Monday, November 28, 2011

Dr Bhan's insights - highlight of IKMC 2011

IKP Knowledge Park (formerly ICICI Knowledge Park) organised its annual Innovation Event – IKMC Global Innovation Exchange - on November 16, 2011. I participated in a panel titled “Riding the Next Big Innovation Wave.” The participants were Dr. MK Bhan, Secretary Department of Biotechnology, Government of India; Dr. Homi Bhedwar who heads DuPont’s R&D Center at Hyderabad; and Mr. Ramji Raghavan, Chair of the Agastya Foundation. Dr. Bala Manian, serial entrepreneur, and mentor of several biotech companies, did a great job of moderating the panel.

For me, the highlight was Dr. Bhan’s insights into the challenges India faces on the innovation front. Under Dr. Bhan’s leadership, the DBT has pioneered a number of exciting initiatives like SBIRI, BIRAP, BIPP, etc. which have changed the innovation landscape in the biotech industry. When you hear him, you know why he has been able to come up with these initiatives.

In his talk, Dr. Bhan identified several obstacles to innovation in India: (1) a reluctance to experiment – he gave the example of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) that is known not to work well, but very few alternatives have ever been tried out; (2) the talent pool is not diverse enough for product innovation – we don’t need scientists alone; (3) there are poor flows of knowledge – not enough bi-directional flows; (4) there is fragmentation in government – he asked why are there separate biotech and pharma departments?; and (5) people are talking at each other – he asked how often have the technical people in the scientific ministries spoken to the FAs and explained to them the nature of their work?

Dr. Bhan called for a second freedom struggle, a need to make things hassle-free. Demand drives innovation – he called for a policy to create demand. He called for deep engagement, a sense of urgency, accountability, agility, and transparency. There is a need for lots of short term courses to enable people to complete learning.

Dr Bhan identified some bright spots as well: (1) India supplies 60-70% of UN-purchased vaccines thanks to UNICEF. These vaccines would not have been created without industry-academia collaboration. (2) the Stanford India BioDesign program (3) the Gates Foundation – Grand Challenges (4) DBT Centre at IIT Madras Research Park which is providing a platform for eye hospitals to collaborate – DBT has created 80 positions there. (5) the IISc – St John’s glue grant that encourages collaboration between the two institutions (6) India Inclusive Innovation Fund (7) Wellcome Trust and DBT initiative on affordable healthcare (8) DBT + Gates Foundation + Canadian grant – grand challenges.

Dr. Manian asked me how the innovation landscape has changed in the last few years. The good news? Several large companies are moving from Jugaad to “managed” innovation (largely incremental improvements) to contemplating breakthrough innovation – the Nano is a good case in point. Small high tech ventures are being formed in larger numbers, though I suspect they are not ambitious enough in their thinking. There is an enhanced recognition of the importance of higher education, though the government has not yet managed to translate its intentions into action. The disappointments? Public R&D still struggles to deliver, and government is yet to demonstrate the ability to formulate an integrated approach to innovation. The National Innovation Council, is a welcome initiative, but lacks the resources to push its agenda, and is again dependent on different ministries for implementation. The most prominent bright spot – a growing interest of the students of our country in socially-relevant innovation. I witnessed this first hand when I recently attended student festivals at IIT Madras and NIT Surathkal.

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