Artículos sobre experiencias de innovación y emprendimiento en la India
13 noviembre, 2011 Deja un comentario
India’s Innovation Stimulus
The world hit seven billion people last week, and I think I met half of them on the road from New Delhi to Agra here in India. They were on foot, on bicycle, on motor scooters. They were in pickups, dented cars and crammed into motorized rickshaws. They were dodging monkeys and camels and cows. Somehow, though, without benefit of police or stoplights, this flow of humanity that is modern India impossibly went about its business. But just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”
All these schools, plus 600 million cellphones, plus 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under 25, are India’s hope — because only by leveraging technology and brains can India deliver a truly better life for its masses. There are a million reasons why it won’t happen, but there is one big reason it might. The predicted really is happening: India’s young techies are moving from running the back rooms of Western companies, who outsourced work here, to inventing the front rooms of Indian companies, which are offering creative, low-cost solutions for India’s problems. The late C.K. Prahalad called it “Gandhian innovation,” and I encountered many examples around New Delhi.
Meet Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya, the C.E.O. of Ekgaon. His focus is Indian farmers, who make up half the population and constitute what he calls “an emerging market within an emerging market.” Ekgaon built a software program that runs on the cheapest cellphones and offers illiterate farmers a voice or text advisory program that tells them when is the best time to plant their crops, how to mix their fertilizers and pesticides, when to dispense them and how much water to add each day.
“India has to increase farm productivity,” explains Aditya, “but our farms are small, and advisers from the Agriculture Department can’t reach many of them. So they go for hearsay methods of planting, which leads to low productivity and soil desertification.” Using cloud computing, Ekgaon tailors its advice to each farmer’s specific soil, crop and weather conditions. Some 12,000 farmers are already subscribing ($5 for one year), and the plan is set to grow to 15 million in five years.
Meet K. Chandrasekhar, the C.E.O. of Forus Health, whose focus is “avoidable blindness” among India’s rural poor. A quarter of the world’s blind people, some 12 million, are in India, Chandrasekhar explains, and more than 80 percent of those are blind as a result of a lack of screening and a lack of ophthalmologists in rural areas. In the past, comprehensive screening required multiple expensive diagnostic devices to check for diabetic retinas, cataracts, glaucoma, cornea and refraction problems, all of which cause 90 percent of the avoidable blindness in India. So Forus invented “a single, portable, intelligent, noninvasive, eye prescreening device” that can identify all five of these major ailments and also provide an automated “Normal or Needs to See a Doctor” report; it can be run by a trained technician, who through telemedicine connects patients to a doctor.
“We work with a Dutch company on optics, and the University of Texas supports us in business development,” Chandrasekhar adds. “We are talking to a Brazilian company that is interested in manufacturing our technology and selling in Latin America.” Outsourcees are becoming outsourcers.
Meet Aloke Bajpai, who, like others on his young team, cut his teeth working for Western technology companies but returned to India on a bet that he could start something — he just didn’t know what. The result is iXiGO.com, a travel search service that can run on the cheapest cellphones and helps Indians book the lowest-cost fares, whether it is a farmer who wants to go by bus or train for a few rupees from Chennai to Bangalore or a millionaire who wants to go by plane to Paris. iXiGO now has one million unique users a month and is growing. Bajpai used free open-source software, Skype and cloud-based office tools like Google Apps and social media marketing on Facebook to build his software platform and grow his company. They “enabled us to grow so much faster with no money,” he said.
Finally, there’s Nandan Nilekani, the former C.E.O. of Infosys Technologies, India’s outsourcing giant, who is now leading a government effort to give every Indian citizen an ID number — a crucial initiative in a country where most people have no driver’s license, passport or even birth certificate.
In the last two years, 100 million people have signed up for an official ID. Once everyone has one, the government can deliver them services or subsidies — some $60 billion each year — directly through cellphones or bank accounts, without inept or corrupt bureaucrats siphoning some off.
“We’re bringing the most sophisticated technology to the most deprived,” said Nilekani. “The hyperconnected world is giving us a chance to change India faster, at a larger scale, than ever before”
The Last Person
There is a concept in telecommunications called “the last mile,” that part of any phone system that is the most difficult to connect — the part that goes from the main lines into people’s homes. Prem Kalra, the director of the new Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, one of the elite M.I.T.’s of India, has dedicated his school to overcoming a different challenge: connecting “the last person.”
“How will we reach the last person?” Kalra asked me during a visit to his campus here in Jodhpur in the Thar Desert of western India. The “last person” in his view is the poorest person in India. And the question consuming Kalra is can “the financially worst-off person” in India “be empowered” — be given the basic tools to acquire enough skills to overcome dire poverty.
In a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, that’s a big question. It is why, one year ago, India’s Human Resources Development Ministry put out a very specific proposal that Kalra and his technology institute decided to take up, when no one else would: Could someone design and make a stripped-down iPad-like, Internet-enabled, wirelessly connected tablet that the poorest Indian family, saving about $2.50 a month for a year, could afford if the government subsidized the rest? Specifically, could they make a simple tablet usable for distance learning, teaching English and math or just tracking commodity prices for under $50, including the manufacturer’s profit?
The answer was yes. Last month, Kalra’s team — led by two I.I.T. Rajasthan electrical engineering professors, one of whom comes from a village that still has no electricity — unveiled the Aakash tablet. Aakash is Hindi for sky. It’s based on the Android 2.2 operating system, with a 7-inch touch screen, three hours of battery life and the ability to download YouTube videos, PDFs and educational software like Virtual Labs. The government will subsidize the wireless connections for students.
If Indians could only purchase tablets made in the West, the price points would be so high they’d never spread here, said Kalra, so “we had to break the price point” in a big way. They did it by taking full advantage of today’s hyperconnected world: pulling commodity parts mainly from China and South Korea, using open-source software and collaboration tools and employing the design/manufacturing/assembly abilities of two companies in the West — DataWind and Conexant Systems — and Quad in India.
The Aakash is a ray of hope that India can leverage technology to get more of its 220 million students enough tools to escape poverty and poor teaching, but it’s also a challenge to the West.
In terms of hope, I was struck by a story that Kalra’s wife, Urmila, told about a chat she had had with their maid after the Aakash was unveiled on Oct. 5. As Urmila recalled, her maid, who has two young children, said that she had heard “from the night watchman that Mr. Kalra has made a computer that is very cheap, and is so cheap that even she can afford to buy it. The watchman had given her a picture from the paper, and she asked me if it was true.”
Urmila told her it was true and that the machine was meant for people who could not afford a big computer. Added Urmila: “She asked, ‘How much will it cost?’ I said, ‘It will cost you around 1,500 rupees.’ [$30.] She said: ‘15,000 or 1,500?’ I said, ‘1,500.’ She was sure that if the government was doing something so good for the poor, it had to have a catch. ‘What can you do on it?’ she asked me. I said, ‘If your daughter goes to school, she can use it to download videos of class lessons,’ just like she had seen my son download physics lectures every week from M.I.T.’s [OpenCourseWare]. I said, ‘You have seen our son sitting at the computer listening to a teacher who is speaking. That teacher is actually in America.’ She just kept getting wider- and wider-eyed. Then she asked me will her kids be able to learn English on it. I said, ‘Yes, they will definitely be able to learn English,’ which is the passport for upward mobility here. I said, ‘It will be so cheap you will be able to buy one for your son and one for your daughter!’ ”
That conversation is the sound of history changing.
And not just for India. We’re at the start of a nonlinear move in innovation thanks to the hyperconnecting of the world — through social media, mobile/wireless devices and cloud computing — which is putting cheap innovation devices into the hands of so many more people, enabling them to collaborate on invention is so many new ways. This Great Inflection will be an opportunity and a challenge for every worker and company because we’re going to see more and more product “price points” broken in big ways.
And that explains why Kalra tells recruiters for major companies to stay away from his campus. He wants his Indian students to think about inventing their first jobs, not applying for them. “I want them to start companies and become C.E.O.’s of their own. It is the only way we can catch China,” he says. India can’t wait for the world to solve India’s problems at India’s price points. It has to invent them. It now has tools to do so. This is about to get interesting.