Technology

India’s Economic Future

Harsh recently wrote an excellent piece on how India’s economy will grow from the current $2.5 trillion GDP to $12 trillion by 2030. His prediction rests on on two planks: increasing participation of women in the workforce, and technological change.

The Solow growth model – one of the few economics topics I actually remember something about from business school – takes three inputs, namely capital, labour and productivity growth, to project what the future output of an economy might be. Harsh has made a persuasive case from first principles, on how an increase in women’s participation in the workforce combined with the mobile internet revolution will propel India’s GDP to $12 trillion by 2030.

These media reports add a lot of colour to what can sound like a routine development – it is anything but that:

Rural Indian Girls Chase Big-City Dreams

Latest HRD survey shows girls going to college out number boys in seven states

Their Postcards For 2018: From 18 places, girls who turned 18 this year speak out

Harsh’s point on technology too is visible and obvious – Reliance Jio’s entry into telecom is making 4G mobile connectivity ubiquitous. Over the next 3-4 years, we should see 5G (with speeds on the order of hundreds of MB per second) rolled out across India. Consider what this will do for education, health care, media and entertainment. The possibilities are enormous.

Last year, I had co-authored two op-eds with investor Navroz Udwadia on how India can achieve sustained double-digit growth, by fixing the banking sector and building infrastructure for agriculture. The former addresses the capital piece of the Solow model, the latter helps increase productivity for agriculture through “technological” interventions. The introduction of GST too is a technological step change, the longer-term benefits of which monthly or quarterly economic data cannot capture.

There are real changes underway in how India allocates capital, in the composition of our labour force, and in technology. These will all mutually reinforce each other and the gains will compound. It can be difficult to see the bigger picture when we ourselves are inside the frame. I feel very positive about India’s economic future. It’s a great time to invest in India and to be an entrepreneur here.

India Can Emerge As An Innovation Leader

Has the Indian startup opportunity been wildly over-estimated? Mahesh Murthy’s article on this question has triggered a debate. Mahesh feels the “copy-paste” approach will not work in India — provided that most of India’s highly-valued startups are simply clones of successful US companies, “much of the growth assumed for our current unicorns is probably vastly overestimated”, he writes.

History is on Mahesh’s side. Desi Martini tried to be India’s Facebook — it was acquired by HT Media in 2007, but failed to scale and HT wrote off its investment. Guruji.com was a “search engine for India” backed by Sequoia Capital in 2006 — it was unable to compete with Google’s superior technology, failed to scale and eventually shut down. Seventymm, backed by substantial venture funding, tried to be India’s Netflix and also failed.

But it’s worth asking what’s different between the older crop of companies and the ones we see today. The obvious change is the rapid uptake of the mobile Internet and smartphones since 2008. Most Indians simply couldn’t afford to buy desktop or laptop computers, and pay for a monthly internet connection. Today, smartphones are available for a few thousand rupees and mobile data too is cheap enough, with telecom companies offering data packs and pay-as-you-go plans that allow even the lowest income groups to access the internet.

The broader story is about the rise of the Indian consumer — as I’ve written before, the US is the natural pioneer for consumer internet innovation because it is home to the world’s largest and most affluent consumer base, combined with an industrial commons in technology and engineering that is second to none. Russia and China don’t compete with the US because they are “walled gardens”, as Mahesh observed, and have very different cultural and language characteristics. In contrast, urban India is predominantly English-speaking and is also aligned with the US culturally. Whether its TV shows, Hollywood movies, English music, fashion or food, as India urbanizes, Indian consumer tastes are becoming more similar to the US, or loosely speaking, increasingly “westernized”.

The rise of the connected, aspirational Indian consumer who has a growing capacity to make discretionary spends is a robust and secular trend given India’s highly favourable demographics. In this sense, comparisons to the past are no longer relevant. This emerging consumer base will enable business opportunities in India over the next decade — including on the internet — that we cannot even imagine today.

One of the largest consumer markets in the economic history of the world is up for grabs, and the internet is a new distribution path to service that growing market. Venture funding is empowering first-generation entrepreneurs to create products and services for this new consumer. The global majors recognize the opportunity, and India-based internet companies are betting on it too. Just as Indian companies can’t cut-and-paste a model from abroad and succeed, even global internet companies cannot do a cut-paste job — the Indian market has its own quirks, and achieving success in India requires creativity and experimentation from all players, because everyone is in uncharted territory.

It can be debated whether valuations in certain cases are too rich, if private equity-funded startups can compete with well-established companies investing off their balance sheets, or whether some of India’s unicorns will be able to continue financing unprofitable growth — but debating such questions is very different from asserting that Indian internet ventures have no chance going up against global internet giants.

I think the opposite is true — the only country able to compete with the US on internet and technology innovation will be India, because only India has a large, growing consumer base and a comparable pool of technical talent. The challenge for India is to retain this talent at home, and attract talent from abroad. India’s open internet, compared to the “walled gardens” of Russia and China, will prove to be its strength in the longer run. The future won’t be like the past, as the expansion of the consumer base gives Indian startups the scale to build the next wave of the world’s great technology businesses.

Why Technology Matters For Sustainable Development

In his book Zero to One, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel addresses the distinction between globalization and technology. Globalization constitutes “horizontal progress”, he writes, or “taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere”; and China is the “paradigmatic example” of growth through globalization.

Technology, on the other hand, enables “vertical progress”, which Thiel argues is harder to imagine because it means “doing something nobody has ever done”. Moreover, while technology has for many come to mean information technology, there’s no reason to restrict its definition in this way, since “any new and better way of doing things” can be called technology.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been an explosion of entrepreneurship around the world. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have demonstrated their ability to create high-growth start-ups. Around the world, there are 70 or so private enterprises valued at above $1 billion, and Asia is home to 15 of them.

But most of these ventures are products of horizontal progress (going “from one to n”, to use Thiel’s expression) and not vertical progress (“from zero to one”). Strictly speaking, even internet giants such as China’s Alibaba Group and India’s Flipkart are not technology pioneers: their well-earned success has been in deploying and scaling a proven business model in their home market.

So far, China, India and other emerging markets have grown by adopting and adapting technologies and business models from advanced economies. But can economic growth be sustained and delivered through the globalization model alone? Large populations in Asia and Africa aspire to join the ranks of the middle class; bringing sustainability to so many people will take innovation across a wide range of industries, which have so far remained relatively untouched by the rapid pace of change affecting information and communications technologies.

There is an enormous amount of latent consumer demand across the developing world that will be difficult to meet without innovation. Consider the challenges in energy, healthcare and financial services, for example. Energy and power requirements are so enormous that meeting them with fossil fuel-based technologies would result in serious environmental degradation, as China’s experience is proving.

In healthcare, large sections of the poor are being priced out of the market for life-saving drugs, and the industry requires a more cost-effective drug development model, as well as new government welfare mechanisms to deliver medicines to the bottom of the pyramid without violating the intellectual property rights of drug innovators.

In finance, tens of millions of people remain without bank accounts and are cut off from the formal financial system. Rapidly evolving crypto-currency technologies such as the Bitcoin (combined with internet-enabled smartphones) can help widen financial access.

The scale of need across these and other industries is such that the globalization approach alone is not sufficient: new technology is urgently required. Entrepreneurs have to deliver innovations in multiple sectors, not just ICT-related industries, to be able to make a large-scale impact.

Finally, it is more difficult for entrepreneurs and investors in advanced economies to deliver such innovations because they are not close to the customer. Increasingly, entrepreneurs in emerging markets will need to take the initiative and attempt to do what nobody has done, because the problems in these markets will be problems that nobody has really solved before. Additionally, these will be problems that advanced economies don’t really have a stake in solving.

In other words, emerging-market entrepreneurs will need to think of how to go “from zero to one” in myriad industries if they are to deliver sustainable and equitable growth for their large domestic populations. It poses a serious risk for global economic growth, but also presents the entrepreneurial opportunity of the century. Innovators who square the circle will not only create substantial wealth; they will also have done a tremendous service to human society by helping millions transition out of poverty.

Originally Published: World Economic Forum

Bitcoin and Emerging Markets

In my op-ed for Mint, I write about the potential applications bitcoin could have specifically for emerging markets like India:

India’s banking and financial services industry has incumbents that are inert, sloth-like and highly risk-averse. The banking industry in particular is heavily dominated by public sector undertakings (PSUs). PSU banks still control approximately 80% of all deposits. The industry is rife with corruption and mismanagement, for government banks know that their owner will always bail them out. But this was not always the case—before Indira Gandhi nationalized banks with the stroke of a pen, over 85% of deposits in India were held by private banks. Since the nationalization of banking, all innovation in the industry has come to a standstill.

For 2013-14, 63% of the total number and 35% of the total value of retail transactions was electronic. Average electronic transaction value has nearly tripled in four years, according to data from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s banking regulator. But Indian banks cartelize and lobby their regulator to punish consumers with outdated usage practices totally out of tune with the needs of mobile transactions and electronic commerce. Instead of prodding the banks to improve their fraud detection and redressal systems, RBI simply makes it harder for consumers to transact and introduces artificial friction by way of two-factor authentication requirements so that banks get away without having to improve themselves.

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community.

An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement.

Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily.

Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Besides enabling transactions with reduced friction and at lower cost, there are certain applications of the protocol that can enable altogether new use cases. Cryptocurrencies can be used to write “smart contracts”, or contracts that are digitally written and require no third party for enforcement. The value of this application is difficult to overstate in an environment like India, which the World Bank ranks 186 out of 189 countries globally on the enforceability of contracts. Given the slow, dysfunctional judicial system and the paucity of social capital, individuals have historically preferred to do business with people already known to them, or people who are from their own community. An alternate approach, outside the present broken system, that offers “self-executing”, tamper-proof contracts and does away with the need for third-party intervention for mediation or dispute resolution, could be truly transformational for countries like India by collapsing business risks and transaction costs. Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin could help dramatically improve contract enforcement. Consider a bank that gives a secured loan to a person wanting to buy a car, on the assumption that the person will pay for the asset in a fixed number of monthly instalments over a period of time. If the person fails to pay the monthly instalment in any month, the bank reserves the right to take back the car. When a person has reneged on such payments, Indian banks have been known to send strongmen and professional bullies as recovery agents to intimidate and threaten customers and even the relatives of such customers. With an integrated software solution built into the car that verifies whether the monthly instalment has been deposited, a self-executing contract could remotely brick the car, making it inoperable by the consumer should he fail to make the payment. The software “key” to activate the car again would lie with the bank, which can then take possession of the asset easily. Another game-changing application for cryptocurrencies specific to the Indian context is in the area of remittances. In 2013-14, India received nearly $70 billion in remittances from abroad. The volume of intra-country remittances is estimated to be some Rs.75,000 crore annually. In this digital age, anachronistic and expensive modes of money transfer such as the money order persist. Not only would the cryptocurrency protocol applied to a large market such as remittances be lucrative, it would also be a tremendous service to millions of bottom-of-the-pyramid migrant workers, who have been able to get the latest smartphones for a low price, but are still deprived of cheap, efficient and user-friendly banking and money transfer services.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/lv9RU1qcTVEA3MKSCXQsUJ/Cryptocurrencies-can-transform-financial-services.html?utm_source=copy

Horizontal Progress vs Vertical Progress

In his new book Zero To One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes:

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization – taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today.

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology . The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Elaborating on the theme of Globalization as “horizontal progress” versus Technology as “vertical progress”, Thiel writes:

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up.

But I don’t think that’s true…most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

As I’ve written earlier, this is a fundamental dichotomy: while advanced economies have the knowledge base and networks to deliver such innovation, the market for such innovation lies in emerging markets.

Achieving higher resource efficiency and developing lower-pollution energy sources presents a considerable innovation challenge – and commensurately, an entrepreneurship opportunity. So far, major startup successes that have emerged from India and China have been adept at “globalization” – they’ve taken proven business models from abroad, and executed those models well in their own markets.

The “technology” successes, especially in non-software or Internet areas, have been few and far between – and there are some very good reasons for why this is so. The question is whether emerging markets can become economically developed by globalization alone. As Thiel writes, this won’t be possible – “globalization without new technology is unsustainable”.

Something’s got to give – either we have technological breakthroughs that enable sustained economic growth, or growth itself will become constrained. China is already facing enormous pollution and environmental issues – sample these news reports:

Air Pollution, Birth Defects and the Risk in China (and Beyond)

The pollution constraint on China’s future growth

Environmentalism with Chinese characteristics

China Needs Industry to Enlist in “War on Pollution”

India is a fair distance away from China – and it’s already “choking on air pollution”. So the question is, where will the innovation come from, and which startups will deliver “vertical progress” to help sustain growth in emerging markets?

Energy Innovation For Emerging Markets

Energy and clean technology investing has proven to be disastrous for venture capitalists. Capital allocated to clean tech fell to less than half in 2013 from the $3.7 billion invested in 2012, and new clean tech-focused funds were able to raise less than $1 billion last year, compared to $4.5 billion raised in 2012.

High-profile flameouts like Solyndra, A123 Systems, Konarka, Miasole, Better Place and Fisker Automotive have, appropriately enough, made investors very wary. Billions of dollars of equity has evaporated. Successes, such as Tesla Motors and Nest Labs, have been extremely rare.

Clean tech and energy, once touted as a fecund sectors for entrepreneurship alongside software, life sciences and the Internet, are no longer mentioned in the same league. Risk capital has dwindled dramatically, with prominent venture investors either winding down energy investing teams or retrenching significantly, content only with managing existing investments and not making new ones.

But why has clean technology blown a hole in investor’s pockets?

From questions about the suitability of cleantech for the venture capital investing model, to heated debates about the validity of climate change itself, which became a moral basis for the promotion of clean technology, many a rationale has been offered for why clean tech didn’t succeed in delivering investment returns. There is still no clear answer to why companies led by top-notch entrepreneurial operators and commercializing promising technologies met with spectacular failure.

It could be something more prosaic: clean technology companies and energy innovators have been in the wrong geographical market. Investors have unwittingly violated one of the maxims enunciated by venture capital pioneer Eugene Kleiner, who said; “Make sure the dog wants to eat the dog food.”

Take any metric – energy demand, fuel consumption, pollution, power generation growth, electrical grid development or water demand. Over the last decade, North American and European countries don’t figure on the list of the fastest growing markets for any of these.

Yet, clean technology companies have focused almost exclusively only on these developed world markets. The economies that have witnessed the highest growth in energy- and resource-related consumption are in emerging Asia, South America and Africa. Countries and cities in these regions also top global rankings for being the most polluted.

Does it make any sense to build windmills in Scandinavia or solar plants in Germany and California, when those regions already have relatively low levels of pollution and are fully electrified? As Europe is discovering, moralistic grandstanding cannot become the basis for innovation. This discrepancy represents a fundamental misallocation on a global scale of both human capital and financial risk capital.

The difficulty of commercializing innovation is compounded thanks to the cultural challenge innovators in developed economies face when working in emerging economies, which also inevitably have very different business climates.

Frequently, the geographical markets that are amenable to innovation in clean technology have regulatory risks and present far more challenging conditions for building businesses, as evidenced by their low rankings in the World Bank’s ease of doing business study.

This is an advantage “virtual world” businesses that are in consumer-focused Internet and mobile sectors have over others in that they have to contend with a lot less friction in developing markets.

Consider China’s situation. Tens of thousands of environmental protests are reported annually, millions of consumers live in extreme pollution and smog is destroying visibility – so it is easier to make the case for higher rates for electricity.

India’s growth has so far been predominantly services-driven. Manufacturing output has collapsed and saw negative growth because of unprecedented economic mismanagement by the current national government. This isn’t socially sustainable – as India promotes manufacturing and heavy industry to employ tens of millions of its youth, it’s inevitable that problems with pollution and environmental degradation will be exacerbated.

These are markets where one needn’t be moralistic about why clean technology is required. As the prospect of unlivable communities and unbreathable air looms large even in the most important urban centers, the economic logic for clean technology is self-evident.

Innovators outside these economies should take them a lot more seriously and find ways to overcome the cultural and business pitfalls of operating in emerging markets. There is also an unprecedented opportunity for inventors and entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build companies in clean technology.

A reallocation of financial risk capital and human capital towards where the clean technology and energy innovation markets are would go a long way towards solving the world’s sustainability challenge – and in the process, would also deliver far better returns for investors.

Originally Published: http://navam.in/1hmJSlU

Challenging Silicon Valley’s Innovation Hegemony

For several decades, Silicon Valley has had a near-monopoly on innovation. The Valley emerged out of America’s deep commitment to higher education and scientific research, combined with the American will to maintain leadership in defence technology. Through the second half of the 20th century, China was disastrously experimenting with Maoism, India was embracing Socialism, a fragmented Europe was rebuilding after the Second World War and the other superpower, Soviet Russia, was persisting with its Communist economic model. The Americans invested public and private capital in fundamental research and development, allowing private enterprise to drive economic growth and entrepreneurial small businesses to commercialize publicly-funded scientific research. America invented the venture capital model to commercialize such research.

It stood out as an oasis in a world where central planning and a state control of the economy was the norm. Owing to a liberal immigration policy, it became a magnet for talent from around the world. Scores of scientists migrated from Europe to America in the throes of the Second World War, including titans like Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein. Nobel laureates Hargobind Khorana and Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, both of whom completed their college education in India, also made America their home.

The migration of talent from other parts of the world to America continued through the 1960s and 1970s, with the best talent from China and India making the move, thanks to the economic havoc caused by the destructive ideas of Chairman Mao and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In this way, America managed to consolidate the world’s best scientific talent. It then gave them a platform and funding to invent and create. The scientists and engineers who went to America might not all have founded technology companies, but through their work at private research labs, government research institutions, universities and startups, laid the foundations for America’s technological prowess that underpins its military and economic might to this day.

It is important to recognize that this was a historical aberration and cannot be sustained by design — America positioned itself to benefit from the poor choices that the rest of the world made. A reversion to the mean is underway, and the tide has started turning over the last two decades. Besides increased economic and financial integration worldwide permitting capital flows on a global scale, economic reforms catalyzing sustained growth in Asia and the creation of a common market in Europe have fostered economic blocks that can compete with America.

Sector after sector has become more globalized. Venture capital investing, long the exclusive preserve of a clutch of firms on Silicon Valley’s famed Sand Hill Road and till recently heavily concentrated in the United States, is now unmistakably global. Risk capital flows to places that have talented people pursuing breakthrough business ideas — and sustained global growth over the last two decades has set the stage for a need for technological innovation across economies and geographies. The rise of the Asian consumer is creating opportunities for innovation in all kinds of consumer products. Transplanting ideas from elsewhere doesn’t always cut it with the taste and sensibility of consumers in Asian countries. With increasing consumption, there is a glaring need for efficiency in resource utilization and energy use.

Challenging economic conditions combined with more stringent immigration policies in developed nations have made it appealing for accomplished scientists and engineers from developing nations to return home, where in many cases there is stronger economic growth alongside a new focus on nurturing and financing science and technology. This has set the stage for venture capital investing in emerging markets.

America has a long lead, but the rest of the world is catching up. It will continue to maintain primacy in Internet innovation in particular because of the spending capacity of the American consumer. The Internet is a platform for consumption, be it consuming information which allows for digital advertising to flourish or purchasing products through Internet-based retailers. America’s consumption power allows it be the breeding ground for global Internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, and it will dominate in web innovation as long as the American consumer has clout.

New York-based venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently wrote about how the Valley’s dominance could be upended if there was a new wave of technological disruption, far separated from the computing and Internet industry on which the Valley has been built. Wilson said that should Silicon Valley miss such a new wave, it could look like Detroit in a few decades.

Just as a consumer-centric economy allows it to dominate Internet innovation, it also creates an insulation from innovation in non-consumer industries. The world has become a dramatically different place in the last few decades, and such innovations that define the next wave of technological disruption can come from any nation that has a sufficiently large pool of talented people working to solve the big challenges in energy, health care, clean technology and other sectors. That would weaken Silicon Valley’s grip on driving innovation — and further undermine America’s standing as a global power.

Originally Published: http://navam.in/1omJBAj

India’s Rapidly Evolving Technology Landscape

Most investors who have put capital behind consumer internet startups trying to build commoditised businesses will lose money.

India’s technology landscape can be characterized as having seen three waves of evolution and growth. The first wave was led by the likes of Tata Consultancy Services, Patni Computer Systems, Infosys and Wipro, who pioneered the outsourcing model based on labour cost arbitrage. These were firms founded in pre-liberalization India and took decades to establish themselves as global brands. The second wave occurred in post-liberalization India of the 1990s, when several IT firms adopted similar business models to the outsourcing pioneers. The small- and mid-sized enterprises that emerged during this period strengthened the foundation of India’s nascent software services industry and today form the backbone of that thriving sector. The third wave can be said to have begun with the advent of the Internet – startups such as Naukri.com, MakeMyTrip.com, InMobi and Flipkart.com who have emerged as category leaders in providing web services.

The common thread to the three waves has been the domination of the services-oriented software and Internet companies, and in recent years, the preponderance of ideas that have worked in the West that were repackaged to suit the Indian context. The fact is India has seen more imitation than genuine product innovation.

India’s technology industry has been dominated by IT and Internet firms, and venture capital investment figures for recent years bear out this trend. Since 2009, VCs have poured over $810 million into 113 deals in the software, mobile and Internet sectors. In contrast, early-stage health care and clean technology companies have received $292 million across 71 deals. It’s also interesting that average deal sizes are larger for early-stage companies in software and Internet than for health care and clean technology – one would have thought that the former is less capital intensive than the latter, and would hence require lesser capital to grow at the early-stage. By some estimates, India’s software and Internet ventures have been raising larger amounts of early-stage venture funding than American clean technology startups.

The data points to a clear mismatch both in terms of funding size and sectoral capital allocation. My hunch is that most investors who have put capital behind consumer Internet startups trying to build commoditized businesses will lose money. Most of these ventures are pursuing unsustainable business models. As if having imitators of American Internet startups wasn’t enough, we’ve seen imitators of Indian imitators of US Internet startups successfully raise funding. These ventures have almost no pricing power and hence almost no profitability. A fund raising arms race is under way, and the vast majority of startups will lose out as capital providers cluster around the top 1 or 2 category leaders.

In a more rational world, India’s VCs would bring together some of the outstanding engineers and scientists working at corporate research laboratories operated by Fortune 500 giants like General Electric, who are conducting key R&D work that is in many cases indispensable to the parent company. VCs should be willing to back stellar teams pursuing big ideas, and should invest capital in ways that harnesses the economics of outsourcing to deliver path-breaking innovation.

The data also tells us that more India-focused venture funds will be forced to look in places other than the tried and familiar Internet and IT sectors. Health care, clean technology and energy are mammoth markets that are relatively underserved and in dire need of early-stage capital, particularly for areas with substantial technology risk. Investors are beginning to recognize this, and several new funds have emerged that are both willing to look beyond IT and are comfortable backing early-stage ventures with $1-2 million.

The emergence of product-driven companies in sectors such as life sciences and clean technology in this decade will mark the fourth wave of the evolution and growth of India’s technology landscape. India’s talent base extends far beyond computer science and IT into fundamental sciences and engineering – it’s only a matter of time before risk capital connects with this talent base to deliver world-leading product innovation across more sectors. In order to achieve outsized returns, investors should skate to where the puck is going, rather than where it has been, to quote ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Originally Published: http://navam.in/1iL99U1

The Global Innovation Challenge

Rising unemployment and income disparity has shaken democracies across the Western world in the last year. Unemployment among young people in particular has been persistent and pervasive — the United States saw the highest ever youth unemployment in 2011, and it has reached as high as 45 percent in Spain. Job creation has suffered not just because of excessive debt. Advanced economies have seen a massive erosion in manufacturing, and new enterprises have been too focused on driving consumption.

Internet companies have mushroomed in Silicon Valley thanks to the low cost and ease of building products for the Web. They’re able to scale globally while maintaining a relatively low employee headcount. The year 2011 was a landmark one for Internet companies, with several start-ups going public and raising over $3.5 billion in the best year for initial public offerings since 2000. Among the biggest ones to do so in the United States were LinkedIn, Zynga, Groupon and Renren, a Chinese social networking site. And Facebook’s recent filing for a $5 billion public offering could make 2012 the best year for Internet I.P.O.’s since the dot-com days of 1999.

But all these companies thrive on aiding consumption, whether it’s through gaming, social networking or group discount buying.

In contrast, production-oriented technology sectors in health care, advanced materials and energy have had limited success in America. Most ventures in clean technology have absorbed large amounts of capital and have yet to show returns for investors. Many that have managed to grow, like A123 Systems, which manufactures advanced lithium-ion batteries, and Tesla Motors, aren’t very profitable. The success of consumption-driven Internet start-ups has left production-oriented ventures behind.

It’s technology that ensures equitable growth. Think of how mobile phones are ubiquitous across the developing world: there are over five billion cellphone users worldwide. Would it have been possible for all of them to have landline telephones instead? Would there be enough copper in the world to draw wiring to even the poorest day-wage laborers in India and China who today use cellphones? Even if the world had enough copper, could it all be mined quickly enough with limited environmental impact, and could it be devoted to laying telephone lines for a customer of meager means? Almost every modern day convenience that the West takes for granted will have to be re-engineered to make it cheaper and better for large-scale use in the developing world.

There’s a dichotomy here. The advanced Western economies aren’t able to create jobs partly because of their inability to compete with Asia when it comes to large-scale manufacturing, and this has in turn limited their ability to scale production-oriented technology companies. In the East, the emergence of manufacturing — and in India’s case, I.T.-outsourcing — has created higher incomes, a stronger consumer culture and the need for energy and resource efficiency. Rapid urbanization and industrialization in the developing world are irreversible trends. There are suddenly billions of consumers in Asia who can now aspire to the standard of living in advanced economies, and meeting this demand will require a giant leap of innovation across sectors like energy, chemicals, health care, transportation, water and materials.

But emerging markets lag in innovation because their entrepreneurship ecosystem, higher education institutions and research infrastructure are far less robust. Above all, entrepreneurship is celebrated in American culture and business failures aren’t looked down upon. Silicon Valley is the product of this culture — like French cuisine and Indian classical music, it cannot be cloned. As the world’s innovation engine, Silicon Valley should lead the way in commercializing game-changing technologies that can ease constraints on the world’s resources and enhance production. Instead, it has found more success in ventures for the consumer market.

But start-ups must be close to their customers, and there’s a case to be made that industrial and clean-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley have been hard-pressed for success because their real customers are in emerging markets. From an economic standpoint, climate change and resource efficiency are more the problems of developing nations. Moreover, as the bankruptcy of American clean-energy start-ups like Solyndra has shown, innovation that needs to be propped up by governments is difficult to sustain.

Similarly, consumer Internet ventures in emerging markets are only able to clumsily copy ideas from abroad. Though there is a rapidly growing middle class with Internet access in India and China, the United States still has the world’s largest and most affluent consumer base, making it a natural pioneer for consumer Internet innovation.

The Internet is challenging the hegemony of nations. An Internet start-up in any country can reach consumers worldwide because of the platform’s openness. But the same isn’t true for production-focused start-ups. Greater economic integration and free trade will help them globalize more easily. To foster innovation in production-oriented sectors, nations need to champion the freer flow of technology, labor and capital and create institutions and laws that promote the same openness. There needs to be a symbiosis between entrepreneurial talent, investment capital and sectors that are in need of transformational innovation. Only then will global economic growth be truly inclusive and harmonious.

Originally Published: The New York Times International Weekly

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