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An idea could change your life

india Updated: Aug 07, 2009 01:57 IST
Shalini Singh & Riddhi Shah
Highlight Story

Thinking it outBrij Kothari has a simple idea that could touch the lives of millions of movie-crazy fans — Hindi subtitles with popular Bollywood songs.

Otherwise known as Same-Language Subtitling, it could help teach millions to read. “Viewers already know the lyrics of most songs. So when a semi-literate person reads the subtitles, it strengthens his language skills,” says the IIM-Ahmedabad professor.

For the last decade, Kothari has been trying to get his idea implemented as an all-India policy on popular music shows like Chhayageet. He’s made 60 trips to New Delhi in 10 years. “I’ve met every single education and broadcasting secretary. But progress has been slow,” he says. “Both ministries do not cooperate with each other to make it happen.”

The total cost of the project? Only Rs 5 crore. The problem, says Kothari, is that even though individuals like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, support the project, the government has no effective mechanism to take a new idea forward.

Every year, thousands of innovations — from a women-only bank to a black box that would help fix responsibility in road accidents — are born in universities, towns and even villages across India. Figure conscious

The only tool to help take them from drawing board to factory floor is the National Innovation Foundation, a government-funded body. The funds, though, are a meagre Rs 1.5 crore a year. Less than the cost of a two-bedroom flat in south Mumbai.

Worse, that figure has not changed over nine years. There’s no defined policy to encourage social enterprise and innovation.

So here’s what we suggest: First, pump additional funds into the NIF. “We need at least Rs 200 crore. This will help us conduct large-scale trials of the innovations we receive,” says Professor Anil Gupta, vice chairman of the NIF.

Second, increase the social enterprise and innovation budgets of other ministries — of the Rs 40,000 crore spent annually on Science and Technology, for example, only about Rs 20 crore is spent on innovation. Just 0.1 per cent. Instead, the NIF should be allowed to disburse 1 per cent of each ministry’s budget on social enterprise and innovation.

Experts like Gupta also recommend creating a zero-interest loan scheme for social entrepreneurs. Innovators must also get tax sops, of the kind given to the IT industry in the past.

These funds could be used to help market the lakhs of ideas coming out of the country’s institutes of higher learning.

Six lakh ideas a year, to be precise.

That’s how many students pass out of technology institutes every year.

Each of them does a final-year project meant to marry their innate creativity with the know-how they have gathered in their years of study.

These projects throw up simple, low-cost devices and technology that could change lives. Instead, they are relegated to the archives of college libraries.

To rescue these ideas from obscurity, the NIF could institute a national-level contest for the best innovative ideas of the year. And help students connect with industry through an online forum — a website where such projects can be uploaded and through which students can then interact with industrialists, experts, other inventors and even investors and venture capitalists.

“School and college-level competitions would challenge and give national recognition,” says Dr R.A. Mashelkar, chairman of the National Innovation Foundation. “A national portal would be a good way to harness these ideas. Such a portal could wield tremendous power if designed and used well.”

There is a lack of channels, adds Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard researcher and professor at Duke University, USA. “The Internet has made the world a smaller place, opened up avenues like never before. If the government was to build a national website where winners of regional tech competitions were brought together, people could share ideas across the country.”

We need to borrow from the ‘incubator concept’ of the US, says Lakshmi V. Venkatesan, a founding trustee of Bhartiya Yuva Shakti Trust, which works with the CII to help unemployed and under-unemployed youngsters. “There, space, in the form of old warehouses, godowns etc, and facilities like telephone, fax, water, power and Internet connections, are subsidised by the government.”

Such options could be made available to the winners of the national contest, as is done in Australia, where banks have separate funds for student start-ups.

“In fact,” says the NIF’s Anil Gupta, “if the government were to invest in innovation, it could reduce the amount spent on infrastructure. For example, an engineer has already created a blend of road tar and polythene that won’t develop potholes. But that idea hasn’t been utilised. Instead, we spend crores every year repairing our roads”.

Meanwhile, as a result of the yawning chasm between inventor and industrialist, Tata Motors in 2007 travelled overseas in search of technology that already existed here — an engine that runs on compressed air.

India’s largest car manufacturer joined hands with a small, family-run operation based in France to develop and bring out OneCat, a next-generation green engine.

In Guwahati, innovator Kanak Gogoi (48), a junior college dropout, is still waiting for someone to help market his Pawan-Ex. It too runs on compressed air. And it would have cost the Tatas a fraction of what they have probably paid the French family.

“I know Gogoi’s Pawan-Ex,” says L. Chinzah, national coordinator for business development and micro-ventures at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). “I have seen it work.”

Sadly, no one else has.

Government Speak

‘Research is like a work of art — it must be critiqued’

It would be a good idea to bring all final projects of technology students together and create a pool. Good research is like a work of art — it must be critiqued. We should have a portal that caters to this kind of an effort. Every institution could have its own portal, where a page could be available to every technology student. This can easily be done. Once this happens with every group, the database could be linked to an AICTE or third-party portal. AICTE could harness projects from across the country and the data could be accessed by all stakeholders. The advantages would be many. Research and new ideas would be generated. Plus, once students pass out, their ideas die; but such a portal could let those ideas grow into others. A national discussion forum could also be created within it. Expense is not a constraint and AICTE will definitely facilitate something like this in the near future.

Dr S.S. Mantha
Vice-Chairman, All India Council for
Technical Education

‘We need more funds, focus’

Indians are an entrepreneurial people and there are many unutilised inventions that could be used for public good — from new varieties of cotton to new blends of road tar. The government needs to spend money on disseminating this knowledge. Further, it needs to create a dedicated institute and research facility for grassroots innovations.
We also need to increase the budget of the National Innovation Foundation, and make it an independent organisation.

Anil Gupta
IIM-A professor and executive vice-chair,
National Innovation Foundation

Expert SPEAK

India has had difficulties with translating its first-rate research into viable commercial products on the international market. It would be great to see technology students work with [industry] people to translate their best ideas into real intellectual property. In the US, students often see their graduate theses turned into real intellectual property. The technology transfer departments of the universities take a real interest in the best ideas and venture capitalists are ready to fund these ideas. Consider the PageRank algorithm, which Larry Page and Sergei Brin worked on when they were graduates at Stanford. It became the basis of the search technology inside Google.

Jason Pontin
Editor-in-chief and publisher of Technology Review, which launched its Indian edition in March 2009.