The Challenge of Scaling Indian Innovation
There are hundreds of such farmer-innovators who have not gotten their due. Khobragade is now getting an Innovation Fellowship from India’s National Innovation Foundation (NIF), but thanks to the limited resources at the disposal of the NIF, his story is too common.
For the last nine years, the resources of the NIF remained frozen at about $350,000 USD per annum, a fraction of total funds required. SRISTI, an Indian NGO that helps grassroots inventors, has managed without any external support for the last three years. No major breakthrough is expected until policy makers realize that these innovators deserve better. It’s not just about moving them into houses with functioning toilets — these budgetary restrictions mean hundreds, maybe thousands, of other innovations will go unheralded.
The NIF has scouted over 100,000 ideas, both innovations and traditional knowledge, through the voluntary Honey Bee Network. HBN is a voluntary network set up more than twenty years ago which essentially mimics the behavior of honey bees as a metaphor in innovation. All the knowledge and new ideas collected are “cross-pollinated” with other communities and individuals a thousand miles away. HBN believes in protecting the knowledge rights of every knowledge-producer; nobody involved with HBN can earn personal income based on community knowledge unless that income is shared with the community in an explicit, transparent way as explained in our guidelines. Any third party wealth, say by a company which uses knowledge or innovations in HBN, also has to be shared in a fair and just manner. Although the NIF has been able to support only a few of the 100,000 ideas they have uncovered through the network, HBN’s size shows just how much grassroots genius is being left on the table.
The traditional private sector has also fallen short when it comes to supporting these entrepreneurs. In this “decade of derivatives” it became harder for small start-ups to attract investment capital. In India, most venture capital firms were investing in the equity of listed companies. Angel fund networks would wait till an innovator had developed a business plan, put together a team, and demonstrated results. Why would that innovator then need an angel fund?
And yet, in the meantime, technologists, entrepreneurs, and innovators are finding ways to work around the institutional barriers. For instance, a web portal (techpedia.sristi.org) being set up by SRISTI with the help of the Computer Society of India and TEPP of DSIR should improve the situation (see sristi.org/anilg for details) by pooling 600,000 projects done by technology students in India every year. If even one percent of these become legitimate new products, we will get 6,000 new products every year.
But we could be doing so much more. I wish 10 percent of the stimulus funds for reviving our economies were being spent on the ideas and innovations of young people to generate innovation-based enterprises. We have to find more ways to link innovation with investment with enterprise — that’s the golden triangle for grassroots creativity.
Grassroots innovations can provide a new ray of hope, provided we help them grow. Outside of India’s major cities, unsung heroes of the country are solving, or trying to solve, local problems in spite of the structures that have bypassed them so far. Creativity, compassion and collaboration are the key characteristics of these voices from grassroots. Let us listen to them and resonate with them.
Remember: minds on the margins are not marginal minds.
Anil Gupta is Executive Vice Chair, National Innovation Foundation and Professor, Indian Institute of Management.