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.]