"There is a link between Saraswati and Lakshmi...and we have been late in establishing this. Among our educational institutions, the importance of generating knowledge is known, but the importance of creating wealth is missed out"
Veteran scientist Raghunath Anant Mashelkar is among the most visible votaries of innovation. The former director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is today president of Global Research Alliance, a network of some 60,000 scientists from around the world, and chair of India's National Innovation Foundation. Mashelkar has become a much sought after adviser for companies upping their innovation ante. ET caught up with Mashelkar, 71, on the sidelines of an event held by Marico Innovation Foundation — which he chairs. Edited excerpts:
According to the Global Innovation Index data, India slipped from 64 in 2012 to 66 in 2013. How do you interpret these rankings and do we do enough to support innovation?
The first thing I want to emphasize is that Indian innovation cannot be judged by this index. The indicators they use are based on quickly measureable output such as scientific research they provide, patents and hi-tech exports. Indian innovation goes beyond technology to focus on business model, workflow, system delivery and organization structure. Look at Aravind Eye Care System — they do a cataract surgery not for $3,000 as it costs in the West, but for just $30 and their quality is better than The Royal College of Ophthalmologists. They have a work flow innovation and are able to do 2.5 million eye tests and 300,000 surgeries a year. Innovations like that do not figure on this index. Frugal innovation has become the buzzword. Indian innovation has changed the vocabulary of innovation. Words that did not exist five years ago dominate today. In terms of non-technological innovations, we are among the leaders.
India has about a tenth of industrial patents compared with China and a fifteenth of the US, according to Planning Commission data. Are patents a good measure of interest in innovation?
Yes and no. A patent is potentially monetizable knowledge — in certain sectors such as pharma, they are ext remely important. When I became president of National Chemical Laboratory (a state-run R&D and consulting firm with a focus on the chemical industry) they had filed zero patents in 39 years. Over time, we improved this and came to a point where we earned a million dollars by monetizing them to companies such as General Electric. However, in India, we have been late starters. Competition is key to innovation. In a protected industry pre-1991, there was little value for innovation.
How important are educational institutes in fostering innovation? We always read about a Harvard or Stanford pouring in millions of dollars to back innovation — but don't see top Indian institutes doing so. Are they losing out?
We don't do enough. I spend a month at Harvard every year and one of my collaborators is George Whitesides, who is the highest cited scientist in the world, and the market capitalization of his companies based on his research and innovation is $30 billion. So, there is a link between Saraswati and Lakshmi, if I may say so, and we have been late in establishing this. We have been late. Among our educational institutions, the importance of generating knowledge is known, but the importance of creating wealth is missed out.
According to some estimates, barely 25% of Indian companies invest in R&D and innovation. Why are they hesitant ?
Innovation-led growth is something that's new to most companies. That is the challenge. Companies which realize that innovation is an option have made some investments. Reliance, Thermax, KPIT and Marico all have innovation councils. They didn't three years ago. This is not just technological innovation. The next round of growth, especially non-linear, will come inorganically or through innovation . Innovation as a way of life is new to Indian companies.
Has the word jugaad given Indian innovation a bad name?
A terrible name. I just don't like the word — it is doing it somehow, with cost as the only consideration, with no consideration for safety, environmental impact, aesthetics and sustainability. Jugaad is about getting less from less. This has created the wrong image for India. We must go for what I call affordable excellence. You will find that many innovations in India belong to this breakthrough — Aravind Eye Care System, for example.
What have years of economic uncertainty done to innovation? Have they worsened the market for innovation?
When in difficulty we must innovate and have more investments in innovation. I was at an event in the European Union on innovation and the commissioner, who is responsible for research, proudly declared that she has got a 30% increase in their R&D for Horizon 2020, the continent's programme. The only way to emerge from this slump is to invest and do things differently. This is extremely important. By using your mind, you can create products of tomorrow.