Failure to launch

When it comes to technological innovation, India is still a laggard, despite increasing budgetary allocation to science

Illustration by Kishore Das

The success of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro) 100th space launch is an important innovation milestone for India. Over the past five decades, India’s space programme has gone from strength to strength. It is becoming visibly more ambitious, with missions such as Chandrayan to the moon and the proposed mission to Mars. However, the space programme is an outlier, and India remains a technological laggard in many other areas, in spite of increasing budgetary allocations to science and technology.

I recently had the opportunity to be on the screening committee of one of the country’s prestigious national technology awards. The convener introduced the awards by saying that the applications would give a snapshot of where India stands on technological innovation. The picture turned out to be quite sobering. There were hardly any applications on the cutting edge of technology. Most companies reported process improvements, and an overwhelming majority of these were based on known technologies or tweaking and optimisation of established processes.

Patent data only confirms that we are falling behind in the technology race. Till about 2005, inventors based in India and China got approximately the same number of patents from the US Patent office (USPTO). But in 2011, inventors based in China got more than two and a half times the 1,234 patents awarded by the USPTO to inventors in India. 

I am not a techno-nationalist, but I can’t imagine any country being a superpower in the 21st century without a strong technological base, particularly in technologies that matter. I don’t need to remind readers that the absence of a strong technological base makes a country dependent on others and vulnerable to a variety of threats. 

At the individual company level, being a technology follower or a fast imitator, or depending more on design than technological superiority may be an optimal strategy. But, from the country’s perspective, we need to take a portfolio view, and have a range of technological competencies across the spectrum.

Few people recall that the Industrial Policy Statement of July 1991, which heralded the series of economic policy changes that we know today as economic liberalisation, identified technological innovation as one of the key outcomes expected from reform! Obviously, that’s one front on which we have failed.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of confidence in our own abilities. Building new technologies is a complex process, requiring upfront investments, with long gestation periods and uncertain outcomes. You have to be able to stay the course, overcome the inevitable failures, and move on. What Naushad Forbes and David Wield wrote in their classic From Followers to Leaders in the context of competitiveness is equally true for technological innovation: “...(it) requires a culture of confidence which permits a combination of openness to learning from outside and pride internally…” 

Building this confidence is one of the key tasks of leadership: While at Isro and DRDO, former president APJ Abdul Kalam made sure that when a project was successful, all the credit went to the team. But if a project failed, he was right at the front to take responsibility for setting things right. Published accounts of the development process behind the Tata Nano show how Ratan Tata returned to Pune weekend after weekend, without losing faith, to spend time with the Nano team as they struggled to find the right engine to power the car. As R&D head of Mahindra & Mahindra in the early 1990s, Anand Mahindra backed a maverick inventor, Sandesh Dahanukar, who had an idea of how a tubular chassis could be designed to lower the weight and yet enhance the load that M&M trucks could carry. 

Given our family ownership structures, involvement of a senior family member seems to be essential to provide the support required to pursue risky innovation projects. That family member needs to have either a strong technology background himself or at least a strong interest in technology-based innovation.  It is instructive that Ranbaxy’s new drug discovery programme slowly declined after Parvinder Singh died, ultimately resulting in the sale of the company itself. Similarly, the drug discovery programme of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories became smaller when the founder Anji Reddy handed over the reins to the next generation who didn’t share his deep expertise and interest in drug chemistry.

Confidence is particularly necessary to push a technology into the market. A few years ago, my colleague K Kumar and I were studying an innovation support scheme of the department of biotechnology. To our surprise, we found that in the case of many medium and large companies, their reason for applying for support was to get external endorsement of their innovation efforts, and not because they needed the money! When will we as a nation take pride in our innovation successes such as the space programme, and build the confidence to take on bigger challenges of technological innovation? 

Consider this contrast: in Start-up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer relate a wonderful story of how an Intel R&D team located in Haifa, Israel, came up with the design for a new processor that would be slower than Intel’s existing processors but use much less power and, therefore, be ideally suited for use in portable devices. This product would ultimately become the Celeron, one of Intel’s most successful products.

But when this team first presented this idea to Intel’s top management, they were horrified at the prospect of launching a product that was slower than their existing chips; this would run counter to the market’s expectations that every succeeding Intel processor would be faster than its predecessor. In fact, they rejected the proposed product. But the Haifa team was so confident of the importance of their new design that they did not take no for an answer. They literally hounded the management team (including using guerrilla tactics such as waylaying them in the washroom at headquarters) till the product was approved. Can you imagine the Indian employees of a multinational doing something similar?