View from India: The vision is to make India a design country

Covid-19, connectivity and clean air are ongoing concerns. They are also an opportunity for startups to put on their thinking caps and come up with solutions. Deep tech, software-hardware, electronics and design are domains to catch up with.

R&D, along with a combination of scientific-technological-engineering solutions, has given an edge to deep technologies. What makes this technology worthwhile is that it has potential to build solutions or rebuild everything from scratch. “Deep tech leverages science, technology and multiple disciplines of engineering. This diverse mix makes deep tech disruptive,” said Dr Ajai Chowdhry, one of the founder members of HCL and chairman of IIT Patna, at the recent India Electronics and Semiconductor Association Vision Summit.

Clean energy, sustainable solutions and quantum computing are among the numerous applications of deep tech. Covid is another dimension which has put the spotlight on tech-enabled businesses and stressed the need for keeping the environment clean. So it makes sense that some of the deep-tech startups are supported right from the seed stage incubation. Many of them have piloted products in the domestic market – while they have whetted the home turf, it would be nice if they can scale to global expectations. 

The innovation curve is poised to evolve. There’s ample scope for growth, as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), blockchain and Industry 4.0 give rise to new business models. Along with this, path-breaking technologies like robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) find applications in aerospace, energy, healthcare and agriculture. Software-hardware startups can explore opportunities in these sectors by customising their offerings. The community of software startups is much larger than the hardware ones; many software startups have made it to the league of unicorns while hardware startups are yet to catch up. But this is not the end of the road. From the business point of view, India is a huge market for the hardware industry. An enabling environment needs to be created and host all facilities on a digital platform, something that can be accessed by entrepreneurs. Everything should be visible and co-related, accessible and synchronised for availability of information. The digital ecosystem is being built and everything is on the cloud; the attempt is to make smart hardware through IoT and provide an enhanced experience for customers.

“India has over 50,000 startups, which makes it the world’s third-largest startup base. SaaS (software as a service) and software startups attract investments more than deep tech,” added Jeet Vijay, CEO of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Startup Hub Software Technology Parks of India. Deep tech has a longer gestation period than SaaS and software and requires more R&D, for which market validation is a long-drawn process.

Coming to the Electronics System Design & Manufacturing (ESDM) market, it has its fair share of startups. The industry-government collaborated efforts may open out channels in hardware startups in the ESDM segment. Venture capitalists will evaluate the possibilities of the product design and manufacturing, and those startups that can speak for themselves and make a pitch have a good chance to catch their attention.

Unlike software startups, electronics startups require initial investments in the form of components and testing facilities. Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, India Electronics and Semiconductor Association, and Software Technology Parks of India have come together to fund electronic startups. Technologies like AR, VR and drone technology can be incubated and funded for prototyping.

The design centres (DCs) of many global companies have a footprint in India and have expanded their presence as the country is a promising market. The number of skilled employees too has grown. Consequently, globally competent products are made in India. “This has also resulted in the creation of a large talent pool. This has been the starting point for a number of design startups. Either these startups work independently or they supply components or solutions to the design centre,” reasoned Dr Chowdhry.

Historically, multinational corporations look at economies of scale. Accordingly, they build ecosystems and DCs, whose work is executed through a skilled team and, wherever required, skills are upgraded. DCs distribute innovation, network and amalgamation of resources for productive use. Most companies fund design-oriented research, which is low cost in nature but high in impact. Solutions that are critically important are identified; companies then bring in fresh thinking and engage them proactively towards a carefree spirit of innovation.  

As for design content, it seems important for India to focus on its value addition. Local design startups need to be encouraged to design for India and the world. Perhaps we could have policies that encourage Indian design, quite like electronics manufacturing. “Manufacturing could include the creation of intellectual property along with scalable design. This together could translate as value-add to customers. Tech entrepreneurs have the capability to design,” said Vijay.

The challenge is to access components, testing and certification, and, above all, to bring affordable products to the market. The driving motivation for startups is cash to solve societal problems. Once they have clarity of purpose, then passion can translate into performance. The economic viability of the product usually attracts venture capitalists; funding intervention is important for startups. Regulatory hurdles can be addressed by the government. So what comes to mind is how the regulatory procedures are evolving.

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