In­dia’s En­gine of In­no­va­tion

As In­dia strives to be­come the next big in­no­va­tion hub, it faces chal­lenges rang­ing from be­wil­der­ing reg­u­la­tions to ed­u­ca­tional short­com­ings and in­ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture. But the coun­try’s in­domitable en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit may well over­come the hur­dles.

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‘ In­dia boasts 750 R&D and in­no­va­tion cen­tres where de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers are work­ing on global projects.’

Nir­malya Ku­mar is an in­ter­na­tion­ally known author­ity on do­ing busi­ness in In­dia, and pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Lon­don Busi­ness School.

“The thought that there are not enough people in In­dia may sound strange for a coun­try whose pop­u­la­tion is more than 1 bil­lion,” Nir­malya Ku­mar says. “But when you are do­ing R&D and prod­uct de­vel­op­ment work, you need sci­en­tists, you need en­gi­neers, you need Ph.D.s – and in In­dia these people are in a very small group. The coun­try has been un­able to ramp up its ed­u­ca­tional in­fra­struc­ture so as to get enough of them in the pipe­line.”

Ku­mar, orig­i­nally from Cal­cutta, is a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Lon­don Busi­ness School, the au­thor of six books and an in­ter­na­tion­ally known author­ity on do­ing busi­ness in In­dia. He sees both strengths and weak­nesses in In­dia’s ef­forts to be­come a global in­no­va­tion hub.

In­dia has suc­ceeded bril­liantly in the past 20 years in break­ing up op­er­a­tions that for­merly had to be done in the same place, he says. In­di­ans fig­ured out how parts of tasks could be done in In­dia, tak­ing ad­van­tage of low costs and high ex­per­tise, and then rein­te­grated. For ex­am­ple, he says, “You may need to cook your ham­burger in New York, but your ta­ble reser­va­tion can be made through In­dia, and your bill pro­cessed in Ben­galuru.”

When it comes to in­no­va­tion, In­dia is tak­ing ad­van­tage of a sim­i­lar par­ti­tion of la­bor.

“In the old days,” Ku­mar says, “global in­no­va­tion al­ways took place in the de­vel­oped world, where the com­pany head­quar­ters were lo­cated, such as in the UK, the US or Europe. To­day, global com­pa­nies typ­i­cally di­vide the de­vel­op­ment of a ma­jor project into dis­tinct pieces. One part might be given to China to de­velop, an­other part to In­dia. For the Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner, the tech­nol­ogy for land­ing in zero vis­i­bil­ity was de­signed in In­dia.”

This ap­proach has been a boon for In­dia, where in­no­va­tion cen­ters in the past typ­i­cally fo­cused on cre­at­ing prod­ucts for the In­dian mar­ket. These days, In­dia boasts 750 R&D and in­no­va­tion cen­ters where de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers are work­ing on global projects. “That’s a big change,” Ku­mar says. His­tor­i­cally, In­dia has dis­played great en­ergy for commercial ven­tures, de­spite many road­blocks.

“In­dia has al­ways been a highly en­tre­pre­neur­ial na­tion,” Ku­mar says. “In­di­ans are nat­u­rally in­clined to start businesses.”

Un­der the Bri­tish Raj, how­ever, In­di­ans faced op­pres­sive re­stric­tions on own­ing their own businesses. While in­de­pen­dence in 1947 lifted some of them, In­dia was left with such a rigidly con­trolled econ­omy that many of its en­trepreneurs chose to go abroad. Even­tu­ally, Ku­mar says, “prac­ti­cally ev­ery mo­tel in the US and ev­ery lit­tle mom-and-pop store in the UK was owned by In­di­ans.”

To­day, while In­dia has seen a re­mark­able eco­nomic rise, many hur­dles re­main be­fore it can be­come a top world cen­tre for in­no­va­tion. For one thing, Ku­mar says, “there are too many reg­u­la­tions. In some states, it can take as long as 180 days to reg­is­ter a com­pany. That’s un­ac­cept­able.”

Other chal­lenges in­clude poverty, ed­u­ca­tional deficits, and in­fra­struc­ture short­ages.

Ku­mar spent his child­hood in Cal­cutta free from the dis­trac­tions of TV and tele­phone. “I was a vo­ra­cious reader,” he says. “I read any­thing that came into the house, in­clud­ing the paper wrap­pers that the veg­eta­bles came in.”

When he was 15, he picked up his fa­ther’s copy of Philip Kotler’s clas­sic text­book Mar­ket­ing Man­age­ment. “I loved this book, and from that mo­ment on, I wanted to do some­thing in mar­ket­ing.”

Ul­ti­mately, Ku­mar moved to the US for a decade, writ­ing his Ph.D. with Kotler him­self at North­west­ern Univer­sity in Chicago. “It was a dream come true for me.” Ku­mar has gone on to write three books on mar­ket­ing and two on do­ing busi­ness in In­dia. His newly pub­lished sixth book, Brand Break­out: How Emerg­ing Mar­ket Brands Will Go Global, com­bines both of his main themes.

“Why is it that all the brands we know come from the de­vel­oped world?” he asks. “My book shows eight dif­fer­ent path­ways that emerg­ing mar­ket brands can fol­low to take their brands global.”

What makes Ku­mar tick? “I have very clear ob­jec­tives, and I’m driven to achieve them,” he ex­plains. In this, per­haps he serves as a role model for In­dia it­self.

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