Why Peter Thiel is Wrong About Innovation in India

20th Jul 2012
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On July 17, CNN Money posted online a lively debate that took place at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen wherein Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, and Peter Thiel, technology investor and entrepreneur, participated. The debate about 'The Future of Technology' was enormously insightful and Fortune's Adam Lashinky did a fabulous job moderating the debate between the two behemoths. However, amidst the discussion, there were a few areas where India was mentioned and Peter Thiel's views on India and developing countries, perceived by many as casual, raised some questions.

"Peter

The point in case came up when talking about 'technology in the recent times', Adam brought forth a very pertinent question:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

 

Following a few light moments of jest, what Peter said would come as a pinch to many Indians:

Technology is critical. It is the only way that things get better in the developed world. And I think we should distinguish the developed and emerging markets very sharply. In places like India, China and developing nations, there's zero need for innovation. All they need to do is copy things that work.

Now, this is not what any entrepreneur in India can take right away. Standing up for it, Dev Khare , a former entrepreneur and a Venture Investor with Lightspeed Ventures, India raised the issue to which many agreed.

Followers of Dev on Twitter got in the thick of action and me too, being the proponent of the Indian startup ecosystem, supported Dev's viewpoint. Another tweet on similar lines from Dev, opening up a thread on Quora to make a point about innovations in India, raised two more relevant questions:

1) How a tiny change in wordings can alter a meaning as pointed out by Mukund Mohan, again a serial entrepreneur and investor. Mukund pointed out that there is a very big difference between 'no innovation' and 'no need of innovation'.

2) However much the above point alleviates the sting, Thiel's claim still seems to be frivolous as there are ample innovations in India and they're there for a reason.

On contrary to Thiel's claim, India and developing countries do need innovations to tackle acute country specific problems. The Quora thread started by Dev Khare proves this very point. [Disclaimer: I have answered the question as well] The ingenuity of some of the innovations is worthy of note. With all due respect to probably the world's most venerated investor Peter Thiel, any fair minded person wouldn't repudiate the need of innovation in developing countries.

I'm listing some of the startups from the Quora thread, mentioned mainly by the popular Kris Nair whose bio reads, 'Entrepreneur turned Venture Capitalist turned Entrepreneur':

  • Husk Power Systems: HPS lighted the first village from its first 100% biomass based power plant that uses discarded rice husks to generate electricity in August 2007 and today it has installed 60 mini-power plants that power ~ 25,000 households in more than 250 villages and hamlets and impact lives of approximately 150,000 people in rural India.
  • Promethean Power Systems: It makes chillers to cool milk at remote collection centers. The unit reduces transportation costs, preserves the quality of milk, and increases small farmers’ income by up to 100%. There is an estimated market of 120,000 cooling units in India, totaling $600m.
  • Biosense: A million people die because of anaemia every year in India! Here, anaemia contributes to around 40% of maternal deaths annuallyBiosense has developed a device which enables to carry out a blood test at less than Rs 10 per test without extracting blood and helps in detecting anaemia.

Numerous much needed innovations have indeed taken place in India and developing countries which are very much, the need of the hour. This thread is not an initiative but only a stand to drive home a point. Do add more innovations in the link on Quora and do let us know what you think about the statement made by Thiel. Is it a fair statement to make according to you?

[Image Credit: Bloomberg Businessweek]

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