Spurring the innovative mind


What encourages innovation? What are the conditions necessary for the success of an idea? Are Indians innovative? Milind Joshi examines and answers these vital questions in his quest to understand the environment necessary for innovation.
Compare these two sets of statements.
“Indians have an amazing sense of innovation, aka
“We Indians have been innovating things since millennia!”
“Our mythological literature is replete with ideas which the western world is rediscovering only now!”
“We Indians can never come up with original ideas!”
“Indians can only copy ideas generated by others especially the westerners!”
“Even after almost 70 years of independence we still are unable to think independently as a nation!”

Depending on how one judges our own progress over the last few decades, it is more than likely that he/she will believe in one of the two sets listed above. Both these statements are stereotypical and it is far easier to staunchly believe in either! However, as the cliché goes, truth is somewhere in between!

What is a conducive environment?

If we look at the development of human beings over the millennia, no particular race, nation, religion or geography can truly claim to be more innovative or entrepreneurial than the others. This is not to say that that all the parts of the world have developed equally. However, what matters is the support structure a nation offers to promote innovation and the incentive it offers to the entrepreneurs. It has been thought that a nation progresses rapidly when it is enjoying peaceful coexistence with its neighbours, is replete with a bounty of natural resources, has been blessed by the weather gods, etc. This assumption seems valid in a more general sense, but not in absolute sense! A number of innovations have taken place during peace time as well as when nations were at war. Similarly, when a nation has faced adverse conditions, its people have come up with revolutionary ideas to overcome the adverse conditions. Thus, the innovations that were done during war time were later adapted to peaceful times and for non war purposes. Nuclear energy is one example which comes to mind in this context.

That gets us back to the question, what environment is really necessary for the growth of innovative ideas? Though, as mentioned earlier, innovations did happen during violent eras in the human history, a far greater number happened during peaceful times. However, if one looks closely at the social environment that fosters the growth of new ideas, one thing is quite clear; the growth happened only when the nation or the society valued these new ideas. Thus in peace time, it was the innate nature of human beings to improve the living conditions, while during wars or adverse natural conditions, it was the same innate nature to ensure survival. This again corroborates the fact that when a nation valued innovation and supported it, new ideas flourished. Now, let’s take a look at the factors critical for innovation to thrive.

The first and foremost requirement is how the nation or the society perceives innovation. It is imperative that a nation or a society value newer ideas and respect the innovator. Needless to say, that without this support, innovative ideas will not thrive.

Another vital support an innovator or an entrepreneur needs is adequate funding. It is a known fact that many good ideas have unfortunately suffered an untimely death because of lack of money. Money may not be able to buy one love but at least it can certainly help an entrepreneur to succeed!

The third critical component is expert guidance. An entrepreneur’s journey is a difficult one and it is likely that he/ she will fail because of taking either the wrong decisions or taking the right decision rather late. An expert mentor with the right experience can guide the entrepreneur in such difficult times to ensure success.

The India story

Now let’s look at the situation in modern India. Luckily, today’s India is in a unique position compared to just couple of decades back. We have a stable democratic form of governance. The economy also is showing a robust growth. More importantly as a nation we have come to appreciate and accept the value of innovation in all aspects of our nation building, be it science, technology, medicine, sports, culture etc. Our economy, though still having a long way to go to become a developed nation, has understood and is willing to support innovation in terms of money and resources. Also, other nations have seen the potential of the educated men and women of India in terms of contribution to basic research in science and technology. These nations have also invested money and resources in the form of setting up research centres in India. Thus the most important ingredient, the talent, is already available. I firmly believe that as a nation we have enough talent and capability for innovative thinking.

Now let’s revisit the two sets of statements I made in the beginning. If we as a nation have come to understand the value of innovation and also have the talent in abundance, then what is holding us back? Like a plant which needs fertile soil, just the right amount of fertilizer and right climatic conditions, the growth of innovation also needs a supportive ecosystem. This ecosystem includes access to infrastructure, investment and mentoring. Each of these components is vital for the commercial success of the innovative idea.

An entrepreneur with an innovative idea may need all or some of these. Though many start the work from their own homes at least initially, they do need a working space when the team grows. This provides a professional environment for the team to work.

Also, though an entrepreneur may not take any salary for himself/herself, he/she still needs money to meet the day to day expenses and the salaries of the staff. Typically, in the early stage, this investment is made by close family members or friends. As the idea gets more developed further investment can come from angel investors or venture funds.

The last factor that I mentioned, mentoring, is equally critical. Many times the innovator/entrepreneur has a brilliant idea but may have no expertise to develop this idea and make it a commercial success. Typically, the entrepreneur lacks the administrative and managerial expertise to manage a team and also take care of the legal, financial, regulatory compliances. An experienced mentor having the expertise of taking an idea from the concept phase to a commercial success compensates for the lack of the entrepreneur’s experience. Such a mentor is in a position to help the entrepreneur in not only the day to day operational strategy, but also defining an effective go to market strategy.

The fledgling eco-system

Coming to the scenario in India, things are improving rapidly. There is a fledgling eco-system that is developing. Concerted efforts by the government, private sector and industry bodies are ensuring that the entrepreneur of today can get the necessary support. Many educational institutions have set up their own incubation set ups to foster innovation. Typically though, these facilities are restricted to the alumni of the institutions. Similarly, many companies encourage their employees to come up with innovative ideas. However, these ideas, of course, need to be relevant to the parent company. Such facilities do provide the necessary infrastructure, mentoring and many times financial assistance in terms of seed investment. There are many grants also available from the government for the entrepreneurs.

There is a large number of venture funds, angel networks and private equity funds that have come up to take care of the funding requirements of entrepreneurs. There are also informal local associations where entrepreneurs can interact and exchange ideas. Many agencies also conduct training courses or workshops to develop the necessary skills in an entrepreneur.

However, these attempts are still inadequate to take care of the needs of the vast majority of entrepreneurs in India. We need many more of these facilities. Furthermore, these facilities are available mainly in the Tier 1 cities such as the four metros and larger cities such as Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune etc. There are many entrepreneurs who live in smaller Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities and have no easy access to such facilities. Also, often an entrepreneur is unaware of the ways to approach such setups and hence is unable to take their help.

What are the impediments in setting up more such facilities? The first and foremost is the lack of financial and infrastructural resources. The second is the availability of experienced mentors to guide the entrepreneurs. Here the government and the corporate sector can collaborate to create such an eco-system. The financial assistance can come from the government and the corporate sector can contribute in terms of experienced mentors. A fair arrangement to own equity in such companies can always be worked out to make this a win-win situation for all. I am sure that if a number of such facilities come up in India, with the corporate sector collaborating with the government, we will see a rapid growth of entrepreneurship in India and undoubtedly, the first set of statements at the beginning of this article will be the norm!


Milind Joshi

The writer is an IIT Bombay alumnus and has worked in the IT industry in India and the US. He is an entrepreneur himself and has been mentoring startups in India and the US for over 10 years. He can be reached at mmjoshi@iitbombay.org