Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Innovation Summit

I was at the Pan IIT Innovation Summit at Computer History Museum in Mountain View on Saturday, September 24th. The goal of the summit was to create awareness on the emergence of India's innovation capabilities. A video stream of the sessions in this summit is available from Raj Jaswa's Dyyno.

Sam Pitroda, Chairman of the National Innovation Council and Advisor to the Prime Minister of India opened the Summit with a thought provoking keynote address on "The Indian Innovation Environment". He started by focusing on the problems in the environment in India today:
  • 400m live below the poverty line
  • Politics and bureaucracy stifle everything
  • Development is not happening fast enough
  • There is a huge disparity between urban and rural
He urged the innovators in the audience to focus their efforts at the bottom of the pyramid - that is have pro-poor policies. Typically, research in the U.S is geared for the top of the pyramid. The parameters that he provided (to determine where the innovation is targeted) were scalability and affordability. For instance, the U.S model based on consumption is not scalable. "We don't need disposable products, we need durable products," he said.

The Government is fostering a National Innovation Council focusing efforts in Health, eGovernance, Agriculture and Education. The key programs initiated by the Government are:
  • RTI - Right To Information
  • RTE - Right To Education
  • NOREGA - Guaranteed work for 100 days for the rural poor
There is a concerted effort (with a $20b budget) to bring technology to the masses:
  • 250,000 panchayats connected by Optical Fibre ($6b)
  • Information management and GIS, led by Dr. K. Kasturirangan ($500m)
  • Cyber Security
  • Payment Processing
The first panel was an Industry Panel. The panelists (and their corresponding focus areas) were:
Pradeep Sindhu started by defining Cloud Computing to be the delivery of Information Services over the network across any device type. Cloud Computing + Mobile Internet = Massive Opportunity. There is an increased demand for security since the network is a juicy target for bad actors. Metcalfe's Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected end points. We need a quantum leap in performance to meet the needs of today's Mega Datacenter. He mentioned Junpier's QFabric as the first innovation in network topology in over a decade.

Ajit Gill was the most "controversial" speaker of the day. He took Sam Pitroda head on and challenged the actions of the Government committees that Pitroda talked about. "Don't legislate innovation. Just get out of the way," he said. Currently, research in India is re-engineering, re-tooling in the Indian context. He cited a personal anecdote on a conversation he had with an IIT Director on the subject of research.

IIT Director: "Has this been done before?"
Ajit Gill: "No"
IIT Director: "Must be a stupid idea"

The second panel was a University panel, discussing the collaboration between the Industry and Universities. The panelists were:
  • Curt Carlson, CEO of Stanford Research Institute
  • Mani Chandy, Caltech
  • Pradeep Khosla, CMU
Desh Deshpande moderated the panel and started by mentioning the work done by V. Govindarajan on reverse innovation - that is, developing products in India for the world. There are three stages of innovation happening in India:
  • Stage 1 - "Hand-Me-Down". This the kind that the IIT Director was talking about to Ajit Gill.
  • Stage 2 - "Localization" - for the Indian market
  • Stage 3 - Products get created first in the region of use. Then they become ready for the rest of the world. India is positioned very well to make progress in this Stage 3 of innovation
Curt Carlson spoke about building the innovation infrastructure. "This is the best time for the history of innovation in the world," he said.

Pradeep Khosla spoke about his personal experience in setting up an Institute for Software Engineering in Mumbai - with Raj Reddy. It started with a lot of fanfare, with funding from the Maharashtra Government. They shut it down after two years because they could not attract the right faculty.

The final panel focused on challenges in Cross Border innovation. This was moderated by Raj Mashruwala - known for beng the COO at Tibco and later running the UID project for Nandan Nilekani. Alok Agarwal, who was at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights for 16 years before co-founding eValueServe, a Market Research company, was one panelist and Ashish Gupta, of Helion Venture partners was the other panelist. Alok said, "Innovation comes out of diversity and chaos". Ashish made a truly insightful observation, "Look at the first derivative and the second derivative in addition to the absolute value before you jump in." There is not much by way of VC deal-flow happening in India right now. Two blocks on Sand Hill Road has more money than all of India!

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