Innovating India and US or West

India gets a mention in all the news related to ‘the global war for innovation and talent’, be it the number of scientific and technical papers produced annually, the investment in R&D, or the world’s top science and research universities.

Among the logics behind the strong position of India in innovation, the mention of Tata Motors’ Nano is one of the most popular success stories, and then come the stories about the R&D centres established by the MNCs in India. For example, ‘some 70% of the employees in General Electric’s Bangalore Global Research Center hold masters degrees or PhDs. The 680 patents GE’s Bangalore team has filed since 2000 are critical to the company’s global innovation efforts.’

My Google News Alert for ‘R&D in India’ confirms the coming in or expansion of MNCs’ R&D activities in India almost daily. One can easily take pride in the availability of Google news in four India languages, a record of a sort, and all created in India.

Is the development going to challenge the might of the Western countries so far innovation is concerned? The right answer may be a simple ‘no’. Many management thinkers such as Amar Bhide of Princeton University or Arindam K. Bhattacharya of the Boston Consulting Group suggest that the developed world must take advantage of the rising capability of the Asians.

According to a recent column on ‘Innovation in America’ in The Economist, ‘Even before the financial crunch began, many businessmen were worried that America was losing its lead in innovation to India and China. So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity?’ The opinions differ, but certain developments are interesting and heartening. IBM plans to train as researchers exceptionally talented engineering graduates and postgraduate students in computer science from leading technical institutions in India. To encourage graduates to take up careers in research, Microsoft Research India also introduced various programs, including a two-year assistant researcher program for engineering graduates to do research work at the Microsoft lab.

Further, India has retained the first slot for the seventh year in succession with the number of Indian students in the US increasing by 13 per cent in 2007-08 to reach 94,563, according to the Open Doors report published by the Institute of International Education with support from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. Many more Indian students are also going to other countries in all corners of the world too for higher education. And most of these are non-IITians enginerring graduates coming to US for Master’s and Ph.D. Mckinsey, Fareed Zakaria or Vivek Wadhawa may keep on debating about the quality of education in Indian professional institutions, but the students themselves will get over the gap of knowledge with their intense urge to compete with the best of the world.

Between 2004 and 2007, MNCs increased R&D staff by 22 percent; 91 per cent of that increase was in China and India. Companies in the US spent the largest amount on R&D in other countries, as that helps in improving its sales and profits. India was the second-largest, with $12.9 billion. Its large, English-speaking talent pool and fast-growing auto, computing and electronics, and pharmaceutical markets will stimulate further growth. Steven J Veldhoen, managing director, Asia, Booz & Company, Japan, said, “India has created a centre of excellence in automobile manufacturing, both for domestic and global demand. India is going through a development phase, where manufacturing will follow.” “India wants to catch up with China. Presently it lags behind China in both volume-based and technology-based manufacturing, though India may be ahead of China in skill-based manufacturing. India’s share in the world’s manufacturing is 1.8 per cent, while China’s share is 12 per cent. India needs to have a growth rate of 12-15 per cent on a sustained basis.”

India is the new IT research hub. From ideation and conceptualization to end-to-end designing, the entire product development cycle now happens in India. Many Indian R&D teams even have the ownership of products developed for different companies. The high-end research and development work in the Indian IT sector has started a reverse brain drain.

Interestingly many innovations are coming from grassroots. Missionaries such as Anil K Gupta of IIM- Ahmedabad are trying to get the best from the grassroots’ innovation. In a recent article in Outlook, Prof Gupta writes, “One of the largest German dental restoration technology firms (Bego.com) contacted NIF after reading about a tooth made of bamboo by Dodhi Pathak, an innovator from Assam in ’02. No Indian company ever bothered. A physics graduate from a European country thought he had come out with an original idea: magnetic shock absorbers. But after a search, he found that Kalpita Patil, a student, had already been awarded for the innovation by NIF. Similarly, Kanak Das, an innovator from Assam, developed a cycle that ran faster on uneven roads back in 2002-03: it converted energy from the shock absorbers into mechanical as well as electrical energy. In the US, a patent was applied for such a technology much later.”

All this development that may be exhilarating for Indians at large, but there has been hardly any breakthrough innovation. No scientist or technocrat working in India has got Nobel after CV Raman. And Nano might have got a lot of media attention, as the idea is certainly unique with a lot of potential for Tata Motors and many manufacturing companies in India. However, Indians are not sure if it will come out in production in the desired number and that too, fast enough to take advantage of the early arrival and be excepted by the local and then global car buyers.

Can Indians show in the coming general election some innovative way to eliminate all unscrupulous politicians that are holding back the country? Can Indians stop wasting Rs 150 crore in performing yagya to get rid of the global financial meltdown and go to establish 150 first class schools or healthcare centres out of the money?

Let us go by Jeffrey Immelt, the boss of GE, the world’s largest industrial firm. “Companies and countries that really play offence vis-à-vis technology and innovation are going to come out ahead,” he said this week at an event in New York to present GE’s coming innovations in health-care technology.

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PS: India’s Design Boom
TIME’s Best Inventions of 2008

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