to industry needs. For example, he was evaluating a graduate program in biomedical instrumentation in conjunction with a local biological institute. We had a vigorous debate about the viability of that degree, along with the head of Philips Labs from Delhi. Philips Labs are creating new products for emerging markets by launching them first in India; they support all Philips divisions, including the medical division in Andover, MA. For instance, they recently launched a UV water purifier that is more effective than charcoal filters. Tainted water is a big problem in India, as many tourists have found. The public water supply is invariably contaminated and almost everybody has a water purifier at home. Boston University has a world-renowned public health department that has projects in India; I need to connect them to Philips Labs and Punjab Engineering College.
I had an interesting conversation with the CEO of the Usha Group, which has been making ceiling fans and air conditioners for many years. He showed me a cell phone that they have launched in tier 3 and 4 cities in India. The cell phone is manufactured by an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) in China to their specifications and distributed via thousands of cell phone retail distributors. Usha has been struggling to differentiate itself on grounds other than price. To illustrate how powerful this can be, the CEO told the story of an upstart competitor that had inferior products but had stumbled onto a need in the rural marketplace for phones that had long battery life. Electricity is not readily available in most India villages and is unreliable when it is.
I asked him if he had considered differentiating on the cell phone user interface, perhaps by using the Google Android operating system and then customizing the UI for rural India consumers. I will discuss this further with him when I return to Delhi.