Thomas Alva Edison was not just history's most prolific inventor, but he also possessed a balanced amount of business acumen to channelise his inventions into profitable routes. Similarly, we had seen Bill Gates having the same balance of business ingenuity and innovative brilliance.
For a country, which has seen less of such a combination, until and unless exposed to the western world, of late, there has been a spurt of such innovative entrepreneurs, who have been able to decorticate some of the most complex problems using comparatively simple innovations, thanks in part to intellectual property laws and angel investors.
Bangalore has seen its share of such entrepreneurs who have devised innovative programs and devices equipped with the right ounce of business options which could be ramified into mass usage.
In 2003, when Rikin Gandhi was with Microsoft Research India in Bangalore, the Government of India sponsored a National Sample Survey to understand the sources of information farmers were relying upon for new technology and farm practices. “In this context, we sought to understand how we could improve the speed and effectiveness of agricultural extension at a reasonable cost.
Unlike some systems that expect technology alone to deliver useful knowledge to marginal farmers, Digital Green works with existing, people-based extension systems and aims to amplify their effectiveness.
We began with the premise that digital video is a technology that can be taken to the last-mile and provide significant resource-savings – particularly, since the hardware has become so affordable.
A one-to-one demonstration between an extension officer and a farmer could now be digitally captured and shown to many farmers who could easily relate to a visual media,” says 31-yearold Rikin who is now the chief operating officer of Digital Green which started as a part of the Technology for Emerging Markets group at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore in 2006, but spun-off into an independent organisation in 2009.
While Rikin was empowering farmers, Sriram Kannan from the city was more into Telemedicine and was developing a software for accessing medical images on mobile phones.
“To start with, we were working particularly on a problem called ROP (Retinopathy of Prematurity), which if not detected within a timing window of 2-3 weeks, could potentially result in infant blindness. And given the shortage of skilled specialists who could diagnose for this condition, we developed a solution by which retinal images could be taken by any technician and sent across instantly to the relevant specialist for a quick diagnosis directly on his iPhone or iPad, and in case the condition is suspected or detected, then subsequent action could be initiated immediately. We then developed this solution to work for various other situations where such screening or prescreening was necessary,” says 36-year-old Sriram, who is now the founder and director of Nivaata Systems Pvt. Ltd.
How has their innovation and business ventures helped the people?
Rikin initially spent over 200 days in the field working with a grassroots-level NGO, called Green Foundation, outside of Bangalore in Kanakapura Taluk, Ramanagara District which follows the classic 'Training & Visit'-based approach for agricultural extension.
“Through iterative design, we experimented with various parameters of a digital video-based extension model. For example, we considered the background of the 'actors' that are featured in videos.
On one hand, an agricultural expert can present highly-quality content. But on the other, we found that farmers were not receptive to being 'lectured' to by outsiders of a very different socioeconomic demographic. Instead, they preferred to watch a fellow farmer share his or her experiences in a manner similar to the informal social networks that they were used to interacting with.
On distributing these videos, we initially experimented with setting up a TV in front of a public square next to a stack of DVDs that farmers could choose to access as they pleased.
Though there was an initial novelty, the community quickly became disinterested as they couldn’t understand its purpose. We found that they needed a human mediator who could use the “virtual” on-screen demonstrations to engage farmers in a sustained learning and adoption process,” he says. In a controlled trial, he found that the approach increased the adoption of certain agriculture practices seven-fold over conventional approaches and, on a costper- adoption basis, his innovative idea was shown to be 10 times more effective per dollar spent than a conventional agricultural extension system.
As for Sriram's innovation, a few hospitals in Bangalore have adopted his solution, and doctors / specialists are actively screening/ diagnosing images using their mobile phones.
“They deploy a van that goes even to rural areas in Karnataka to take retinal images of infants, and then instantly send it back through mobile network to the relevant specialists for diagnosis,” he says.
Talking about Bangalore as a favourable destination to such 'innopreneurs', Rikin feels that the start-up ecosystem is developing.
According to him there is an ever-increasing number of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists which serve to reinforce one another and encourage other individuals to try to do the same.
“Just as San Francisco's Bay Area had long been a major site of the United States Navy’s research and technology division, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the Ministry of Defence have had a long history in Bangalore since the 1940s.
The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) also has had a long history since its founding in 1909. The more recent developments of Infosys and Wipro have demonstrated the capability of the city to support large-scale ventures in way similar to Xerox PARC and Hewlett-Packard. Bangalore is now ripe to create new innovations of its own that match even those of earlier eras and other places around the world.
” Sriram feels that entrepreneurship is in the air, and everyone is talking about things like "the next big ecommerce company" or the next big Facebook etc, and not really looking at the next job to shift to. “In Bangalore, we are actually spoilt for choice on the number of partnerships that are potentially possible, which I really think is the most important value proposition,” he says.
The mix of innovation and entrepreneurship For Rikin, invention can be difficult to predict, but there certainly are parameters like human capital like good education, finance like start-up loans, angel investors, politics like intellectual property laws, bankruptcy protection, immigration policies, and physical infrastructure like electricity, network which seem to serve as foundations for inventors like Bill Gates to seize opportunities to innovate.
“Even in the West, many countries and cities continue to struggle with setting up the next Silicon Valley,” he says.
Sriram's feels that difficulty in finding the right mix between entrepreneurship and invention was perhaps the case a few years back, but the scene is rapidly changing.
“I've personally seen a shift in mentality among young engineers, and there is now a lot of interest in entrepreneurship. However, I feel that the investment ecosystem is not yet as strong as it is, in let's say the U.S, but that is also an area that is rapidly changing, and now a lot of interest is now getting generated among the investment community as well, and I am personally excited about this,” he says.