A water cooler that runs without electricity, a wheel chair, which operates on human breath, a car locking system that is connected to a mobile phone, a modified cycle rickshaw with gears, a double shuttle handloom, a coconut tree climber and a travel bag with an in-built seat. These and other such innovative products, which were on display in the capital last week, have not been developed by engineering students or scientists from government-run research bodies, but by ordinary mechanics, farmers, students and even school dropouts.
These innovations only need hand holding and micro-finance in order to multiply and commercialise. Over the years, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) has perfected the art of converting such grassroots ideas into marketable products, by taking some of the best ideas through the complex process of improvising, designing, testing, prototyping and scaling-up.
Finance Minister P Chidambaram, in his budget speech a few days ago, announced a Rs.200 crore fund to scale-up innovation and make its resultant products available to common people. I thought, finally the government has woken up to the need to nurture innovations by common people and those emanating outside the formal research system.
A chat with the NIF founder and professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Anil K Gupta, revealed that I was wrong. It appears, the new fund will be managed by the National Innovation Council chaired by tech czar Sam Pitroda, and is meant to support innovative ideas coming from companies and the formal system. "They have not even studied our model, through which we have disseminated many innovations not just in India, but across the developing world", Gupta said. Many patents have been obtained in India and the US, and innovators have floated their own start-ups and signed deals with other companies. Yet, many of the innovators need micro venture funds and other support. This is where the government can chip in, but it seems to be looking the other way.
There is a fundamental difference between the approaches of the NIF and Pitroda's innovation council. The NIF has a bottom-up ideology, while the council follows a top-down approach. Gupta and his dedicated band of colleagues go on discovery trails to villages, towns and cities across the country, scouting for innovations and new ideas. Promising ones are shortlisted, scientifically tried and tested, documented, and then prototypes are made with professional design and engineering inputs.
It is a long and tedious process, but has been proved to work. On the other hand, the innovation council has no workable model in place, nor a road-map to get there. All it is busy doing is creating vast infrastructure across the country, and organising roundtables and brainstorming sessions. I suppose, the promotion of innovations also needs an innovative approach.
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