INVENTION, INNOVATION & ENTREPRENEURSHIP- Understanding the linkages to achieve ‘India Vision 2020’

It was way back in 1998 when Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, then the Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, articulated his ‘India Vision 2020’. Much water has flown through the Ganges since then and the obvious question that remains unanswered even today is: how much are we, the people and policy makers, aligned to this vision of India 2020?
The answer may be a moot point, but the optimist in me says  ‘Yes’, while the pragmatic in me adds a caveat that it could have been achieved earlier and even as we approach the year 2020, there is much distance to be covered. Nevertheless, we’re on the right track, realizing and imbibing the perpetually evolving domestic and global challenges and bringing our perspectives to resolve them. Let’s try to understand this in some more detail.

Author Sanket Goel
While there could be diverse thoughts on visualization of India in 2020, Dr. Kalam rightly stressed on two important words throughout his vision document - ‘Innovation’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’[1]. He further added, “With growing economy, India is advancing in number of areas with technological innovations. I suggest the Indian industry must develop quality products in time and cost effective manner, for becoming globally competitive and must penetrate into entrenched market.”

Even though Innovation and Entrepreneurship are almost clichéd terms today, it wasn’t the case at the advent of the 21st century when we had plethora of motivational challenges for an innovation ecosystem to develop. I recall attending a workshop on “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”  while still a student at IIT Delhi in late 1999, few months after the release of India Vision 2020. Most of us were not even aware of the words, ‘Innovation’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’ in the spirit of what Dr. Kalam talked about. The workshop presenter in fact stretched our limited perspectives by adding ‘Invention’ to the list of words. I assure you we were naïve. Undoubtedly, it sounds rather simple to differentiate them[2], but one may need to provoke deeper thoughts to explore linkage between the three words - Invention, Innovation & Entrepreneurship. To build an India where Invention, Innovation & Entrepreneurship are driving forces, we first need to understand what they mean and how they link to each other.

It’s easier to illustrate the nuances through an example. Thomas Edison (1847 –1931) invented the first commercially viable Light Bulb in 1879 that could last for over 13 hours. Although it was a path-breaking discovery, yet it needed more rigorous efforts to make it truly useful for a household. Edison continued innovating by improving various components of the bulb over the next two years so that it could last for more than 200 hours. He didn’t stop there. Harnessing his business acumen, he not only invented, innovated but also leveraged his entrepreneurial skills with an aim to take it to the masses. See his challenge - there is a Light Bulb but the households no Power supply! Edison showed his resourcefulness, engaged deeply with all the stakeholders, such as politicians, government officials and financiers, all the while building a win-win proposition, which eventually led to first electrical grid in New York[3].

Edison is possibly a perfect balance of Technical expertise, scientific aptitude and business acumen, to illustrate the three elements that build the value chain- Invention, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Figure 1 illustrates the definition of each of these and how it flows from top to bottom. The Figure also explains the process of need gap assessment and interventions, which flows bottom up, from Society to the three influencers. The society may continuously articulate various needs which require different level of expertise and intervention. I elaborate with an example.

Let’s say the first need is to find a convenient way to light up homes, in an era of candles and lanterns. This requires high technical expertise as the solution is not obvious i.e we need an inventor to provide solution to this societal need and create something like a light bulb.

In another paradigm, assume the electricity is available and the light bulb has been invented already, the society may face the problem of cost of light bulb or say of easy availability of light bulb. Such problems can be best solved by a resourceful entrepreneur who can bring better production methodologies, economies of scale, and improved sales and distribution channels.

Thus, depending on the complexity of the problem the society needs to solve, the required expertise of an Inventor, Innovator or an Entrepreneur should be accessed.

We must realize that these are not air-tight compartments and needless to say that we can have Inventor-Entrepreneurs or Inventor-Innovators or all three rolled into one. The aim is to understand that for a real innovation ecosystem to develop we require all three elements to be build and these may require slightly different approach.  Each of these roles may require some unique skill sets and hence as we move towards realizing Vision 2020 and beyond, it would be wise to build the support system for each. It also necessitates that we create a feedback mechanism where society has access to the required expertise of either or all of these elements for any identified need.

Few obvious questions that arise
  •       How to build expertise for invention?
  •       How to encourage investment and persistence for innovation?
  •       How to build resourcefulness of entrepreneurship?
  •         How to bring all the stakeholders (inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur) together?
  •        How to kindle an entrepreneur to invent and/or innovate in his/her entrepreneurial domains?
  •    How to develop innovative and entrepreneurial skills in an inventor or himself/herself?

The aforementioned questions may look daunting, but there are two comforting factors- One, we already have some ingredients of success in each of the segments and second, more importantly, the process has short cuts!

To build a high technology expertise the smarter, shorter way could be to focus on building a large platform for innovators. Innovators become the key players as they feed both the inventors up the chain as well as entrepreneurs down the chain. If we have a large universe of innovators, it’s natural to assume some of them would learn the resourcefulness to become entrepreneurs and some would acquire the required technical expertise to be true inventors. Fostering innovation is where academic fraternity, starting from school to research institutes can contribute significantly, both through their own contribution and more importantly by encouraging the students to build iterations and refinements of existing technologies.

There is a large body of work available across the globe and within the country to exploit and build upon.

Figure 1: Invention, Innovation & Entrepreneurship - the vicious cycle

More than 16 years have passed since I attended the first workshop on innovation. Our understanding of innovation paradigm is slowly but surely moving from infancy to   toddler to teenage. I’m keen it acquires the energy and balance of ayoung adult, soon. Rigorous discussions focusing on the facts to position India as innovation powerhouse are underway, when the youth will rather be job-creator then being just job-seeker by 2020. It may be good at this stage to re-think, re-strategize and re-evaluate where we stand for Vision 2020. The ever evolving technology, human needs and global problems are both a challenge and opportunity. Indians are known for their ability to be creative and adapt to changing cultures and conditions. With this ability, it’s only a question of a little directional change and policy impetus that can build the vision Dr. Kalam articulated and much beyond that.

[1] Flipping through the book, one can imagine that the words, ‘Innovation’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’ appeared 50 times and 25 times respectively.
[3] Ahmad Faruqui, Kelly Eakin, Pricing in Competitive Electricity Markets, Springer Science & Business Media – 2000.

Sanket Goel is a Researcher, Academician, Innovator, Policy contributor, prolific technologist and a Poet all rolled into one. He is an IIT Delhi alumnus and holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alberta, Canada. 
He has been associated with institutions of repute in various capacities including Institute of Plasma Research, Gandhinagar, DEBEL-DRDO, Bangalore, Stanford University, USA and A*STAR, Singapore and UPES, Dehradun. He currently works with BITS Pilani, based at Hyderabad. His research interests are Microfluidics, Nanotechnology, Materials and Devices for Energy (Petroleum, Carbon Sequestration, Solar, Fuel-Cells), and Biomedical Applications (Point-of- care diagnostics, Drug Delivery), Energy Policy and Innovation & entrepreneurship.
Sanket is widely travelled, has delivered more than 40 talks, has more than 40 publications and holds 4 patents (1 US and 3 Indian) to his credit.
When taking a break from his multi-disciplinary researcher and academician roles, he enjoys playing badminton, cooking, networking, sharing contemporary views on Economics, Environment, Geography and Politics and loves long-distance driving with family.
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