Serious attempts needed to kickstart product companies across the country
If all the steps being taken towards Make-in-India result into positive outcomes, we might end up as a manufacturing superpower in a decade or so. But that does not mean the country will have become the hub of product innovation by then, at least giving some serious competition to China. All the Make-in-India products that we will see in the next few years will be local assemblies of products designed and developed elsewhere.
This is why the government as well as a bunch of other agencies are trying to creating a climate to trigger innovation in India. At the moment, entries are open for an Innovate for Digital India Challenge powered by chip-maker Intel and backed by MyGov as well as the Department of Science and Technology. The idea is to be able to handhold at least 10 teams till they are able to come up with products that try and solve Indian problems. Intel vice-president Debjani Ghosh says that while there is a decent cash dole for the short-listed, Intel engineers will also give all the technology support needed to bring a product to the market.
That will be crucial given that none of the hardware innovations out of India have really been successful. There are a few that have evoked interest globally, such as Lechal (a smart shoe that was initially developed for the blind) and Fin (a ring that let’s you control smart devices). Since none of the products are still available off-the-shelf, you can imagine the kind of challenges their creators must be facing. Another product that comes to mind is an over-the-top content-streaming device called Lookup, which has, in the last three years, evolved into something far less innovative and exciting than what the makers set out to create.
Somewhere I tend to believe the statistic that countries with a high penetration of computers tend to do well when it comes to hardware innovation. Sadly, India is still at the bottom of the pile when it comes to PC penetration. Of course, we have much more smartphones that most companies have people, but some like Ghosh are rightly worried that we are not using them gainfully and are more worried about being able to access entertainment or social networks without much hindrance.
But that does not mean Indian companies are unable to innovate. While there are hundreds of Indian-led startups across the world that are creating world-class software and apps, there are some hardware companies also in the offing.
I recently happened to meet Mahesh Lingareddy, the co-founder, vice-chairman and CEO of Soft Machines, a late-stage pre-revenue silicon startup which now has over 250 employees and is valued at over $700 million. Soft Machines’s success so far comes from its successful demonstration of its CPU technology based on a 28nm prototype System on Chip (SoC). “Our first silicons are aimed at smarphones, tablets and ultrabooks, while the second one will be for more high-performance devices like desktops. We are also working on two more chips for servers, cloud and high performance computers,” he says, showing the first prototype silicon created by this fabless company. However, what could be more interesting for India is the fact that Lingareddy wants to leverage this ultra-efficient chip to create the foundation of a truly Indian product startup.
Interestingly, he has a team of over 50 people working on a stealth-mode project for kickstarting an “aggregated platform company” out of India. The plan is to raise $100 million to support internal R&D as well as to fund various other product-focused companies that could leverage the platform.
“We wanted to launch what would be the MediaTek of India a few years back. But then we realised there would be no one to sell it to in India. That is when we started thinking if we can build a Samsung-like company out of India and what it will take. We have taken this to the next level,” he says, without divulging details. He is clear that Make-in-India should not be just about manufacturing but about making new products also and we have to solve innovation infrastructure issues like access to risk capital and market maturity to grow in this space.
However, that is still a distant dream till Indian startups begin to look beyond the low-hanging fruits offered by software innovations. They need to take a hard look at hardware for sustainable success.