View from India: Research is the bedrock of innovation

Having doses of imagination, an ability to take risks and multiple problems to solve may be good enough to kindle an entrepreneurial spirit. Considering India is home to about 1.39 billion people, the problems are diverse. It would be great if the entrepreneurial drive spreads across tier cities.

Challenges abound in areas like healthcare, education, linguistics and location, but the very same challenges uncover opportunities. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) discussed these opportunities recently at an event held in collaboration with Indo-British Scholars’ Association (IBSA) and Imperial College London.

 “The complexity of issues has urged people to think, and think beyond the obvious. India has attempted to and has rapidly made significant change to motivate start-ups through efficient funding mechanisms. India is the world’s third largest start-up ecosystem, with several unicorns to its credit,” said Sunil Kant Munjal, CII past president, chairman of the CII National Start-up Council and chairman, Hero Enterprises.

The problems emerging from the sheer size and scale of population require many solutions to address them. Technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are being harnessed for scale. E-commerce is helping in mass outreach. For instance, during the pandemic many e-commerce companies have doubled up as vehicles of delivery service. They seem to have catered to diverse needs right from essentials to whatever it takes to lead a life of safety during the pandemic. So now the focus could be on figuring out how to make the system more efficient and percolate into the tier cities.

Services and products may align, and the benefits could filter through to the bottom of the pyramid. Probably this could be achieved by bringing government, industry and academia together. Government support could be in the form of loans, incentives and policies. With this, the industry-academia could foster entrepreneurship in small towns. They require handholding and training to think about resolving issues that are specific to the region. Local issues may include healthcare, education and agriculture, and these need to be solved at scale.

In the case of remote healthcare and education, tangible deliverables may be achieved through tablets and mobile apps. Farm-based start-ups could be feasible in tier cities and rural areas. They could focus on do-it-yourself kits or outsourcing organic manure and seeds for the farms. Technology may be leveraged to build a clientele, and go-to-market with products. All this could become a means of generating employment as well as helping to level gender income, as many start-ups could be stewarded by women.

In the urban context, Bangalore, which was considered the biggest hub of start-ups, has now been edged out by Delhi-NCR region. In some sense, almost every start-up has got into specialisation as verticals like fintech, space tech and healthcare have triggered their imagination. Many of them have probably leveraged cluster benefit.

Generally, many entrepreneurial ventures take a long time to click and sometimes, they don’t succeed. Munjal believes that social norms need a structural change. “Social acceptance of failure is important. Along with a change in mindset, friendly policy reforms are also required. The government has chalked out the National Education Policy (NEP) which could be tipped as an education reform.”

NEP may not have a direct connect with entrepreneurship but it could be a game-changer as far as social norms go. For instance, vocational skills are being accepted for Class 8, indicating that vocational education is being integrated into mainstream learning. NEP may be transformative not because it is multidisciplinary but because it has introduced a four-year undergraduate or Bachelor's degree with multiple entry-exit options. It means that students can decide how much to study and when to study. Such measures could probably help students to articulate and zero in on their areas of interest. Moreover, the exit-entry option may help students cope with failure (if any).  

The role of academia is essential, as universities are the place for spotting and nurturing young talent. Universities have a role to play, as those with entrepreneurial talent need to be spotted and mentored. An entrepreneurial bent of mind needn’t necessarily be confined to students; the spirit can percolate across the staff. Another way of looking at it is that many start-up hubs are incubated in educational institutions. To that extent, research is the bedrock of innovation. The key to success lies in the execution of ideas. “In order to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem it may be worthwhile to take a leaf out of the lives of start-ups from Silicon Valley and view them as lessons to be learnt. Hundreds of places in the world carry the Silicon Valley tag. Clearly it takes more than just the name,” added Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London.

National initiatives have been rolled out to boost start-ups. Apex body CII has initiated a programme to connect industries and start-ups. The Indian Angel Network (IAN) is a network of angel investors keen to invest in early stage businesses. Start-ups are supported by mentors who become the catalyst for ideas.

When we look at the global culture of entrepreneurship, Stanford University is one of the early institutions to encourage academicians and graduates to start their own companies. Also at the global level, the Imperial College London Centre for Enterprise is a world-class leading academic community thriving with entrepreneurial talent and cutting-edge technology, which encourages smart businesses to come together to innovate and excel. Dr Simon Hepworth, director of enterprise at Imperial, explained more. “The ideas emerging from academics need to be incentivised and rewarded. We have introduced I-X, a new academic strategy initiative in machine learning, where academia and industry collaborate to tackle challenges. DT-Prime, another effort, is to create investor deal flow in health and sustainability. Many ideas do come out of global collaborations,” he commented.

Cultural drive and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. Mass outreach and scale are critical to the success of the entrepreneurial venture. Investment in research may led to new ideas and opportunities, which may get an impetus from private equity, capital markets and investors. “Emphasis is given to high-impact research at Imperial College London. It is a global top 10 university with a thrust on science, engineering, business and medicine,” highlighted Rajive Kaul, president, IBSA and chairman Nicco Engineering Services Ltd.

In conclusion, people, technology, capital and infrastructure could be integral to entrepreneurship. At the heart of it lies the human connect, seen in terms of self-efficacy, beliefs and motivation. 

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