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10 Aug 2015

Where have all the “CATS” gone? – Why india is not inventing!

Recently, while speaking at the convocation ceremony at Indian Institute of Science, (IISc) Bangalore, unarguably one of India’s most prestigious institutions, Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy, Chairman Emeritus, Infosys, touched upon something that made many people uncomfortable. He asked if India’s premier academic institutions (specifically the IISc and IITs) had contributed in making our society and the world a better place? He did not shy away from asking directly if there was one invention from India that had become a household name across the globe.

 You may ask if Mr. Murthy was the right person to raise this issue considering that he himself was part of the system. Mr. Murthy who has been instrumental in building a company that put India firmly on the global IT Services map, was allegedly trolled on social media with questions like, whether the company he co-founded had itself contributed any such iconic inventions?

 ANALYSIS

Introspection and objective analysis might suggest that India’s ecosystem has not adequately matured to deliver iconic inventions, or maybe our priorities are simply different. As my profession demands, I regularly get to meet inventors from entities of different sizes, domains and geographies, and had I kept a count of all such meetings, the number would be as high as three digits, if not four. These meetings have surely given me some sense of invention trends in our country.

 Looking back at the past few years, it appears that the tendency amongst our “inventors” has been, “follow the trend”. Soon after Facebook took the world by storm, there was a huge surge in copycat ideas of what we believe to be the next Facebook. Well, we know how many social networking platforms we have today that originated from India!

 In Technology space, the recent trend which definitely has caught the fancy of people seems to be the e-commerce (e-com) marketplaces and the mobile applications (app). 

 GROWING E-COMMERCE MARKETPLACES, A BOON or BANE ?

Although the market is flooded with these e-com and mobile app players with a new one coming almost every week, if not every day, their focus do not seem to be towards building new technology or innovate. 

 A close scrutiny of the e-com spaces easily reveals that though there are more than 300+ e-com players in India, however the gap between the trend setters (top few) and the rest is big. Without an iota of doubt, even though these e-com players have created enterprises with multi-billion dollar valuations the core issue still remains as to whether these e-com players have contributed in terms of technological advancements or innovation? The answer would not be in the affirmative.

 IS MOBILE APP INDUSTRY ANY DIFFERENT?

The buzzing Indian mobile app industry which has grown over 125% last year is considered to be over US$ 4 billion today. The shift from e-commerce to M-commerce is making it more and more attractive for the businesses. As per a recent market report, there are about 40,000 native mobile apps available in various app stores. Where gaming apps are clearly dominating the mobile app market, utilities apps are not lagging behind. Some of the native apps which have made a mark are Zomato, MakeMyTrip, OLX, Flipkart, Redbus and Snapdeal.

 Zomato, which is considered to be one of the most popular and successful native apps, started as a restaurant rating app, and has now moved on to food delivery services. Taking a cue from Zomato today, there are bucket full of apps mainly from the utility categories trying hard to make a place for themselves. If you scrutinize them closely, it would be evident that not many have been able to make inroad for themselves, let alone staking claim to have contributed in technical advancement. Here too the priority seems to be to “follow the leader” and become an investor magnet. Innovation definitely does not appear to be on their radar.

 HOW DID WE LAND IN THIS SITUATION?

This situation could be the result of many factors, our education system being amongst the primary ones. India’s education system does not seem to be research and innovation oriented. Even today, the best Engineering colleges follow decades old syllabi. The emphasis remains on “good grades” being the doorway to “good jobs”.

 It may be unrealistic to expect world class inventions or earth-shattering innovations from products of a “grade-oriented” education system. Also, there seems to be an undeniable “get-rich-quick” mentality among many young entrepreneurs. Even before having their first customer, they have one eye firmly on target funding! During an event, I heard Mr. Rahul Yadav (Co-Founder and ex-CEO of Housing.com) saying that their focus was more on bridging the gap of supply and demand than building an IP portfolio. This may have worked wonders for their valuation but the question remains: have they created an innovative product that could take them to becoming a world leader in the housing industry?

 CONCLUSION

It is absolutely not true that India is not inventing, however, to come up with truly world-class inventions, we must introspect and look at long terms. In other words, be agents of fundamental change. Until this happens, perhaps, we should just be happy at being called an “IT Services Leader”.

 So when Mr. Murthy said that India has not created any earth shattering invention, he was not wrong in saying so and to be honest, I don’t see any such inventions coming out of Indian R&D centres in the near future, reason being, the priorities for our best young minds seem to be e-selling or delivering products (from food to grocery to vegetables to motor car) to your doorstep through their mobile apps.

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