Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Why can't we develop breakthrough drugs from India? Lessons from the Vertex Story

Why can’t India create new breakthrough drugs? Or, at a broader level, what prevents India and Indian firms from undertaking radical innovation? These are questions that have been on my mind for several years. I tried to answer these questions at a system-level in my book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India. One of our doctoral students, Pavan Soni,  is currently engaged with these questions at the organizational level in his doctoral work on building capabilities for radical innovation in resource-scarce environments.

These questions came alive again as I read Barry Werth’s gripping account of the founding and early years of Vertex Pharmaceuticals: The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug. Vertex was founded over twenty years ago, so this is not a new book, but the story nevertheless gives an insight into what it takes to develop new drugs. Incidentally, in its first four years, Vertex did not manage to develop a drug though it made progress with some candidates and gave up on others.

Key Features of the Vertex Story

I found several interesting things about the Vertex story:

Distinctive Philosophy: Founder and CEO Joshua Boger played a fundamental role in shaping Vertex. He worked for several years in senior scientific positions at Merck, one of the top research-driven pharma companies, before founding Vertex. He believed that the time had come to scientifically design molecules rather than use the traditional approach of screening hundreds of compounds to check them for their potential therapeutic activity. He felt that a small company devoted to this new approach was more likely to be successful than a traditional pharma company which had a dominant logic based on screening. This led him to take the risk of leaving Merck in spite of a very successful career in the company.

The Role of the Scientific Advisory Board: While Boger put together a stellar Scientific Advisory Board, Werth’s account suggests that, at least in the case of Vertex, the SAB contributed more towards the company’s external image than the company’s own scientific work. In fact, early on, Vertex “fired” one of the high profile SAB members, Harvard Professor Stuart Schreiber, because it began to see a conflict of interest with Schreiber’s own work and felt that Schreiber was not careful enough about keeping the company’s “secrets.” Schreiber went on to stay a step ahead of Vertex in many of its early scientific quests.

Ability to sell ideas: In high technology and discovery-driven fields, technologists are often the best salesmen. Boger played the sales and marketing role to a “T”, whether it was striking deals with established drug companies like Japan’s Chugai or Burroughs Wellcome, convincing investors to participate in Vertex’s IPO or managing gatekeepers at scientific journals like Nature.

Role of the CEO: But, Boger’s contribution went well beyond marketing. He played a key role in deciding which molecules to work on (e.g. the choice of the “re-design” of FK-306, an established immunosuppressant, as Vertex’s first project), attracting top talent to the company, restoring motivational levels when spirits sagged, and pivoting to a different molecule when things didn’t work out. I was amazed by his self-confidence and unwavering drive (the book gives no evidence of any self-doubt at any stage!). Boger also integrated the discovery effort across disciplinary boundaries, a tricky task when there are well-established antagonisms between disciplines, and you are working with a group of high achievers with huge egos.

People and Network: Vertex benefited from the networks of its board members (key to raising the Chugai investment), ability to raise money at regular intervals (including through an IPO capitalizing on a short-lived bull run in biotech stocks) and the incredibly hard work of its early employees who worked for days without a break in order to stay ahead and have a story to tell.

Intense scientific competition helped as well as Vertex scientists were continuously under pressure from competitors like Schreiber as to who would take the lead. Information about the latest milestones achieved in university laboratories filtered into the company through informal networks and rumours acted as a spur for development.

Vertex was able to assemble a team of all the specialists needed to work on drug development – chemists, biologists, crystallographers, spectroscopists, etc., all of the highest caliber, either from top pharmaceutical companies or leading research groups. Creative abrasion was expected to help generate the best ideas. The main retention tool apart from the thrill of developing a new drug was stock options.

At least in the first four years of Vertex, drug development never happened in the structured, rational way that Boger envisaged. While that was the holy grail, many milestones were reached through intelligent guesses, trial and error, and sheer luck. Yet, throughout, the effort was to get there.

Why can’t we have a Vertex from India?

Let’s fast forward to today. Which elements of Vertex’s fast evolution could be replicated in India, and which would be inimitable?

With enough money, it should be possible to get skilled people for the technical tasks, and the equipment required to do these tasks. But I am not sure that we have the kind of people who Boger was able to attract to Vertex: scientists with the deep expertise at the frontier of the field combined with the original thinking required to make breakthrough discoveries, and the strong aspiration to do so. Managing such prima donnas as a group is not an easy task either.

Also, certain elements of the Vertex model simply don’t exist in India. In most fields and sub-disciplines, there is no Harvard equivalent that is pursuing the cutting edge of research and can provide competitive stimuli or research inputs to a young start-up. The gap between academia and industry is often lamented in India, and this gap affects the development of “high tech” industry the most. Email and the internet are no substitute for the flow of information across organizational boundaries thanks to informal professional networks.

And India’s investors and capital markets may not have the risk appetite and be sophisticated enough to make the frequent investments that would keep a company like Vertex afloat. In its first four years, apart from the initial funding, Vertex raised money from Chugai and also completed an IPO. Its only now, and that too in a relatively established space like e-commerce, that we are seeing multiple rounds of funding in quick succession.

I can’t imagine we have too many Boger equivalents who are able to straddle “high science,” technology and business.  The only person who comes to mind is Vijay Chandru of Strand Life Sciences.


It’s going to be difficult to create Vertex-like companies out of India. But there are a few things we can do to help the process, at least on the supply side.

We need to scale up what the Department of Biotechnology has supported reasonably well over the years – creation of a critical mass of highly qualified scientists and technologists in the areas of modern Biology and related fields. We can also expose more of our most talented scientists to the excitement of entrepreneurship and business through carefully crafted workshops – e.g. NSRCEL at IIMB had run a couple of workshops for young scientists/doctoral students at NCBS and IISc on the Business of Science, and this can be replicated elsewhere. Good incubators – like the Venture Centre at NCL Pune – would make getting off the ground easier.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Parallel Lives

Biographies can be inspiring, and thought-provoking, and I have always enjoyed reading them. In general, I have preferred reading about contemporary figures rather than historical ones as I relate better to the present than the past. But, a problem with the typical biography is that you learn about one person in absolute terms, without benchmarks, unless the author chooses to provide them.

I recently had the opportunity to read three books which, instead of looking at a single individual, profiled parallel lives. This choice happened by chance and not by design, but all three were wonderful reading experiences.

An Uncommon Friendship Indeed

An Uncommon Friendship – From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust by Bernat Rosner and Frederic C. Tubach (with assistance from Sally Patterson Tubach) is the amazing story of an Auschwitz survivor (Rosner) told by a German contemporary (Tubach) whose family had strong Nazi sympathies at that time. After the War, Rosner and Tubach both emigrated to the United States where they made their own lives – Rosner as a retail executive, and Tubach as a professor at the University of California. They happened to meet in California many decades after the War and slowly discover each other’s past.

Rosner spent about a year at Auschwitz where his survival was nothing short of miraculous. At a critical juncture, he was just one step away (or one guard’s gesture away) from being assigned to a path to the gas chamber rather than the line to live another day. Rosner had dealt with the horrors and nightmares of the holocaust in which he lost his entire immediate family by suppressing their memories and building his life anew in the land of opportunity. The last person with whom you would expect him to share his past was Tubach, given his family’s Nazi background. But An Uncommon Friendship is a heart-warming tale of how Rosner and Tubach slowly discovered each other to the extent that they travelled together to Europe to the villages of their childhood to re-construct and share their past. This tale of human bonding is such a sharp contrast to the inhuman atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany that one wonders how such extremes can happen in the same human race.

Rosner got a lucky break after the War when he was able to emigrate to the United States rather than re-locate to the fledgling state of Israel thanks to the magnanimity of an American soldier he befriended when the Americans took control of some of the regions that had been under German occupation. The soldier turned out to be the scion of a rich American family, and arranged for him to enroll in college in the US. Rosner grabbed that break with both hands and built his life afresh.

Troubled Talent

Robert Peace, the protagonist of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs got such a break as well, but what happened thereafter couldn’t have been more different. Peace, an African American, was born to a hard-working yet penurious woman and an enigmatic, drug-dealing father (who spent most of his life behind bars for a murder that the book suggests he may not have committed) in a troubled, crime and drug-plagued suburb of Newark called East Orange. 

Academically brilliant, he went to the best schools his mother could afford including a top notch Jesuit institution in Newark city. Impressed by his promise, the school’s most successful alum sponsored Peace for a university education of his choice. This allowed him to attend Yale University.

The book is written by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s (white) roommate, an aspiring if unsuccessful novelist, and tells the story of Peace’s life with a particular focus on his years at Yale and what happened thereafter. Peace’s life is juxtaposed against those of his contemporaries, rich and poor, black and white. What emerges is a sensitive yet stark sociological portrait of contemporary America that gives a more nuanced picture of socioeconomic conditions, race relations, crime and discrimination than what gets from the typical coverage of the recent killings of black youth by white American policemen.

As its title suggests, this book doesn’t have a happy end. Peace is a complex and infuriating character, brilliant but deeply flawed at the same time. Was his inability to “make it” in the land of opportunity the result of human frailty or the milieu in which he grew up? Why could Bernat Rosner overcome his past and build a new life but Robert Peace not do the same? Can the barriers of race and discrimination ever be overcome? These thoughts will live with me for a long time to come.

Nehru and Bose

I drew the title of this post from the third book - Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Like all Indians, I knew several things about both Nehru and Bose before I read this book, and much more about Nehru than Bose! Nehru, the aristocratic visionary, to whom we owe the concept of a modern, democratic India but also the ideological barriers that come in the way of our achieving our economic potential; Bose, the courageous and impatient nationalist, whose mysterious and sudden disappearance and death created forever an enigmatic halo.

By re-constructing the lives of Bose and Nehru in the chronology and context of the freedom struggle, Mukherjee brings out the similarities and differences between these two outstanding freedom fighters.

Neither was poor, both had socialist leanings, and were strongly committed to India’s freedom. Both had their differences with Gandhi, and had trouble in understanding some of the tactical decisions he took in the course of the freedom struggle. But, they dealt with these in different ways. Nehru treated Gandhi as a father figure (Gandhi was a great source of emotional strength to Nehru after Motilal’s early demise) and kept many of his differences to himself, while Bose was impatient and outspoken. The book clearly suggests that Gandhi trusted Nehru more than he trusted Bose. There also seems to have been a fear of Bose’s charisma and his ability to mobilise and motivate people. To compound matters, Bose had many competitors in Bengal politics and sometimes needed to take a more extreme position in order to demonstrate his leadership.

The biggest difference between Nehru and Bose towards the end was of course their attitude towards the use of force in the final thrust for freedom. Bose’s fascination for the military and all that goes with it went back to his youth, and manifested itself in the creation of the Indian National Army (INA). Bose and his colleagues showed considerable physical courage in this endeavor and ex-members of the INA became important contributors to the development of India. But, Bose’s grand dream of teaming up with the Axis powers was doomed almost from the start – Mukherjee’s book brings out well the inherent contradictions in Bose trying to work with the Nazi leadership.

Mukherjee has not, as far as I can see, brought out any startling new facts about Nehru and Bose. But, by re-telling history in the right sequence and going back and forth between the two protagonists, he shows clearly that Nehru and Bose had several things in common, including a warm personal friendship for much of the 1930s. This is book is a wonderful introduction to the history of the time as well as the two towering persons who are the subject of this book. Unlike the other two books I wrote about in this post, this book is focused more on the subjects’ public persona, but I suppose that’s inevitable since they were public leaders of such importance.


These three wonderful books illustrate the power of profiling parallel lives. I hope to find more books in this genre, and perhaps even write one myself someday!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Actors, a Lawyer, a Journalist, and a Management Pioneer

We have accumulated hundreds of books over the years. Keeping them dust-free has always been a problem. And, shifting them a major challenge. Luckily, we didn’t move for several years (we were in the same house from 2003-2013), but my move to Indore and shifting out of the IIMB campus meant that we had to finally deal with these books.

Once in Indore, I started accumulating more books, till I realized that this can’t just go on. So, I finally decided to go electronic and green, and shifted to a Kindle a few months ago. There were two other immediate drivers for this – the difficulty in carrying more than one book while travelling, and the challenge of finding the “right” books to read. Bookstores are slowly going extinct (Indore doesn’t have a good bookstore, not even at the airport) and most airport bookstores have an amazingly uninspiring collection of books.

Reading with the Kindle Paperwhite

The new Kindle Paperwhite is a revelation. What I really like about it is that it weighs hardly anything and you can use it in any ambient light conditions (unlike a laptop screen for instance, which is unreadable in bright ambient light). The other advantage is the huge collection of books available and the fact that it takes less than a minute to download a book if you have a good wifi connection.

The only thing I don’t like about using the Kindle is that every book looks the same. In a printed book, you have variety of colour, paper texture, cover illustrations, layouts and fonts. But, on the Kindle, all books look the same.

Books I read on the Kindle so far

This post is devoted to the books I have read since acquiring my Kindle Paperwhite. All of them are biographies or autobiographies. In recent years, I hardly read any fiction. I find “true” stories fascinating enough. And, I suspect that most non-fiction has some embellishment anyway. At the minimum, it depends on reconstructing things from memory, and, I am sure the brain plays its own games.

Two Actors

I am not a filmi person, and don’t queue up to watch the latest releases. But I can’t escape some interest in movie stars. The first two books I read on the Kindle were about movie stars who are as different as different can be.

Meryl Streep By Charles River Editors

I always liked Meryl Streep as an actor. She is so versatile yet appears natural in every role she plays. And, she has a quiet dignity to boot. The short biography I read showed how incredibly professional she is. If you believe the book, Meryl Streep’s personal life has been largely free of controversy as she has, unlike most film stars, managed to keep her personal and professional lives in two different compartments. As a result, the book has very little “juice” and would have been shunned by any Indian film publication! 

Meena Kumari By Vinod Mehta

Meena Kumari’s short yet tempestuous life is, in that sense, much more “interesting.” But all credit to Vinod Mehta for a sensitive yet apparently honest portrayal of her life. I was never a great fan of Meena Kumari, and she died before I started seeing Hindi films, but I got interested in reading this book because when I read Vinod Mehta’s memoirs, he mentioned that this was his first book as a rookie journalist in Mumbai. Vinod has succeeded in building a compelling picture of the difficult circumstances in which Meena Kumari grew up and worked, of the pulls and pressures she faced from her poor family and her much older and possessive husband, Kamal Amrohi. In the process, he also talks about the Hindi film industry in the late 1950s and 1960s, the big studios and iconic directors. Looking back, those seem like much simpler times!

Three Public Figures in Different Fields – Nariman, Urwick and Attkinson

Before Memory Fades by Fali Nariman

My grandfather was a lawyer. Sometimes, while working on a complicated case, he would explain his arguments to me hoping that if I could understand the arguments, they would be clear to the judge as well. As a result, I developed an early interest in the law.

Earlier this year, I read Zia Mody’s concise yet insightful look at ten judgements that have impacted India in a big way. Fali Nariman’s memoirs complement this book and add much more in terms of the relationship between the executive and the judiciary, between politicians and lawyers, and between legal luminaries and juniors at the bar. I particularly liked the parts about the excellent training he received as a young lawyer in Bombay, and the challenges and dilemmas he faced in representing Union Carbide in the Gas Tragedy case. I guess lawyers have to be good at managing contradictions, at compartmentalizing things, as they sometimes have to support apparently conflicting perspectives in different cases.

Lyndall Urwick: Management Pioneer by Edward Brech, Andrew Thomson, and John F. Wilson

I hadn’t heard of Lyndall Urwick until I attended the Pan-IIM World Management Conference at IIM Kozhikode last month. One of the speakers, John Wilson, mentioned his name during his talk. It turns out that Wilson is the co-author of a book on Urwick, the pioneer of the scientific management movement in the UK. Urwick came from a business-owning family, but was shaped by his experience in the first World War, and became an evangelist of scientific management practices.

“Evangelist” is the right term to describe Urwick for he seems to have been undeterred in giving literally hundreds of talks, and writing a similar number of articles on his favourite theme. Though scientific management is usually associated with efficiency and productivity, Urwick had a larger canvas that included organization design and a humanitarian approach to the management of people. Like all pioneers, he faced several difficulties in getting his thoughts accepted, and the reception of his ideas in certain quarters was not helped by his direct speaking. In fact, his contributions were appreciated more in the United States than in his home country!

Overall, I was most impressed by Urwick’s commitment to his theme and the tireless persistence with which he pursued it over his lifetime. Reading this book made me wonder whether we had similar unsung proponents of management in India. From whatever I have read, the management movement in India, if it can be called that, started after independence and picked up steam in the 1960s thanks to people like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Mathai. But some management innovations go back to the early part of the 20th century when the Tatas experimented with both efficiency improvements and welfare-oriented people practices (like limiting the work day to 8 hours). While many histories of Indian business exist, such as Dwijendra Tripathi’s wonderful books, I must look harder to see whether someone has written a history of management thought in India. If not, here is a great opportunity!

Stonewalled By Sharyl Attkinson

I found Sharyl Attkinson’s Stonewalled from the New York Times bestsellers list. Attkinson is a formidable journalist with an impressive list of awards to her credit. Investigative reporting is her forte. Stonewalled is all about how she became disillusioned with, and finally left, CBS News as the network channel thwarted her efforts to pursue investigative stories that would show the Obama administration in a poor light. Attkinson provides plenty of evidence to show that the predominantly “liberal” media establishment applies different standards to the coverage of Republican and Democratic presidents. But most alarming about her story is the extent to which the US government is willing to go to track and monitor someone they perceive as inimical to their interests. Quite an amazing story, fascinating, yet scary at the same time. Big Brother is watching!  

More Next Week

But, the most fascinating books I read on my Kindle so far all track parallel lives. I’ll write about these next week:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reflections on Recent Innovation Talks to Companies

In the last couple of months, there has been a spurt in my external speaking engagements on innovation. I am not sure why this is happening – perhaps its increasing optimism regarding the future, but it could be something more mundane like this being the preferred “season” for corporate events. Whatever the reason, it’s been fun to speak to a variety of audiences – a large multinational known for its print and imaging technologies; a leading public sector enterprise in defence electronics; a top global brand in denim; and a home-grown, pioneering consumer products company.

Organizational Rules and Innovation

I was impressed by the young and enthusiastic team of engineers at the public sector defence electronics company. They were engaged throughout the session and asked lots of questions.

One engineer was clearly chafing against what he saw as the rigidity in working conditions – fixed working hours and reporting times, authority structures, etc. He seemed convinced that innovation would be curbed under such constraints.

But what we know about innovation suggests that creativity is only one part of the innovation process. Particularly while validating, refining and sharpening an idea, discipline and perseverance is critical to the innovation process. We all know what happens when this phase of the innovation process is not given the attention it deserves – witness the problems that Boeing’s Dreamliner has faced thanks to inadequate testing and de-bugging of new technologies .

So, while the creative mecca might appear to be an organization that lacks rules and allows employees to come and go as they please, that might not quite mesh with reality. Take the case of Ideo, often regarded as the world’s top design firm – I haven’t visited them, but I have watched the shopping cart video several times, and it shows the team working morning to night every day. They might be allowed to wear whatever they want to office and hang up whacky things on the wall, but there is no let up as far as commitment to work is concerned.

Pursue your Passion or Align with the company?

Another interesting discussion was with a passionate individual contributor at the Indian consumer products company. His hand shot up almost immediately after I finished my presentation. He voiced his disagreement with one of the points I had made during the presentation – that it’s better to align one’s innovation efforts with the priorities of the company. His contention was that no radically new products or business opportunities would arise if one stuck to the existing areas of work within the company.

I explained the history of corporate R&D and how there was a phase immediately after the second world war when companies thought they could do almost anything driven by R&D, but how that phase had come to an end as increasing competition had reduced the resources available to pursue open-ended research work. Today, except for a few companies which hold monopolistic positions, few companies are able to afford R&D in areas that are not aligned to the business priorities of the company. So, if an employee wants to avoid frustration, and hopes to get buy-in from the business, she has little option but to work in areas that are likely to be of commercial benefit to the company.

Want to work on what takes your fancy? Work in a university or start something on your own if you have the resources to support it.

Consumer Orientation vs. Breakthrough Innovation

One question that comes up often is the link between consumer research and breakthrough innovation. In my talks, I emphasise the importance of immersion in the lives of consumers to understand their pains, identify waves and possibilities for elimination of waste. So, I am often asked whether this would not result in only innovation to meet the immediate needs of customers and thereby block any real breakthroughs.

But, in my view, there is a misconception here. Consumer research doesn’t mean asking consumers what they want as that is bound to be a limiting exercise resulting in incremental innovation. Good consumer research means living with consumers, watching how they consume and use products, what adaptations they have made in how they use products because of the limitations of products, etc.

Immersion helps understand needs that consumers have themselves not been able to articulate and to anticipate fresh needs. And, why was Steve Jobs able to get away without even this level of immersion? Possibly because he and his team were themselves high level users of many of the products and services that Apple offered.

How to Increase Velocity

At one of the companies, a big question was how to enhance velocity and make sure innovation projects move forward rapidly. While support for experimentation (providing resources and time, creating a culture where failure is not penalized) is one part of the story, the other is creating mechanisms to help ideas along their way. One important way of doing this is designing effective review processes. Every review should be both an opportunity for learning as well as an opportunity to remove obstacles. Reviews act as a pull and a pressure – members of the team feel obliged to display some progress since the previous review. Another useful mechanism is a formal incubation process.

Tailpiece: Innovation has unexpected scope

One benefit of visiting and speaking to so many companies is that you get to learn more about their innovations. Somehow, I never thought of denim and jeans as arenas for innovation – but, I recently learnt that Lee and Wrangler have tried out a whole range of new things.

Lee has a range called NoSweat that includes PerformAir that incorporates evaporative cooling; linen-blended denim for a cool and summery feel; Minerals with micro-encapsulated moisturizers to keep your skin lubricated; and Fragrant denim that slowly release sweet smells. Wrangler has jeans embedded with silver dust to act as an anti-bacterial, a boon for people who don’t/can’t wash their jeans often. And, soon to come is a new denim that is warm in winter and cool in summer thanks to some revolutionary fabric research from a company called Coolmax.

Just look at how many things you can do in just one area!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bilcare and AP Organics win CII Industrial Innovation Awards

Awards and recognition play an important role in encouraging innovation. The government has been giving awards for several years now, but with a focus on technological innovation. While these government awards were decided by eminent juries, they lacked an in-depth assessment process. But, in areas like quality (think of the Malcolm Baldridge or equivalent awards), an important part of the selection process is the in-depth assessment carried out by qualified assessors. So, when CII decided, after several years of internal debate, to institute industrial innovation awards this year, such an assessment became an integral part of the process.

Having been on innovation award juries before, I have found that the challenge is to balance creativity, outcomes, and potential future impact. It’s sometimes difficult to compare a very simple idea with huge potential impact with a novel yet complex technological concept  that could appear ahead of its time today but revolutionise the industry later. Not surprisingly, such debates were an important part of the deliberations of the jury for the CII Industrial Innovation awards that were announced a few days ago. A highlight of the jury was its international composition and the enthusiastic participation of some members who had flown thousands of miles to be a part of the process.

Knowing my penchant for writing on interesting innovations I have seen, one of my co-jury members started teasing me during the presentations that he “didn’t want to see all the confidential details splashed on my blog.” I have taken his caution to heart and all the information given here is based on what is available in the public domain!

I will restrict my comments to the two winners in the manufacturing category. The applications for services innovation tend to be dominated by IT, and I rarely see eye-catching ideas in this domain.

This Year’s Winners – Manufacturing

Bilcare, a Pune-based packaging solutions company won an award for what it calls nonclonableID ™ technologies. These are used to prevent counterfeiting and provide a validation of the originality of products across a variety of industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to automobile components. In India, the government has been particularly interested in these solutions because of rampant counterfeiting and tampering. The Blicare solution creates a unique material fingerprint for each product or component passing through a supply chain and provides an end-to-end solution of verification and validation.

AP Organics, a Sangrur-based company, is a leading producer of rice bran oil under the Ricela brandname. The company’s distinctiveness is based on the patented physical refining process it has pioneered that preserves important ingredients such as Oryzanol which has anti-cholesterol properties. Today, the company has also effectively backward integrated, and through its decentralized sourcing and processing, is able to source rice bran from multiple centres across the country and use it before its short shelf life is over.

What’s Common to Both

The cases of both Bilcare and AP Organics underline the importance of working on the “right” problems.
Counterfeiting and duplication erodes the brand value of companies and poses significant losses to customers. It can be extremely dangerous too in products like drugs. And counterfeiters are becoming more sophisticated, so solutions have to become better too.

Not only is large import of edible oils a macroeconomic problem for India, heart disease is becoming an important lifestyle hazard. Yet, the Indian palate is unlikely to change in a hurry. Domestic production of “good” oils is therefore a priority.

Both of these are good examples of the “pain-wave-waste” criteria for problem selection that Vinay Dabholkar has stressed in our 8 Steps to Innovation.

The Importance of End-to-End Innovation

Both Bilcare and AP Organics show that end-to-end innovation has become necessary in many product categories. Of the two, AP Organics appears to have been commercially more successful, possibly because it is easier for it to manage the entire process. The Bilcare technology itself looks to be sound, but involves system-level implementation which is not always easy.

Both Bilcare and AP Organics have shown the value of their innovation in international markets though exports and international usage.

Both innovations have taken time to mature. In fact, Bilcare’s technology is still not ubiquitous even though some customers like a Japanese automotive component manufacturer have established its utility.


I was both somewhat intrigued and saddened by the relative absence of Indian pharmaceutical companies in the final shortlist. While my fellow jury members were quick to explain this away by recalling the industry’s focus on generics, pharma is even today India’s most R&D intensive industry. And, not so long ago, we had several Indian firms undertaking courageous drug discovery programmes. I hope this is just a blip and that we will see many Indian pharma firms intensifying their efforts to discover new drugs or drug discovery systems in the years ahead.


Let’s hope that the new CII Industrial Innovation Awards grow from strength-to-strength and become highly coveted awards in the years ahead.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Visit to Ashoka and other musings on higher education

Last week, I finally made it to the campus of Ashoka University in the Rajiv Gandhi Educational Area near Sonepat on the outskirts of Delhi. Ashoka has been the obsession of my good friend Pramath Sinha for the last few years, but I was unable to make it to the formal inauguration of the university some months ago.

The Ashoka campus is well-positioned near the highway and catches the eye with its elegant tall buildings. It doesn’t have a huge campus, but it should be quite functional and user-friendly yet aesthetic once it is completed. I have been arguing for some time that, given the pressure on land and the difficulties in acquiring it, even our government-supported institutions need to change their concept and “go vertical” – the current norm for a new IIM is 200 acres of land which is increasingly difficult find. Private universities like Ashoka are already showing how this can be done.

Young India Fellowship

Ashoka had a soft launch through the Young India Fellowship (YIF) programme that is now in its fourth avatar. YIF is doing liberal arts in reverse – it offers a one year post-graduate diploma in liberal arts to students from a variety of professional backgrounds.

I taught a course on “Introduction to Business” to the first YIF cohort. The business course is one of the few compromises that YIF makes to the marketplace – while many of the YIF fellows have gone on to higher studies at impressive schools in the west, one of the big questions that YIF has to confront is “What next?” YIF has an impressive Experiential Learning Module (ELM) that gives the fellows exposure to an organization, often through a business-related project, but that’s not enough to place the YIF fellows. Hence the business course and other related workshops.

Thursday morning @YIF

I enjoyed a vigorous one hour interaction with the current YIF fellows on the topic “Can India become an Innovation Powerhouse?” The grassroot innovation movement appears to have caught the imagination of many of our young students, for some of the fellows felt that India doesn’t do well on global innovation surveys because our strength lies in our traditional localized innovation rather than the modern technological innovation that is measured by most such surveys. They didn’t say this explicitly but appeared to be suggesting that if only the government were to help these and other young innovators with mentorship and incubation support, the Indian innovation scenario would change. Is this true? Well, several organizations have jumped on to the incubation bandwagon now, so we’ll know in a few years how well this works.

FICCI Higher Education Summit

Universities like Ashoka represent the brave new frontier of Indian higher education. But, as C. Rajkumar, Vice Chancellor of OP Jindal Global University, said in a panel at the FICCI Higher Education Summit (HES) in which I participated last week, starting a private university that aspires for high standards and quality is not for the faint-hearted. I felt a sense of déjà vu at the HES – I think this is the third one I am attending an HES over the last decade – as many of the issues for discussion have remained the same over time.

Though policy makers have been talking for some years now about the importance of focusing on quality and not quantity alone, we don’t seem to have figured out how to do this on a sustained basis. The public institutions are ahead on this but are struggling to break into the top 200. There are clearly some private institutions with definite ideas on how to do things differently and how to offer high quality in a challenging environment, but our regulatory structures seem to adopt a “one size fits all” approach for all private institutions.

I am not for a moment saying that everyone starting a higher education institution has noble intentions, and, yes, there is a need to protect students from being cheated or exploited.  But, it appears that we have not achieved the right balance if good private institutions feel constrained, and institutions like the Indian School of Business (ISB) and the School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL) continue to be outside the regulatory domain. Luckily, our HRD minister has just announced that the government is working on a New Education Policy, and I hope this will address these concerns.

HES Panel on Leadership

At the HES, the chair of our panel, Mohandas Pai, asked us a couple of interesting questions. One centered around how three major changes (globalization, technology and inter-generational shifts) are likely to affect higher education and what our universities are doing about this. While I am not completely clear about the impact of globalization, I am quite convinced that we have to change the way we teach if we have to adapt to new technology and the way young students of today learn. The process has to be much more interactive and real-time, technology has to come into the classroom, and we have to befriend rather than fight social media and the mobile phone. But, we as faculty are the biggest barrier to make this happen, because we are wedded to our identity as teachers lecturing in a classroom.

Our institutional metrics also need to change. I recall one faculty member asking whether faculty should get the same credit for conducting a simulation-based course as for teaching a regular lecture-based course. Clearly, as long as we measure faculty workload by the hours they lecture in the classroom, it’s going to be difficult for faculty to adopt more interactive methods. 

Another interesting discussion was on leadership. The provost of Carleton University in Canada spoke about a partnership with Sheffield University in the UK to prepare their senior faculty for leadership positions. This prompted Mohan to ask whether we should have the equivalent of an MBA in leadership for university professors.

While this received a sharp negative response from some on the panel and in the audience, the spirit of what Mohan Pai said is worth considering. After all, our professors are not necessarily born leaders, and they are often pitchforked into academic administrative and leadership positions without any prior experience or training. Some IIMs are already running such courses for technical institutions under the umbrella of the TEQUIP programme, and we need to see how well these have worked.


Achieving higher quality in higher education is not an easy task. But with sustained and focused effort, this is achievable over a ten-year timeframe. A supportive policy environment, capable leadership and faculty who are willing to adapt to the changing learning environment will be essential ingredients to make this happen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

DVR Seshadri on Innovation in Teaching - Part 2 - ALM

This is the second part of Prof. DVR Seshadri's piece on innovation in teaching, and focuses on the Active Learning Methodology (ALM). The first part appeared last week.

Active Learning Methodology or ALM

ALM focuses on participative learning. In this method, participants discuss the class topic in groups and present their learnings to the class in the form of a chart or mind-map. The faculty/instructor plays the role of the facilitator and ensures that the learnings are consolidated and summarised.

In a typical class using ALM, participants are divided into groups of three to four each. Each group is asked to discuss the session topic within their respective groups. The step-by-step instructions by the faculty ensure that the discussions proceed sequentially. The following are the steps (instructions) by the faculty/instructor.
1.      Members of the group list out their observations, and write them down in their notebooks. Each member of the group is asked to carry out the exercise individually.

2.      Next, the group members are asked to discuss, share and compare their notes, and prepare a consolidated list of observations. The consolidated list would include all observations of the members in the group.
3.      In the next step, each member of the group is asked to prepare mind-maps, or diagrammatic representation of their observations. The mind-map should make use of simple symbols such as ovals, rectangles, bubbles, triangles, etc., to present the observations of the participants. However in drawing the mind maps, the instructor gives certain rules as follows:

·         The main theme should be at the centre of the diagram
·         The sub-themes should be drawn in the periphery
·         Levels of observations should be clearly distinguished.
(For instance, the oval shape may depict only level 1, rectangles could be used only for level 2, bubbles could be used to depict only level 3, and triangle could be used to depict level 4. Further the levels could be distinguished by thickness of the lines, different colours, etc.)

The diagram should consist of only key words. No sentences are allowed.

A simplified example of a mind-map is shown below, presenting the observations which could be drawn for a typical bus stand. 

The main theme (Level 1 represented by Oval) is the bus stand. The sub theme at level 2 (represented by rectangles) includes shops, buses and passengers. The observations about the buses are further divided into north bound and south bound buses (level 3 represented by bubbles). The observations about the passengers are further divided into ladies and gents (level 3 represented by bubbles). Further observations about the gents passengers are subdivided as old or young passengers (level 4 represented by triangles).

1.      In the last step of this exercise, each of the group members is asked to prepare a set of questions, for which the answers are available in the diagram, or the points consolidated by each group. The instructor encourages the students to prepare any number of questions that they could together come up with.

Each group is then asked to make a 2-minute presentation, about their observations to the entire class. Each subsequent group, making the presentation, can only add to the observations made by the previous group, and cannot repeat any of the points made by the earlier groups.
As a final step, any one group asks questions to any of the other groups. The questions are such that the answers are available in the mind-map as well as in the consolidated observations made by the groups.

The following section provides a summary of the structure of the pedagogy, and the sequence of the steps that can be followed, for a typical classroom session. 

The ALM has been successfully implemented in more than 12,500 schools in the state of Tamilnadu, India. Initially developed by The Krishnamurthy Foundation of India and then implemented on a very large scale in schools in Tamil Nadu by Shri M.P. VijayaKumar IAS (Retd.), ALM has met with widespread acclaim and success. Mr. Vijaykumar is now engaged in promoting the ALM for undergraduate engineering courses in India.

Over the last two years, I have adapted this methodology in management education, using it in my MBA classes as well as in executive education programs. This methodology has been received with great enthusiasm by participants. They provided overwhelmingly positive feedback on the methodology and went on to suggest that all the sessions henceforth should be conducted using this method. I have shared this experience with several of my faculty colleagues at IIM Bangalore, who evinced keen interest in it. Some of them have started to use it in their executive education program teaching.

Alternative teaching methodologies

The above discussion throws some light on the fact that teaching has to be necessarily a participative process for it to be accepted as a learning tool by the students. That teaching needs to be reinvented has gained wide acceptance among teachers around the world.  In many business schools in USA and elsewhere, there is growing focus on alternative teaching approaches that engage students fully in the learning process. The ‘Flipped Model’, which is a variant of ALM has gained considerable traction in US business schools.
Reinventing teaching through innovation has become an urgent need in case of both executive education and long duration programs such as MBA and executive MBA since participants often come with considerable work experience, and consequently do not have the attention span or the inclination to sit through long lectures and other faculty-centric sessions.

Primarily, ALM focuses on addressing the question, “How do students learn?”, “What do students expect from an educational institute?”, “What do teachers want students to be?”, etc. ALM focuses on several objectives that teachers using this methodology seek to achieve. These include:

1. The students should think and act independently.
2. The students should be able to solve problems creatively and flexibly.
3. There should be democracy in the classroom: Students should appreciate that they should wait for their opportunity to voice their views.
4. Through small group discussions that precede sharing within the larger group, a lot of refinement of ideas takes place, thus greatly enhancing the learning for everyone.
5. In a typical teacher-centric model, there are bright students who learn, while a significant chunk of the class is left out and over a period of time, this group becomes disinterested in the subject. In ALM, the endeavour is to get every student upto speed and invite every student to be part of the learning process.

ALM enables participants to develop ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills’ (HOTS). These include developing deep understanding, analysis, synthesis and judgement. ALM promotes Higher Order Thinking Skills.

Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)
(Source: “Higher Order Thinking Skills”, by F.J. King, Ludwika Goodson, and Faranak Rohani, Educational Services Program, (Centre for Advancement of Learning and Assessment), www.cala.fsu.edu)
      According to these researchers, “Higher order thinking skills include critical, logical, reflective, meta-cognitive and creative thinking. They are activated when individuals encounter unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions, or dilemmas. Successful application of the skills result in explanations, decisions, performances, and products that are valid within the context of available knowledge and experience and that promote continued growth in these and other intellectual skills. Higher order thinking skills are grounded in lower order skills such as simple application and analysis, and cognitive strategies and are linked to prior knowledge of subject matter content.”

      Appropriate teaching strategies and learning environments facilitate the growth of higher order thinking skills. In addition, student persistence, self-monitoring, and open-minded, flexible attitudes are vital ingredients to develop higher order thinking skills. Although different researchers use different frameworks to describe higher order thinking skills and how they are acquired, all frameworks are in general agreement with regard to the conditions under which these skills develop in students.


In my 15 years of experience as a teacher, I have been fortunate to have intelligent and talented students. I have greatly gained from my interactions with them. This has only been possible because of my approach to teaching as a fun activity, where I constantly ask myself one question: ‘How can I maximize the learning for the students and make the course a truly transformational experience, while being fun-filled.’ One of the first instructions I give to my participants is “Sit back and enjoy, let’s have fun, and learn in the process as well”. This approach as forced me to constantly innovate in the teaching methodology, and I am now convinced that ALM is the direction to take.

Teaching methodologies across the country are in need of massive overhaul. Given that students these days have access to lot more information than in the generation gone by, communicate extensively with each other, etc., the tried and tested teacher-centric methodologies are now well beyond their sell date. However, the task of innovating teaching is an arduous one. It becomes even more difficult with rigid, archaic teaching pedagogies and stifling syllabuses that characterize most universities, which are followed more as a ritual, rather than with the objective of maximizing learning. Over the centuries, India as a centre of learning has always demonstrated vibrancy. It is time that the teaching fraternity continues to innovate on learning pedagogies to ensure that the intellect of the students is harnessed to the hilt to create truly world-class learning institutions. Incidentally such transformation is necessary if we are to move towards the vision painted by our new Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, best captured by his three S’s: ‘Skill, Speed and Scale.’ 

[My thanks to DVR for sharing this valuable perspective with us.]

Saturday, November 1, 2014

DVR Seshadri on Innovation in Teaching Pedagogy - Part 1

[This post is written by DVR Seshadri, Adjunct Professor at IIM Bangalore. He has been a mentor to hundreds of students across institutions during the last decade and a half. DVR has been constantly striving to improve his teaching effectiveness and this post is based on some of his experiments in the last few years.]

Teaching, as a noble profession, has always remained close to the heart to most teachers. However, in recent years, the methodology of teaching, or pedagogy, has been severely questioned, in India as well as in other universities around the world, especially in business schools.  In a well written article, “Those who can’t, teach” (The Economist, February 2014), Schumpeter questions the objectives of the business schools in the US, and whether the faculty in business schools are interested in teaching at all. The teachers are urged to extensively engage in research and publications and as a consequence pay little attention to the process of teaching. Schumpeter also believes that the herd mentality of following higher ranked business schools have led the lower ranked business schools to focus on attracting talented students, rather than providing high quality teaching per se. As the costs of education rise, Schumpeter warns of growing competition to teaching from MOOCs, or Mass Oriented Online Courses, which provide identical course content taught in business schools, at very low price to the students.

A significant proportion of teachers treat teaching with discomfort and some consternation. As a consequence, some of them tend to belittle teaching. They take recourse to proclaiming that teaching is inferior to research. Such implicit caste hierarchy in many business schools does little to alleviate an already grave situation relating to the efficacy of teaching and learning.

At heart I am a teacher and have always approached it with a spirit of fun, rather than considering it to be a strenuous task. True, there is hard work required, but the joy of imparting knowledge, and being able to make a positive difference to the lives of my students, continues to motivate me. It is in this background that I would like to reflect on some much needed innovation in teaching in institutions imparting business education.

Teaching as a transformative experience for the participants

In a well written book, “Education for Judgment” (‘Education for Judgement: The artistry of discussion leadership’, by ‘C Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, Harvard Business School, 1991), teachers at the Harvard Business School reveal critical issues that teachers need to resolve. The book provides some important guidelines that teachers can follow to improve teaching. Stressing on the need for teaching to be a transformational experience for students (as opposed to downloading content from the teacher to the taught), the book provides good advice to focus on the ‘learning experience’ as against the ‘teaching experience’. In the following chart, I have attempted to present the ideas of the book in a form of a simple flow diagram. 

Acquisition and application of knowledge: Undoubtedly, the classroom is a forum for the participants to acquire knowledge. They should also be directed towards productively applying such knowledge. This responsibility falls squarely on the teacher. Often teachers in their anxiety to ‘give more’ to the participants indulge in expansive coverage under significant time constraints, without paying adequate attention to enabling the participants an opportunity to apply the knowledge. The importance of application orientation in business schools cannot be over-emphasised. If a teacher can motivate participants to think about issues such as ‘Where does the knowledge emanate from?’, ‘What does the knowledge actually consist of?’, ‘How is the knowledge actually represented in the human mind?’, ‘How can this knowledge be applied in practice?’ etc., she sets in motion a self-perpetuating learning ecosystem in each participant. In this context, it is important for the teacher to make participants think through the inter-connectivity of knowledge gained from various courses. This is often given short shrift when courses are taught virtually in silos.

Usable Knowledge: Knowledge when given a context is easier to impart and understand. In this regard, the faculty’s focus on application of knowledge is infinitely more valuable than just imparting knowledge. This ensures that the participants are able to use the knowledge in problem solving and relate it to contemporary business issues that they are likely to come across in their professional lives.

Constructing the learning experience:  An important responsibility of the teacher is to create the right atmosphere for learning. The teacher is likely to face several dilemmas in this regard. For instance, should he to focus allowing participants to come up with divergent questions or should he work towards obtaining closure and convergence in the classroom discussions? Should he focus on soliciting the right answers and cut out all other discussions or allow discussions as they emerge, regardless of their being right or wrong answers, wherein the participants ultimately figure out by themselves the fallacy inherent in faulty lines of discussion? Here the dilemma is on correcting the answers of the students or allowing them to hone their reasoning abilities. While there are no right answers to any of these questions, it is fair to state that the teacher has immense influence on the quality of the classroom experience. What is important is that the teacher uses knowledge as an instrument for learning rather than for display of his knowledge. Most participants are inveterate learners, and if the teacher is able to create the right learning experience, participants learn far more quickly. More importantly, they learn from each other and it behooves the teacher to facilitate such peer learning as well. In many intensely competitive classroom environments, unfortunately this opportunity is not sufficiently leveraged.  

Creating communities of interest: The teacher can have a huge influence on the participants in getting them involved and to generate genuine interest for the subject. A community of interest is created when the participants enable each other and organise and communicate content amoung themselves. Participants are then fully empowered and learning becomes a transformational experience.

As shown by the diagram above, the cycle of activities is iterative. If implemented well, it leads to a virtuous cycle of superior learning for the participants as well as for the teacher. 

Methodology of teaching - Pedagogy

While it is difficult to be prescriptive about which form of pedagogy is best suited for the classroom, it is fair to say that some of the teaching techniques have worn out their utility as effective pedagogies. In this regard, it is time that the curriculum and worn out pedagogies are reviewed and changed for the benefit of the participants.  

In April 2014, I was invited by the Indian Institute of Management, Indore to take a few sessions on innovative teaching methodologies as part of the institute’s Faculty Development Program. Participants comprised of 33 teachers from various management schools. I conducted four sessions, one each for instruction oriented teaching, traditional lecture based pedagogy, case study pedagogy, and one using Active Learning Methodology. The participants were then asked to give their feedback on the teaching method they felt was best suited to ensure superior learning.

In their feedback, 72% of the participants mentioned that Active Learning Methodology or ALM was best suited for superior learning. 9% suggested case study based pedagogy, 9% suggested that a judicious mix of all the four pedagogies be used, while 6% did not give a clear response. Interestingly, only 3% suggested that traditional lecture based teaching method was useful as a superior learning tool.

Participants mentioned that the traditional lecture based pedagogy was still useful to cover the syllabus within the time available for teaching the course. They felt that traditional forms of teaching were still relevant because they help to teach concepts within the prescribed constraints of time, which is a major factor that they have to reckon with, especially in the university system. Many of the teachers also said that given the proliferation of business schools in the country, the quality and motivation of participants was also a major factor that they had to grapple with.

On the other hand, teachers of the workshop who favoured ALM mentioned that it facilitates a self-learning approach and helps to develop different perspectives on the subject being taught. They believed that the ALM method enabled high level of participation among the learners. It was more meaningful and result oriented vis-à-vis conventional teaching methods which were much more instructor-centric teaching approaches. ALM invoked critical thinking and enhanced the thought process of the participants. The participants see value in learning the topic, and hence the learning becomes relevant. More importantly, ALM helps to improve the attention span of the participants, with their active involvement and allowing them to think ‘out-of-the-box’. A word of caution from the participants (in their feedback) was that ALM was time consuming and that sufficient preparation was needed by the instructor to ensure that the classroom discussions are kept on track.

[To be concluded in the next post which will focus on the ALM pedagogy.]