Bridge India

India needs a better innovation ecosystem

India needs a better innovation ecosystem

Dr. Tobias Engelmeier is founder and Managing Director at BRIDGE TO INDIA. He consults international companies in developing successful market strategies in India.

The US Bell Labs or the German Fraunhofer Institutes offer some lessons on fostering innovation for India. If the Indian renewable energy sector adopts these lessons, it could become the world leader in low-cost, renewable energy solutions.

  • The Bell Laboratories are a great example of how innovation can be fostered: by putting many diverse, smart people together, connecting them to real world challenges and then giving them time
  • The Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany are similar. They bring together academia, industry and government to work on applied solutions
  • India so far lacks such an innovation ecosystem. If it were to develop one in renewable energies, it could emerge as the world-leader in low-cost renewable energy solutions

I read a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times called “True Innovation” about the Bell Laboratories. It contrasts the Bell Laboratories’ “slow and build” approach with Facebook’s “fast and break” approach to innovation. It suggests that “Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago”. The writer Jon Gertner has also authored a book on the subject titled “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation”. He makes three very interesting observations about how the Bell Laboratories created an environment conducive to innovation:

  1. Put together a critical mass of diverse, excellent scientists in one physical space, where ideas can come about often due to chance encounters and conversations.
  2. Rigorously link theory to practice by combining fundamental scientific pursuits, ideas and inventions with specific production, product or marketing requirements – each feeding back into the other.
  3. Give the researchers the time, trust and freedom needed to explore new ideas and thoughts over longer stretches and across boundaries of purpose or expertise.

The highly innovative German Fraunhofer Institutes (Fraunhofer Institute on Solar Energy Systems or ISE) work differently. They are greatly specialized and therefore may have less cross-pollination from radically different sciences. Where they excel is in bringing together research with academia (they collaborate with the Freiburg University), industry (they carry out paid research) and venture capital (they churn out many start-up companies). By providing a link between industry needs and long-term academic research, they manage to be both immediately relevant and creatively innovative, as the Bell Laboratories have been.

India currently lacks a comparable innovation infrastructure. That is a shame, because all the pieces are in place: a vibrant industry, a wealth of smart engineers and scientists, funding (both private and public) and – most of all – many great problems to tackle.

In the field of renewable energies, for example, if India wants to fulfill its ambition to become a world leader in solar power, it needs to move from being a consumer of technology developed elsewhere to becoming a producer of technology. Many Indian entrepreneurs and companies are already starting to do so, but could do well with a state-of-the-art innovation center. This could allow them to lift their gaze from immediate economic gain to strategic long-term solutions, to provide defensible technology or solution USPs in a global competition. After having been defunct for many years, the Solar Energy Center in Gurgaon – just outside New Delhi – is starting to pick up pace again and shows some promise. Equally, the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Jodhpur want to become centers of solar research.

Where should India’s efforts be directed? Where can India develop an international, best-in-class competence? If, broadly speaking, China has a vast lead in manufacturing of solar components, Germany is most advanced when it comes to system and grid integration and the US has the most professional renewable energy financing scene, India could find a significant and profitable niche in developing de-central solar energy solutions. Such solutions would not only be for its poor and un-electrified villages, but also for its rapidly growing urban, industrial and commercial centers. Developing such know-how would be greatly beneficial and relevant to markets all over the world.


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