High on innovation

Written by Darlington Jose Hector | Updated: Oct 18 2013, 09:30am hrs
It was a windy day that brought the mercury down by a couple of degrees, and Bangalore, which was reeling under the spell of heavy monsoon, felt even cooler. "Why dont we all have some soup," suggested Gopichand Katragadda, waving at the bearer. It seemed like a good idea then, so we asked for some hot and sour chicken soup and some vegetable squash soup, as we sat down for a chat with the managing director of the GE India Technology Centre. "I did a lot of talking this morning. So, this could help," said Katragadda, as soon as the soups arrived.

Since its inception 13 years ago, over 2,000 patents have been filed by the centre, and Katragadda is a proud man who predicts even bigger achievements for GE in India. In the last three years itself, we have filed 1,000 patents based on inventions in India. We have built GE in India up to a place where we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any R&D organisation in the world. We are GEs largest setup anywhere in the world and we are producing intellectual property (IP) that is solving some of the toughest problems across the globe and in India.

Low-cost ECG machines, biomass gasification, baby warmers (a phototherapy system which uses LED technology) and wind turbines best-suited for Indian conditions have been some of the innovations that the centre came up with in the recent times. Affordable healthcare and distributed power are two segments that GE is partuclarly interested in. "We are working on reducing the cost of CT scanners and maximising value on the equipment which is produced in a large scale. In distributed power, we are also working on the usage of gas engines, apart from biomass, he says, as we slurp the last dregs of the soup.

At GEs technology centre in Bangalore, Katragadda heads a group of 4,500 scientists and engineers. About 90% of the work goes into products that have to get into the market in 1-5 years time. The remaining 10% is spent on projects with longer gestation, aimed at pushing the boundaries of technologyprojects on which GEs global research teams work in tandem. Like solid oxide fuel cells or sodium halide batteries. As we go forward, many of the things that we work on the five-plus years timeline should have India and similar regions as the test markets because this is where energy is being added, says Katragadda, an `electromagnetic sensors guy as he puts it. He holds five patents in his area of work.

In some areas, GE has been able to leverage designs developed for the Indian market in other countries, though it has not been able to sell them here yet. One example is steam turbine. Thats an area where we have developed a product for the market but because of coal being an issue at the moment, we still have not been able to sell any of our turbines here though we have sold outside. We have developed a design here for the 50Hz market with the idea that it will cater to India. Similarly, we would like to get our locomotives on to the Indian railway tracks, he says. GE is among the companies competing for the governments long-delayed diesel locomotive manufacturing contract whose tender process started earlier this year.

Katragadda, like many other scientists, believes that the term innovation is used in a casual manner these days. One has to look at finding new ways of creating value. But a lot of the time, people confuse making money with innovation. There are many ways of making mone, and they are all good. But, when you talk about innovation, there has to be some novelty. So, if you are a very good business with good revenue and profits by providing services which are well-known, and you are doing it with high quality levels and have good credibility, you are a successful organisation. But that does not make you an innovative organisation. Making money by itself is not innovation," says Katragadda. We are now ready for the main course. Pan-fried lady-fish and chips are ordered along with some whole wheat bread.

Jugaad maybe makeshift innovation, but it is not the kind that we need to be talking about to the world. We need to talk about a consistent, repeatable, scalable ways of taking creativity and making value from it. Jugaad is creative but if it cant be monetised, theres no business model," says Katragadda, relishing his fish.

Would that then rule out 80% of Indias businesses A light laugh before he answers. I would modify your statement a bit. Innovative companies actually create wealth for nations, not just for themselves or other companies. So, they create a trail because there are many other parts of the ecosystem being triggered by other truly-innovative companies, he says as he checks for coffee.

Healthcare is one area where the innovation ecosystem is thriving in India, he reckons. If you look at affordable healthcare, India is a go to place. If you go to a tier-1 hospital in India, you get world-class healthcare. At the same time, it is highly effective and efficient. So, business-model innovation is still an innovation. To give you an example of innovative use of technology: being able to use the camera on mobile phones and then transmitting it to a hospital to get data on diseases like jaundice is an innovative way of making healthcare more accessible. So, in that setting, where the technology barriers are not very high, I think we have good examples. Coffee arrives and there is some pause in the conversation.

Katragadda believes Indians to be among the most creative people in the world. Theres no question about it. But, taking that creativity, being persistent, going through all the hurdles to make it into either a product or a service and getting it into the marketthats where we are lacking. I would say that an idea is a very small portion of the entire innovation life-cycle, he says as he finishes his coffee. His book, Smash, is on the link between innovation and understanding market needs.

However, he says, Indias overall innovation ecosystem is not robust.

It is not. We do not have the right framework or ecosystem to drive breakthrough innovations. We are short on power and if you want to innovate, you need surplus energy. You need to have fabrication and manufacturing capabilities catering to innovators. So, whats happening now is people are trying to meet as much as they can on a distributed basis using diesel because the grid is not meeting the requirements. Thats not a very effective way of doing it. You cant scale your innovations up to the levels you want. Besides, its not environmentally friendly.

There is also the matter of finding the right talent. Heres where the industry-university collaboration becomes important. The difficulty here is the industry-university trust factor. Its not at the level where it should be. The recognition of IP, how it works and who gets IP rights, and how these things work globallythese need to be translated here. That will solve some of the problems. Universities also get a lot of funding from the government with very few or no strings attached. Thus, they are not in a mode where they think about deliverables. So, when we go with funds and say that you have to deliver this by such and such time, they are not willing to accept. We have done some great work with a few universities. But sometimes when I approach them, they are not very eager because it comes with deliverables. They think that it is a strings-attached scenario. That aspect needs to change."