Research be Profit-Driven to Sustain: Bill Gates

by CXOtoday Staff    Jul 24, 2009

CXOs spoke on innovation in India and challenges associated with it at an innovation event hosted by Microsoft where founder and chairman Bill Gates was also present.

Bill Gates while replying to a query on why Bell Labs’ research had ceased said that research with profit motive needed to be encouraged so that it could be sustainable. Research where the government encourages a company in return for a quid pro quo in the form of a regulated environment for that company was not sustainable in the long run, said Gates.

Gates identified Xerox as having done great innovation from which companies like Apple and others had later benefited. He also remarked on the possibility of a disconnect between R&D and actual product development saying, "You can have a lab that does not connect well to your actual products; we made that mistake, realized it early on and corrected it."

Ravi Venkatesh, managing director, Microsoft India said that the next wave of technology will be led by mobility. "Dhirubhai Ambani realized and articulated that vision in 1999, and subsequently set-up Reliance Communications. Bharti Enterprises followed suit and today we have a world class telecom industry driven by innovation," said Venkatesh.

Ratan Tata had that vision in transportation, and he created Nano that has captured the imagination of the world. So increasingly it is clear that there is a fortune to be made in the middle of the pyramid, if not at the bottom of the pyramid, said Venkatesh.

A similar kind of disruptive innovation approach needed to be taken to address challenges in healthcare, education, Venkatesh said.

Microsoft itself sees India as a lab for innovation, and has been enthusiastically implementing some new ideas here, said Venkatesh. In some of them like providing computer access in rural India we struggled initially but realized that there was a way to do it, which was through public-private partnerships, said Venkatesh.

The other exciting initiative that Microsoft has undertaken is the Rozgaar project that aims to improve employability of rural youth by providing them computing and soft skills in partnership with the government, and companies like Teamlease. There are many opportunities to implement disruptive innovation in healthcare, education but problems like connectivity, lack of finance, and skill building at grassroots level exist. So a single company cannot achieve what a government-industry-academia partnership can achieve, added Venkatesh.

Venkatesh said that the recession has forced companies to realize that there was a domestic agenda beyond just achieving huge exports and they have been looking domestically and focusing on creation of intellectual property.

Scientist and dirctor of Krishi Anusandhan Bhawan, Dr. Narayanaswamy said that science was driven by scholarships in the past, while technology is corporate driven. Science focused on discovery, technology on market competitiveness, while innovation focused on leadership. When we say India must unleash its potential in innovation, then it means there s a leash somewhere, said Narayanaswamy.

"Innovation is about excellence but there’s asymmetry in excellence and equity; excellence is about differentiation and equity about integration and assimilation. When we talk about growth for 1 billion people, there has to be inclusive growth," said Narayanaswamy.

"Majority of people are focused on the process of innovation but much of innovation is technocratically pushed so two thirds of the global population does not get the fruits or product of innovation. The purpose of innovation should be to benefit people; innovation should be an inclusive issue. Examples like Tata s Nano are inclusive. That’s where India’s strength will be; making innovation more inclusive and available to all."

Rajendra Pawar, chairman, NIIT said that India had come a long way in the two decades since the 1980s, when IT companies like Microsoft and NIIT were just getting formed. The mood then was of despondency and low growth of two to three percent. "From that despondency to today’s self confidence and strong sense of independence, India has come a long way," said Pawar. "However, we continue to be intellectually dependent on others when it comes to creating new ideas."

"We are still dependent on ideas created elsewhere in the world, we have to become net exporters of ideas, and this will happen only when we have a vibrant higher education system," added Pawar.

Pawar said that although between the tenth and eleventh five year plans of the government of India, the expenditure on higher education had increased eight times, what was actually required was an increase of 80 times in the spending on higher education.

"We need 100 times more PhDs today. We need to ensure that a person going on to do Masters in Technology (MTech) and PhD after his Bachelor s in Technology (BTech) gets his due. Twenty years ago, we had a closed economy so there was no need for ideas and research and therefore no need for PhDs. But all that is changing, we need ideas today and we need to further encourage this change in perception," said Pawar.

Pawar identified 4 key problems in higher education that needed to be addressed to create an higher education system which fostered innovation and research:

1) Linkage between industry and academia: The linkage between the industry and academia is poor in most countries, but it is virtually non existent in India, said Pawar. Making universities industry link so that ideas and people can move to and fro was a big challenge, added Pawar.

2) Utilizing technology in learning and teaching: There is a great opportunity to leverage technology to transform the way people learn and teach, said Pawar.

3) Research mindset: People say universities here don t do research because there are no billion dollar labs, but this thinking belongs to industrial era not today s knowledge era, said Pawar. The historical tradition of sitting under a tree with your guru and doing a thought experiment is back, you don t need a billion dollar lab. Research is about mindset, not just billion dollar labs, added Pawar.

4) Division of work/specialization has been a problem because we have been learning more and more about less and less, so multidisciplinary learning is important, said Pawar. "Build institutions from scratch that are industry linked, research driven, seamless, and technology driven to foster innovation," concluded Pawar.