When is the Innovation Coming?

By Aditya Kulkarni|23rd May 2012
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Innovation in India is a hot topic, and everyone seems to have very passionate views about it. There’s a lot of talk about the “Innovation Gap” in India and the various things that can be done to fix it. I have a confession to make here: The complaint that there is very little product and tech innovation in India was news to me. What were they talking about? There seemed to be lots of interesting stuff going on around me.

Pockets of Innovation

For example, Google MapMaker was created in India to solve a very India-specific problem: There are no street-level maps of India, and how to deal with roads being closed or turned into one-ways overnight was not obvious. MapMaker was created with the idea to crowd-source maps, Wikipedia style, and it worked so well, that the tech is now powering maps for 100s of countries. Earlier on in my career, I also played a small part by helping create Google Suggest for India - where you could type your search query in “Hinglish”. For a more current example, have a look at the Eclipse committer’s page here. Eclipse, which receives my vote for the most innovative IDE of all time, has over 90% of its core code coming from a building just 20 meters from where I’m sitting right now.

And so when people used to talk to me about the “Innovation Gap in India", I would get very confused. But I have come to understand that they mean innovation-owned by India and Indian companies. I think that’s the real problem – There’s lots of innovation happening in India, but it is coming out of the labs of large companies with big R&D investments. The companies were getting all the credit for it, and the startups were being starved.

So how does the innovation come out of the R&D labs and into the real world? I think its just a matter of time. Further, I also believe that the time has come.

Ingredients & Recipe

One of the major ingredients needed for innovation is expertise. You really need to know your way around the tools and ideas to be able to expertly put together an innovative solution. Apparently, it takes roughly 10 years of practice in a field for someone to build up this kind of world-class expertise. Co-incidentally, the software-products scene in India really took off in 2002-2003 when several software product companies came to India and set up shop and hired local talent. All these people now have spent nearly a decade working with software, technology and products, and have become world-class experts at it.

There are lots of these people here in India, and I've had the pleasure of meeting some of them. Interestingly, do you know what experts tend to do once they get near the top of their fields? They tend to do startups, trying to use all their resources and expertise to build something from scratch! And everyone seems to want to do this now. Can’t you just feel the explosion of ideas going around these days? Half of all software engineers and their next door neighbors want to do a startup, and they have all these great ideas, and they’re all meeting up and discussing these ideas, figuring out how to solve new and exciting problems, and how to bring their expertise and experience to work.

Cause for optimism?

Innovation is really the recombination of existing ideas, and applying them to new problems. Sure, there’s a lot of luck, timing and other factors needed, but it almost seems like all these factors are coming together around us today. Talking about ideas, discussing and critiquing them, combining and pruning ideas, recruiting your friends and colleagues to help build these ideas and finally jumping in to do a startup – This is the typical process that has created the world’s most innovative companies in the past. And it is happening here in India, right now.

I think there’s a lot of reason for optimism today. In the next couple of years, I'm sure we’re going to see a lot of action and a lot of innovation coming from the startup world, and it’s going to be great! I’m eagerly looking forward to it!

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