Over the past three years, India’s science and technology-focussed startup movement has seen steady improvement in quality and in numbers. Today, new Indian companies are becoming pioneers in a range of domains, like computer science, engineering, medicine, drug discovery and agriculture. They are moving smartly beyond their comfort zone of e-commerce ventures.
Policy initiatives that give tax breaks and stimulate intellectual property development are an important impetus for their growth. In addition, the government of India’s (GoI’s) Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) has strengthened the incubators supported by various government science agencies, and has also invested in new ones. There is marked progress on the following fronts: the curation of ideas for entrepreneurs to choose from; mentoring the teams implementing these ideas through early stages; helping enterprises succeed by navigating the inevitable challenges that present themselves in a nascent startup ecosystem.
Now, one significant lacuna is also getting attention: the flow of scientific input to fuel startups. Science must inform the innovative process. Without that, our startup ecosystem will be competing globally with hands tied behind its back. Our innovations will be restricted to reverse-engineering, reverse-innovating, and so on. Jugaad – “band-aid” creativity in an infrastructure-deficit ecosystem – may be a first step, but it’s simply insufficient to get our ecosystem to compete globally on more encompassing fronts.
Fortunately, India’s scientific institutions can deliver, built as they are on robust foundations. Despite legitimate concerns about median quality, there is no question that people of extraordinary talent do graduate from our institutions in significant numbers across numerous scientific fields. This has resulted in pockets of high-quality research in our best universities and research institutions. Institutions like the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have built impressive indigenous capacity in complex areas.
Financial support for science has also grown steadily over the past four years. While science funding as a percentage of GDP is at 0.7 %, the 2018 Economic Survey argues for substantial increases and for taking on major missions in basic science. Missions in artificial intelligence, cyber physical systems, supercomputing and bio-pharma have been started, and others like deep ocean exploration are in the offing.
Yet, for basic science to be itself constantly invigorated and to invigorate the entrepreneurial ecosystem, two major chasms need to be bridged. First, industry must invest much more in R&D and connect to the startup ecosystem. The cumulative R&D spend of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft in 2017 was about $60bn. This is comparable to the entire US federal government expenditure on all non-defence-related scientific research.
India may not be able to leap to this level directly. But we must start by fostering links to ultimately eliminate the mutual incomprehension between science and industry in India. The link of startups to the industrial ecosystem also requires serious attention to the risk-capital deficit in India. Ultimately, GoI will likely have to backstop the ability of the private sector in a way that makes the risk-return trade-off more attractive to the latter.
Community of scientists
The second chasm has to do with India’s community of academic scientists. They must now embrace the responsibility of connecting much more to society, industry and the startup ecosystem. The resulting jalebi of connectivity will help provide the energy to our entrepreneurs and, in turn, to the scientists themselves There has been a self-organisation of such jalebis in some locations: Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, the National Capital Region (NCR), Kanpur. The bonding and the networking between academic institutions, industry and entrepreneurs have to grow speedily and by orders of magnitude.
IIT-Madras shows that the task is not impossible. Its research park has grown from a sparsely occupied shell to a huge venture bubbling with interactions. Only a very small part of the major resources for its growth has come from government funds.
Bengaluru is strong in IT and biotech, Hyderabad in chemistry, Pune and Chennai in manufacturing. These must be leveraged as links within the ecosystem are strengthened. The extraordinary synergy in IIT-Madras on solar power and electric mobility with national missions and with the auto industry again provides an example. As an immediate starting point, India must make it far easier for global talent to work in, and with, Indian institutions and scientists. One of us currently finds it incomparably easier to work in Chinese and European research institutions than in India’s best. Both of us aim to help change this speedily. Well-chosen international institutional partnerships, driven locally, will further facilitate the growth of industry and the economy.
Leaders should be further liberated from regulatory mandates and be held accountable for the use of these new freedoms. GoI’s announced Institutions of Excellence programme, designed to identify public and private universities capable of reaching global pre-eminence in the mid-term, is one such measure that will help.
India has made rudimentary but important strides in linking science to startups, using the instruments available to policymakers and industrialists. Triggering bottom-up scientific creativity through these efforts can pay major dividends over the next decades.