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Innovation in India: Missing pieces in a promising story

• From engineering well-organized wastewater drainage systems in the cities of Harappan Civilization to designing a fridge that can run without electricity, Indian innovation is well acclaimed globally.
• Despite these achievements, India lacks way behind in terms of number of patents in force, and even the existing number is dominated by foreign entities.
• A lack of industry-academia interface is a major failing in India’s innovation story so far, as corporates tend to rely on their own research instead of turning to academia
• Initiatives like AMTDC Chennai will go a long way in helping Indian manufacturing firms compete more effectively in the global market.

Necessity is the mother of invention,” so goes the well-known English-language proverb. This adage is quite true when we look at the history of innovation in India. From designing well-organized drainage systems in the cities of Indus Valley Civilization to engineering a fridge that can run without electricity & the world’s lowest priced tablet PC, India has been a pivot of life changing ideas. 

Despite being the germination center for numerous remarkable inventions and discoveries, India doesn’t feature anywhere in the top 20 ranks in terms of global innovation. As the Global Innovation Index suggests, India secured 52nd position among 129 countries ranked on the basis of more than 80 indicators such as political environment, education, infrastructure and business sophistication, a major leap compared to 81 in 2015.

Other Asian economies, however, including Singapore (8), China (14), Japan (15), Malaysia (35), Vietnam (42) & Thailand (43) are well ahead of India in this area. While the fact that India jumped from 57th position last year and 81st rank in 2015 is definitely a reason to celebrate, there’s a lot of work still left to be done in order for India to be regarded as the innovation hub of the world.

Inspiring success stories

The Mangalyaan launch by ISRO a few years back was a success story of many firsts, and brought India’s latent innovation potential to global centre-stage. However, the ecosystem for innovation in India certainly has many more miles to travel.

A few years ago, professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble and GE’s Jeffrey R. Immelt popularized the concept of “reverse innovation”, that is an innovation used first in the developing world, before being applied to the industrialized world. India is seen as the epitome of jugaad. A case in point is GE, which started shipping low cost products developed for emerging markets to the markets of Europe and the US, making affordable health care accessible for a large number of people. The US$ 1,000 electrocardiogram (ECG) device Mac 400 was developed at GE’s John H Welch Technology center (JHWTC) in Bangalore.

Grassroots innovations abound across the length and breadth of the country. Researchers of IISc developed a low-cost solar water purifier, which can transform water from any source – including contaminated with arsenic, fluoride or sewage – into potable water. Karnataka has started using self-repairing roads modeled on the one devised by Professor Nemkumar Bhantia having a hydrophilic nano-coating and made with fly-ash (60%) and cement (40%). Hyderabad’s Jawwad Patel is the first Asian to develop a 3D-printed apparatus, which can ‘create’ drinking water from air. IITians are coming with very futuristic innovations like passive solar water wall to replace ACs, smart cane for visually impaired, solar powered cold storage and intelligent street lights.

Need for better partnership

On the other hand, India’s record in patents is quite low. On comparison of patents in force by filing office for 2017, India had 60,777 patents and was ranked 24, according to World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). This is way below the leaders – US (2,984,825), China (2,085,367), Japan (2,013,685), UK (1,243,678) and South Korea (970,889); and is definitely not in sync with India’s vision of becoming a global economic superpower. Moreover, just 10,343 (17%) of these patents are by residents in India with the remaining 83% filed by non-residents. In 2017-18, Qualcomm filed 960 patents in India, more than all the IITs with 540 applications.

Recently, at the launch of Niti Aayog’s Atal Community Innovation Centre, Shri Dharmendra Pradhan, Petroleum Minister noted, “India will not become US$ 5 trillion economy without innovation.” While India has the basic conditions that stimulate innovation – democracy, demography, diversity and unconventionality – it has not been able to efficiently harness these conditions to become a global innovation hub. This is despite facilitating factors such as the allocation of Rs 400 crore to establish world-class education systems in the budget, reducing the time taken to examine a patent claim or restructuring the higher education system.

The key issue is that there is very little synergy between academia and industry in India , which leads to lower inclination and incentive for filing patents. Part of the problem is cultural, as corporates in India tend to rely on their own research due to existing stereotypes of academia and general lack of awareness. India would also do well to learn from its other counterparts who have fared better such as US (3) & Israel (10). The US has fast-tracked innovation through tax regulations that encourage venture capital, and laws (like the Bayh-Dole Act) that facilitate the adoption of academic research in the commercial world. This act enabled universities, non-profits, and other small businesses to earn patents to inventions. In Israel, the government has played a more direct role, particularly through the office of the chief scientist, which provides high-tech start-ups with seed funding. This has given Israel a dominant position in a lot of vital high-tech fields such as security software.

Greenshoots of change are emerging like the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Development Centre (AMTDC), Chennai, an industry-academia collaboration set up at IIT Research Park and supported by Department of Heavy Industries. Indian companies are using this facility to indigenize their manufacturing facilities by designing machines that are at par or even better than global standards. More such initiatives need to be encouraged to help Indian technology firms compete more effectively in the global market.

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