Reinventing India as an innovation nation

India is a force to reckon with in startups and technology, but leaders seek clarity on the government's role in fostering innovation in Indian businesses.

Forbes India, in association with BNP Paribas, conducted the first session of the second season of the Forbes India Conversations: The Thought Leadership Forum, on 11 December 2018, in New Delhi, brings together senior business leaders to share insights on ‘India as an emerging cradle of innovation.’

Brian Carvalho, editor, Forbes India, was in conversation with Advait Kumar, founder, Swajal Water; Pawan Singh, MD and CEO, PTC India Financial Services; Jasbir Singh, chairman and CEO, Amber Enterprises; Nicolas Gravel, director, Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH); Anuj Kapur, chief operating officer, Lucideus; Ankit Mehra, CEO, GyanDhan; and Franciska Decuypere, country head, BNP Paribas India.

From left to right: Nicolas Gravel, director, Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH); Anuj Kapur, chief operating officer, Lucideus; Ankit Mehra, CEO, GyanDhan; Advait Kumar, founder, Swajal Water; Franciska Decuypere, country head, BNP Paribas India; Jasbir Singh, chairman and CEO, Amber Enterprises; and Pawan Singh, MD and CEO, PTC India Financial Services

While the panelists acknowledged that India is a force to reckon with, they wanted more clarity on regulations and support from the government. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Brian Carvalho: So is India an innovation nation today as much as some of the more innovative countries in the world?

Advait Kumar:
I think this is a very difficult question to answer because you cannot quantitatively or qualitatively measure that (innovation). The percentage of GDP we spend on research is less than one percent, and it is really low compared to Israel. We are doing frugal innovations, but that is more out of necessity.

Nicolas Gravel: India is obviously innovating in many spaces like the digital or drug industry and so on. But the basis of innovation, I believe, is research. A lot of innovation must be based on university and academic research. I think India, given its size, power, the reputation of its scholars and scientists, is a country that is underperforming.

Jasbir Singh: A lot more creative steps have to be taken. The whole ecosystem supporting innovation is missing here. There is no regulatory body. In Silicon Valley when firms fail, there are no hard feelings. They forget about it and move ahead. But here, it is considered wrong.

Anuj Kapur:
I think India is being recognised on a global plane when it comes to being a startup nation. Of course, there is a lot to be desired. But I think we are still coming up in the first five countries of the world.

Ankit Mehra: One of the good examples I look up to is Rivigo (technology-enabled logistics company). They came up with the relay delivery model that cuts down delivery time significantly. Now, this is more of a ‘jugaad’ [1] than innovation. I do not know how you want to classify it, but for me, it improved things for a lot of people. I do not necessarily agree with the whole aspect of ‘the role of government’. I believe the industry should be left to itself to innovate because it is not the responsibility of banks to give loans for these innovations. It is the responsibility of the venture capital industry or private equity industry funds.

Carvalho: We have a lot of guys who copied the great American model. Do you think we are essentially a country of copycats or can we come up with innovation strategies?

Pawan Singh:
It does not really matter whether we are copycats or originators, as long as we are doing our own improvising.

Franciska Decuypere:
What I see is that startups are going very fast. Four years ago, we had real difficulty in finding fintech startups. Today, there is talent and ambition in this country, and there is money too.

Carvalho: There are some solutions we could probably take to even developed countries. Is there something which you developed in India that is relevant even to the Western markets?

Absolutely. I think the great news today, particularly in the technology sector, is that there are no boundaries in this global world. It is a question of getting the right partners, being able to get the reach.

Decuypere: So I cannot give examples of what we have developed in India. But I can think of examples of fintech companies outside of India that we have been investing in and that are deploying their solutions in Western countries.

Carvalho: So are we really a cradle for innovation?

Frugal innovation is something India could do well. I can think of the food industry. There is a big demand in the world now for more and better Indian food. What I read is that the production and consumption of these things in India is going down slightly. But there is a huge opportunity there.

Singh: I think innovation is a continuous process and very important for any nation. So
India as a nation has travelled a decent path till now. About 15 years ago, there was no discussion on startups in schools. Today our children—everybody —knows what starting up is. This is a big distance we have covered. But, we have not been a leading nation. We have not designed Boeings or Airbus, we have not designed trains, we have not designed any defence mechanisms, we have not designed solar panels. So I would love to see that.

Carvalho: Pawan Singh, can India produce a Google or Apple in the future?

India is kind of a sleeping tiger. The only thing we have to do is get the house in order. There is so much of lack of clarity around regulation and protection.  

Mehra: If there is one thing I hope, it is that we invest in education because if we have to focus on innovation, we will have to invest in human capital.

Kumar: I will be a sceptic here. What I see on the ground level is that the poor are getting poorer, the wealth gap is increasing, the rich are getting richer. There are some companies that are really doing well, but we need to look at the whole ecosystem.

Decuypere: Technology, IT services in India is one of the strengths and there is a huge domestic market. So all those companies can really get started in a large home market before they go out to other countries. So I see a lot of positive things.

[1] Jugaad is a colloquial Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi that refers to a technique that finds a quick solution to big or small problems.