Sheikh Jehangir has studied only till Class 1. He can’t read or write, hasn’t been trained in any vocational skill and started working at the age of eleven to support his family. Yet, the 50-year-old painter of cars in Jalgaon, Maharashtra has a patent to his name — and has applied for a second one.
His latest innovation, a scooter-powered flourmill, inspired an invention featured in the blockbuster film 3 Idiots.
“The idea of a scooter-run flourmill came when my wife couldn’t ground wheat to flour because of long power cuts,” said Jehangir, who bought the flourmill from a scrap market and attached it to the scooter. “One kg of gas can run the flourmill for 4 hours.”
As the world grapples with long-standing problems such as climate change and unequal access to technology and resources, India with its culture of jugaad — finding simple, doable solutions for seemingly intractable problems — can provide innovative solutions.
But poor funding, weak focus on entrepreneurship, limited support networks for innovators and bureaucratic hurdles for startups prevent India from exploiting its potential.
The Tata group launched the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, and Swach, a compact and affordable water purifier. Other companies are experimenting too, but such homegrown examples are few and far in between.
“We have a bank of almost 150,000 ideas,” said Vipin Kumar, chief innovation officer at the National Innovation Foundation that was set up in 2000 to support grassroots innovations. “But these technologies come in the most crude form and the biggest challenge is to make them scalable.”
Jehangir’s idea of a scooter-run flourmill, too, was sourced from the National Innovation Foundation for 3 idiots. To make his idea scalable it needs to be researched, explored for feasibility and sustainability. All this requires money.
Lack of funding for startups is a major hurdle for innovators. Startups require two kinds of investors: angel investors, who provide the initial capital, and venture capitalists, for the much larger round of financing.
India lacks both.
Though an Indian is involved in one in every six startups in America’s Silicon Valley, such enthusiasm is absent in India. According to research and consulting firm Knowledgefaber, the US startup industry is 30 times larger than the Indian one.
“Jugaad is relevant. Carlos Gohn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan, is fond of stating that multinationals have much to learn from India in terms of frugal engineering,” said Navi Radjou, executive director, centre for India and global business at Judge School of Business, Cambridge University, UK. “But for a jugaad-driven invention to be viable it needs to be scalable for which we need the help of venture capital firms and angel investors.”
An encouraging environment for innovation and entrepreneurship has failed to emerge in India, and most new entrepreneurs come from business families. “Lack of mentoring is also a problem for most startups,” said Sidhartha Bhimania (27), an IIT, Delhi graduate who co-founded a startup in 2006.
Bhimania, whose company EnNatura develops renewable printing ink and paint, was lucky to get the support of his alma mater. But there aren’t enough business incubator programmes in India, and most of them are located at the top engineering and management schools — accessible to a select few.
There is also a dearth of innovation centres to support and fund small and medium enterprises: Germany has 500 innovation centres; India has less than one-tenth the number.
Bureaucratic hurdles and corruption further dissuade young entrepreneurs from continuing beyond a few months. “Indian entrepreneurs struggle to get their businesses registered,” said Radjou. “The Indian government should set up a single-window clearance mechanism for fast-tracking setting up of new startups.”
The French government recently set up a single-window clearance system that allows entrepreneurs to register their businesses online in just ten minutes. This change led to a surge in the number of startups in France and 300,000 startups were set up in 2009 alone, said Radjou.
As countries emerge from the recession, consumers in the US and Europe may start to clamour for low-cost yet high-value products. “This will make India made, or inspired, innovation very attractive to the world,” Radjou said.