India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 2: Of Industry-Targeted Degrees, Water, and Spinoffs

12/8/08Follow @vinit44

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.

Vinit Nijhawan, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and former venture capitalist, is Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence in the Boston University School of Management. Follow @vinit44

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  • http://www.winshuttle.com Vikram Chalana

    Chandigarh also has a small, but growing IT community. We are a Seattle-based company, but our entire software development team located in the IT park in Chandigarh. We are able to attract and retain software talent here and hope to invest lot more in Chandigarh in the near future.

  • Shreshta

    One sure way for India to become the next Innovation Superpower!
    Breaking the Hand-Mind-Market barrier!

    “If India is the IT capital of the world, why was YouTube not invented
    in India?” Or, for that matter “Why are the richest Indian corporations not taking the risks to set the nation on path to top of the value chain?”

    What’s holding us back – despite the fact that country has a rich tradition of path-breaking scientific achievements, from Aryabhatta’s discoveries in astronomy, use of rocket-fire by Tipu Sultan’s forces to the invention of carbon-steel originally by Indian scientists?

    According to the author the reason is the hand-mind barrier in India, probably a legacy of the Indian caste system, which divided the population into distinct categories. People who work with hands do not have the education, and those that have education do not work with hands. This dichotomy is not conducive to innovation, as innovation happens when theory is translated into practical application (Think of a dentist creating a new tooth-material, or a surgeon attempting a new surgical technique!).

    The book attempts to guide the Indian scientific community on the path of major next-generation innovations – with real-life examples from how stage was set by Thomas Newcomen and others for James Watt’s steam engine, or Dr. P.K. Sethi’s collaboration with the sculptor Ram Chandra Sharma to produce the revolutionary prosthetic Jaipur-foot. Additionally, the book covers the entire history of innovations starting from Newton, Edison and Einstein, and finally going on to today’s areas like healthcare, energy, automotive sector, water management and lighting and appliances that will drive the innovations of future!

    On the whole, the book describes individual and organizational approaches to developing a strategy and a culture tuned to innovation – including processes to manage innovation with case studies for creating an idea-rich environment, besides a model covering three aspects of individual innovation – create with freedom, nurture with passion, and transcend with detachment.

    While the approaches described in the book are general, the special focus is on creating a century of Indian Innovation.

    Gopichand Katragadda, Ph.D., is the General Manager – India Engineering Operations for GE Energy Infrastructure comprising 1600 engineers in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai. The team produces next-generation designs for higher efficiency and environment-friendly energy solutions. Previously as the Operations Manager for GE Global Research Bangalore (GEGR-B), Gopi worked with the GEGR-B technology team of 400 researchers to deliver growth through innovation. The team filed over 225 US patents in just three years. Gopi is a certified GE Six-Sigma Master Black Belt.

    S.M.A.S.H
    Innovation: Smashing the Hand-Mind-Market Barrier
    Gopichand Katragadda
    Wiley India
    978-81-265-1906-4
    INR 299/-

  • ameh

    Chandigarh has a really good quality of life, and has the potential to thrive as an innovation centre. Its got great public parks – something I really miss in Whitefield, Bangalore. Talking about parks and a quality of life – Gurgaon, compared to Chandigarh is a dust bowl of an urban disaster!
    I graduated from PEC in 1996. We had great quality of students there but the education was sub-standard.
    We need higher standards of education – better quality of education and a richer educational experience with a higher bar for graduating students. More participation from the private sector in terms of funding programs young engineers can work on – much like the US, can also help a lot.
    For example, USHA can source a program at PEC for resolving some of the technical challenges they face in the mobile handsets market. Connecting Philips Labs to PEC is a great idea!
    On a side note – I also heard about Sameer Bhatia’s vision for a Nanocity close to Chandigarh (http://nanocity.in/index.html) – I wonder whats the status of that project.