Saturday, May 24, 2014

A 10-Point Agenda to Support Technology-driven Innovation

With a new government at the helm, this is the time for wish-lists and advice as to how it can make a major impact. Here’s my two pennies worth on what should be the government’s priorities if it wants to promote technology-driven innovation and entrepreneurship.

Ease of Doing Business

India routinely does badly on the World Bank’s survey on ease of doing business. But, from talking to entrepreneurs, I get the sense that setting up a new services business is fairly straightforward, that’s why we see so many new service businesses springing up all the time. While there is always scope for improving the time taken to set up a service business, the real issue is with manufacturing businesses.

Most of the barriers to set up a new factory are at the state level, but the central government could help by creating a blueprint for a genuine single window approval system (possibly by studying the relatively more efficient states) and diffusing it to other states. Perhaps the centre can even incentivize states to adopt such a system (through a special grant?).

Availability of stable power is another important framework condition to encourage entrepreneurship in manufacturing as few entrepreneurs can afford to invest in large gensets for a fledgling enterprise.

Finally, while ease of setting up a business is important, ease of closing a business is equally salient. That’s an area for immediate attention.

Strengthen support for technology development

India’s success in services has obscured the fact that we are slipping backwards in several technology areas. In both more mature areas like electronics as well as important new areas like nanotechnology and new energy technologies, India is far away from being a serious player.

Over time, the government’s support programmes for technology development by industry have stagnated, and in some cases withered away. The only exception has been in Biotechnology where a robust set of support programmes is in place thanks to the initiatives of Dr. MK Bhan when he was Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). [See my earlier post on Dr. Bhan’s initiatives at DBT.]

Some features of the DBT’s initiatives are (1) close involvement of industry in the design of support programmes; (2) willingness to support small firms with outright grants for genuinely innovative technology development efforts; (3) a variety of schemes tailored to meet the size and needs of different biotech enterprises; (4) a strong delivery mechanism (a separate Section 25 company) to execute the programmes. These could either be replicated in other sectors, or the Department of Science and Technology charged with rolling out large horizontal programmes along these lines.

There is an urgent need to start at least ten national collaborative R&D platforms involving industry, academia and research institutions to support technology development and commercialization in areas of critical importance to the country. Previous experiences such as the NMITLI programme of CSIR and the CAR programme of the office of the Scientific Advisor to the Cabinet can be drawn upon to design effective collaborative programmes. [See my earlier post on collaborative R&D programmes.]

Public procurement plays an important role in government support for local technology development. Government should give short-term preferential procurement to products based on local technology, developed specifically for Indian needs, which have been granted Indian patents. And, it should play a proactive role in helping local firms meet pre-qualification norms rather than using such norms to prevent local firms from participating in government tenders.

Promote Application-oriented Research in Academia

There is frequent criticism that Indian academia is too theoretical and lacks an application focus. Not enough research is done, and whatever research there is tends to be esoteric and abstract. Genuine application often involves crossing disciplinary boundaries, but Indian academia works within tight disciplinary silos. Yet, we also know that innovation in frontier areas has its seeds in academic research.

A first important step would be to recognize the importance of application-oriented research in Indian academia. The most prestigious science awards in India are the Bhatnagar awards, but these are based on research alone. I hear that there is a committee to set up a similar set of awards for translational research (this is the term in vogue for application-oriented work), this needs to be expedited and efforts made to find really outstanding people to be the first recipients of the awards.

Application-oriented criteria like patents, technology transfer/commercialization need to be included in the faculty evaluation process at our top institutions with some fungibility between these criteria and publication-related criteria.

At least 2 -3 positions of Professors of Practice need to be created in each department in an IIT or NIT which can be used to attract researchers from industry on either a fulltime or adjunct basis. The criteria for appointment of these professors of practice need to be different from those applicable to regular faculty appointments with a greater focus on application and commercialization. These professors of practice will also hopefully act as a bridge between the institution and industry, and enhance communication between the two.

Faculty should be encouraged to get involved in start-ups, either directly or as mentors. All restrictions on such activity should be removed. Strengthening of faculty evaluation processes within institutions will help dispel any concerns of faculty members pursuing commercial interests at the expense of their academic commitments.

Joint appointments need to be encouraged to promote inter-disciplinary work. Inter-disciplinary academic programmes and research projects can also help. 

Inter-disciplinary work can also cross institutional boundaries. A couple of existing programmes catalyzed by Dr. Bhan show how this can happen – (1) the Stanford India Biodesign Programme brought Stanford Design School, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and IIT Delhi together to create a new generation of designers of biomedical equipment, and a whole slew of new products; (2) the IISc-St. John’s Glue project brought together India’s leading science institution and a leading centre for medical research. Though located in the same city, these two premier institutions hardly used to interact with each other. Such glue programmes/ projects are particularly relevant to our country since we have a large number of high quality specialized institutions but a small number of high quality multi-disciplinary universities.

Some institutions have already set up tinkering labs to enable students to experiment in a non-formal setting. The government should give a one-time grant to the top 50 technology institutions to set up such labs.

Summary: The Ten Point Agenda

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author. Some of these ideas have been expressed before in different forms by others, and I thank everyone who has contributed.]

Monday, May 19, 2014

TVS Motor & Thermax: Just a Step Away from being Outstanding Innovative Companies

I give several talks each year at corporate and industry association meets. One year, I found that I had given close to fifty such talks. But, one of my enduring regrets is that a good majority of my invitations come from (non-Indian) multinational companies. I don’t see myself as more patriotic than anyone else, nor am I xenophobic, but I find that I am just that little bit more motivated and excited when I speak to an “Indian” company. I guess this is closely related to the fact that building Indian innovation capabilities has been the overarching theme of much of my work.

I was therefore happy to be invited to speak at two prominent Indian companies in the last month.

TVS Motor Company Ltd.

The first talk was at TVS Motor Company Ltd. This is a company with more than 35 years’ experience in product development. I can still recall the excitement in Chennai when the TVS 50 moped was launched (actually by Sundaram Clayton, the parent company of TVS Motor) around 1980.

When the motorcycle industry was opened up in the mid-1980s, the company formed a joint venture with Suzuki to launch Ind-Suzuki 100cc motorbikes. Unfortunately though, in spite of being the first mover, the company was quickly overtaken by another Indo-Japanese joint venture, Hero Honda. The success of Hero Honda was due to an almost unbeatable combination of Honda’s superior 4-stroke engine technology and Hero’s vendor management and supply chain capabilities.

TVS and Suzuki split around 2001, but TVS had reasonably good internal design and engineering capabilities. In fact, in an article I wrote in Economic & Political Weekly at that time (EPW, October 13 2001), I predicted that TVS would be able to hold its own thanks to this ability. Interestingly, prior to 2000, Bajaj’s innovation capabilities were seen as quite weak, and its dependence on Kawasaki (whose technology was unsuited to the fuel economy needs of Indian customers) was seen as an enduring disadvantage.

Of course, that assessment proved to be only partially correct. TVS was successful with its internally developed bike the Victor, but under the leadership of Rajiv Bajaj, Bajaj launched its own bike (without Kawasaki’s help) the Pulsar which turned out to be a blockbuster. Bajaj and TVS got embroiled in a patent dispute that prevented TVS from launching the Flame, its answer to the Pulsar.

Notwithstanding these issues, TVS has persevered. It’s a dominant player in the niche moped market, and has developed a very competitive and nicely-designed Autoricksha (The King), which is reported to be doing very well in the export market. It’s trying hard to recover ground in what is now a much more crowded and competitive motorcycle market with powerful competitors like Hero, Honda, Bajaj, Yamaha, Suzuki and Mahindra through a series of new product launches.

Attending the IP Day at TVS I was struck by the enthusiasm of their young engineering team, and the diversity they have been able to create over time (good representation of different regions and women in product development and IP). There is a firm determination to achieve breakthroughs in technology and product development that could put TVS on a different trajectory. I wish them luck!


My second visit was to Thermax. Set up in 1966, the company is close to celebrating its golden jubilee. Starting with a focus on boilers, today it has broadened its footprint to span a whole range of energy technologies, including renewables. The current chairperson, Meher Pudumjee, is strongly committed to a mission of converting waste into wealth. Over time, Thermax has grown into a large engineering company with a topline of $1 billion.

My first exposure to Thermax was as a student at IIM Ahmedabad. We discussed a case study on Wanson (India) as Thermax was called before 1980. I can’t recall the details of the case except that it was all about boilers! I had a chance to meet Anu Aga, one of the prominent conscience keepers of corporate India, at an executive programme led by Professor Indira Parikh around 1995. I remember being impressed by her management philosophy and straight talk! I read a book called “Confessions of a Chief Executive” by Rohinton Aga (Anu’s husband and the person who shaped Thermax into what it is today) somewhere in the mid-1990s. It was an insightful account of the challenges involved in building a technology business in a regulated economy.

Today, Thermax is doing impressive work both in its conventional strength of boilers, and in new technologies like solar energy. Under the leadership of BARC veteran RR Sonde (see picture below), Thermax has worked closely with institutions like IIT Kanpur, ARCI and Fraunhofer institutions to develop high performance solar parabolic concentrators at very reasonable costs. I was impressed by their willingness to get down to the basics and find innovative ways of jointly optimizing cost and performance.

Thermax has a very positive organizational culture that is reflected in the long stays people spend at the company. Employees are comfortable calling even the Chairperson and President by their first names. Thermax has all the foundation conditions to promote an innovation culture, and I won’t be surprised if the company is the source of some major breakthroughs in the years ahead.

Some Concluding Comments

Both TVS Motor and Thermax are good engineering companies. They have talented people, all the basic processes for R&D and product/process engineering are in place, and the leadership is committed to making long-term investments in innovation. But they appear to have a couple of the typical handicaps of engineering companies too – both are somewhat internally-focused, and pursue a “do-it-yourself” philosophy. Prima facie, both of them would benefit from being more aggressive in telling the world about their distinctive products and services, and collaborating more actively with other companies (open innovation). A caveat - this impression is based on spending just half a day at each company and looking at what they say about themselves on the internet. I don’t mean this as criticism, but to reflect a desire that Indian companies that possess the capabilities for successful innovation should be able to realize their full potential.

(The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

University Ranking Revisited

There has been considerable angst in India regarding the failure of our universities and technical institutions to break into the top world rankings. The President of India refers to this frequently in his speeches. Last year, the Ministry of HRD thought this was serious enough to invite some of the ranking agencies to visit the ministry to explain why we don’t make it. Like several others, I have written about this issue in some of my earlier articles and posts.

I got a chance to reflect on some of the related issues again on Monday when I attended “The Rankings and Excellence Dialogue” organized by the Indian Centre for Assessment & Accreditation (ICAA) at Delhi last Monday. ICAA is a non-profit with the dream of getting 5 Indian universities into the top 100. Former Infosys CFO and Manipal Global Education Chairperson Mohandas Pai is the aggressive and articulate Chair of the ICAA.

Why are rankings important?

Why bother about rankings? This is one of the first questions that surfaced in the dialogue. There was some light-hearted banter about how we all like lists and rankings, but the more serious answer is related to education itself. It’s difficult to measure the quality of education, and both accreditation and rankings help “customers” of education in making an informed choice.

Rankings are particularly important in a cross-border context where students have to make choices from thousands of miles away. Not surprisingly, internationalization figures as an important parameter in many of the ranking systems. This also tells us why international rankings were never very important for Indian institutions –with such high domestic demand, there has never been a focus on international students in India’s leading institutions.

Research, availability of data

But, with India’s ongoing quest for global respect and recognition on all fronts, the importance of rankings has risen. This has had atleast one good outcome – it has put the spotlight on the research output of Indian institutions as all the major global rankings give considerable weightage to research (measured in terms of publications per faculty member, citations per paper, etc.).

One point that was made repeatedly at the dialogue is that Indian institutions don’t collect or maintain data systematically, and this puts them at a disadvantage in any ranking process. Another related challenge is the use of acronyms and a lack of uniformity in the way institutions are referred to (or even refer to themselves!). For example, publications from faculty at IIT Madras carry the institutional affiliation as IITM, IIT Madras and sometimes even IIT Chennai and therefore any attempt to measure research output using a publications database could be challenging.

QS Asia Rankings

The QS Asia rankings were released on the occasion. I had often wondered in the past why there was a separate list of regional rankings and how come the relative positions of institutions on the regional list were different from the global list. I finally got an answer – the regional rankings use different parameters and different weightages to reflect regional priorities.

17 institutions from India figure in the QS Asia rankings, with all the older IITs in the top 100. New entrants to the list include IIIT Allahabad and Amity. IIT Delhi is the top-ranked institution from India at #38.

Useful Insights

Secretary (Higher Education) in the MHRD Ashok Thakur gave a useful overview of the current developments in higher education in India. He emphasized the importance of speedy accreditation of Indian universities and institutions by credible and arm’s length accreditation bodies in order to move away from the “minimum standards” approach of the UGC and AICTE. He identified three positive developments: (1) the positive role played by the President of India in underlining the importance of joining the global mainstream in higher education and being willing to compete on the same terms as others; (2) the trend towards more outcome-based parameters to measure institutional performance (e.g. the Tandon committee that reviewed deemed universities); and (3) the Rashtriya Uchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) which will direct central money to state universities based on their performance and adoption of reforms.

Another interesting feature of the event was an energetic panel discussion compered by Natasha Jog of NDTV (it should be screened by NDTV Profit sometime soon). Some of the interesting perspectives that emerged from the discussion are:

Sudha Pai, Rector of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), argued that JNU is doing a fine job when you take into account its success in social inclusion and the constraints under which it functions (such as the mindless application of UGC guidelines, bureaucratic processes for faculty recruitment, etc.). It was clear from her comments that unless we unshackle some of the top government-sponsored universities, they will decline further.

Mohandas Pai made an impassioned plea to remember that higher education exists for the youth of our country and that all courses and programmes should be designed and offered with the student in mind. He pointed out that many of the concerns in higher education are no different from the concerns indentified by the Radhakrishnan Commission in 1949!

Narayanan Ramaswamy of KPMG asked a question that many of us have wondered about before – India has so much internal diversity, do we really need internationalization as well? Another interesting observation from him: Are ranking agencies thinking ahead about the parameters that are more relevant today?

Focus on World Class Universities

A presentation by one of the QS experts present revealed that countries as diverse as China, Japan and Thailand have programs underway to improve the rankings of their top universities.

At the same time there was a recognition that universities will have different goals and that not all universities will strive for global rankings (there are 18,000 universities in the world – only 200 can be in the top 200!).

The Bottomline

The main advantage of participation in rankings and accreditation efforts is to create a trajectory for improvement. Benchmarking helps identify gaps, and devise plans to fill these gaps. When taken in this spirit, both benchmarking and accreditation can be useful exercises.

Up-to-date comparative data on key parameters like research output, impact factors, teaching quality, and industry perception of the institution would help do this benchmarking better. It would be useful if someone could take up a thorough and objective process of compiling this data and providing the resultant rankings.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

More Chronicles from Central India: The Holkar Connection

Every city or region has its pre-eminent heroes. In Bangalore where I used to live, it was clearly Kempe Gowda. The main bus stand, an important thoroughfare in the heart of the city, a hospital and now the airport are all named after him. In Chennai where I grew up, Annadurai was the clear favourite and his name adorned state-owned transport companies, an important relatively new locality of the city, the city’s most important road, and, yes, the international terminal of the airport (the domestic terminal is named after Kamaraj!). Here, in the Malwa region, and more specifically in Indore, Devi Ahilyabai Holkar has a dominant presence with her name on the university, a large market and, of course, the airport!

Manik Bagh Palace

The footprint of the Holkars is clearly visible in this region. And, everyone likes to have a Holkar connection. When I visited the office of the Commissioner of Excise and Service Tax, he showed me around with pride the Manik Bagh Palace, a heritage building where his office is located. This Palace was built in the 1930s by a German architect, Eckart Muthesius for the young Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar who took office in May 1930. It was built in the European style of the time, and reportedly fitted with furniture, equipment and art works from Germany. Fortunately, the Excise department has made an effort to maintain the building well, and it still has a quiet elegance going back to those times. (The palace apparently came into the possession of the government following the abolition of privy purses in the 1970s).


Just down the road from IIM Indore, on the way to the airport, lies a sprawling complex of the Department of Atomic Energy call the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT). The main entrance to the complex on the main road has tight security and doesn’t really let on that there is a large scientific complex inside. RRCAT was set up in the 1980s to house some of the laser physics and accelerator development work that was earlier being done in BARC, Mumbai.

I attended the RRCAT annual day soon after my arrival in Indore, and was quite amazed to see the scale of activity inside the complex. Those were early days in Indore and I wasn’t clued into the importance of the Holkar connection. But, yes, RRCAT has one as well. In the middle of the campus (and invisible from the road) is the picturesque Sukhniwas lake with a small “palace” on one edge. Frankly, “palace” appeared to be an exaggeration, the building looks like a large outhouse. But it was apparently a summer getaway for the Holkars, and the RRCAT officer who showed me around was proud of the Holkar connection! The senior BARC scientist who presided over the Foundation Day spoke about how they had their own lake unlike other institutions which tried to create artificial ones!


Young Indians (YI), the “junior” wing of CII, gave me a chance to visit another Holkar monument, Rajwada, in the heart of the city. Rajwada was originally built by the Holkars in Maratha style in the 18th century. YI organized an event inside Rajwada with special permission from the Archaeology department in February. It was certainly a stunning backdrop for a morning concert given by Gautam Kale, a versatile musician from Indore.


But the institution that has the most visible connection to the Holkar name is DAVV, or Devi Ahilya Vishwa Vidyalaya. The university (which started with the simple name of University of Indore) and I have something in common: we both turned 50 this year! In my short stay in Indore, thanks to the generosity of DAVV Vice Chancellor Dr. DP Singh, I have already participated in two events of the university. I gave a talk on 8 Steps to Innovation as a part of the University’s Golden Jubilee Lecture series in March, and I was a guest of honour at the Golden Jubilee Foundation Day last week.

DAVV is one of those typical Indian universities which not only has its own departments (focusing on postgraduate studies), but a whole lot of affiliated colleges (280 in the case of DAVV). The university is proud to be rated as an “A” grade university by NAAC, apparently the only university in Madhya Pradesh to enjoy this distinction.

The Governor of MP, Shri Ram Naresh Yadav, presided over the Golden Jubilee Foundation Day. Babuji, as he is popularly called, belongs to a more gentle and refined political world of yore. His heroes are still Gandhiji and Madan Mohan Malaviya and other leaders of our freedom struggle. I was impressed by his concern for the university and its people. He reads a lot, and he recounted with passion some of his ongoing efforts to have mistakes removed from history textbooks.

The university took the positive step of inviting former vice chancellors and rectors to the event, and this was particularly appreciated by the Governor. Incidentally, the Governor was quite emphatic that he didn’t want to be referred to with honorifics such as “Your Excellency.”

The evening of the Foundation Day featured an energetic ghazal concert by Ahmed Husain and Mohammed Husain. Both of them can’t be young, but the energy and enthusiasm they put into their singing would put several young people to shame. The audience (particularly the students) reciprocated in full measure with spontaneous applause and support.


Indore has a number of sightseeing hotspots in its vicinity. I haven’t had much of a chance to check them out, but the first one I visited turned out to have a strong Holkar connection as well. Maheshwar is on the banks of the Narmada and was at one time the capital of the Holkar kingdom. It’s a pretty small town which still manages to retain some of its charm. 

I particularly liked the temple on the banks of the Narmada and looking across the wide expanse of water. So many of our rivers have become pale shadows of their past, that it’s really nice to see so much water and life along the river.

The Holkars still retain several connections with the town. The descendants of the royal family run a hotel and, more importantly, a weaving centre to keep alive the textile traditions of the region. We couldn’t visit the centre itself as it was closed, but we did manage to pick up a few things from their sales outlet!

Does IIM Indore have a Holkar Connection?

Does IIM Indore have a Holkar connection too? I thought we were not blessed till the people who run the Shiv Mandir on campus claimed to me the other day that the Mandir goes back to the Holkar era. For the record though, the sign next to the temple says it was built in 1972!

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]