Intel India president Kumud Srinivasan, who is steering the company’s innovation and R&D efforts, feels the government could further incentivise research to make the country an R&D powerhouse. In an interview with Darlington Jose Hector & Vidya Ram, she dwells on the importance of developing a culture of innovation in India and also the need for moving up the R&D value-chain. Edited excerpts:
You started your journey at Intel 28 years ago. What changes have you been seeing at Intel and what has driven those changes?
Today, our vision statement is if it connects and computes, it is done best with Intel. That has taken us into all the new markets and positions us to continue to explore markets as they come up. If you look at drones and robotics, we see them as categories with huge opportunities because they are going to be computing-intensive. Our vision compels us to look proactively at our presence in those markets—that itself is a bit of a change because there was a time when essentially we used to say that we will play only in markets where the profit margins are big and today we don’t do that, today we say wherever, no matter what the profit margins are, if it computes and connects, it does the best with Intel.
Inside the company, we have got different market segments, with high as well as low profit-margins, and we need to be able to compete in all of those because mobile market segments essentially call for products that are coming in at a high frequency. Development methodology is changing as a result and we are learning how to do things faster and cheaper and that brings with it the cultural changes that we would like to see.
Can you elaborate on your new project, Makers Lab, meant for local entrepreneurs?
It is still in the making right now, but the idea is to use the Makers Lab as an incubation centre of sorts, to encourage hardware innovation; we will partner with incubation centres around the country so that we can plug into a very important aspect of innovation for Intel.
There was a debate over Infosys founder Narayana Murthy saying that India is not innovative enough. What’s your view on that?
First of all, I admire Murthy for being as straightforward as he was in that talk. I am not an avid student of India’s contemporary history to be able to comment on the merit of his statement, but I think it is important for us to look at ourselves and form a clear view of the role that we are playing on the global stage. In the last few decades, the IT sector, with a focus on services and a clientele that was largely located abroad, became India’s calling card. The start-ups that we are now talking about are focussed on product development and a customer base that is largely inside India. Bringing it closer home and talking about Intel India, I think that there is more that we could do. When we first started 15 years ago, we were primarily in a staff augmentation mode, and since then, we have been slowly moving up the value-chain. We have owned functions; from that, we have moved to owning engineering, and in some cases, to owning products. These days development themes have become so global that it is very difficult to own anything in India from end-to-end.
So, is there an impediment preventing people from taking that responsibility?
I don’t think there is any impediment other than our own selves, our own expectations of the role that we play. People say it is cultural, but maybe a quick comeback on that is after all, Indians go from India to the US, and look at the start-up scene there today! It is populated by many Indians. So, obviously, whatever cultural baggage those guys had, they were able to get rid of. We should be able to create an environment here that allows us to do the same thing.
Can you give us some examples of the innovation happening in the R&D lab in India?
Last year, we introduced a product that had been in the works for the three years before it. We call it the Intel sensing platform and it can be used as a vertical for several different kinds of verticals, in an internet-of-things (IoT)-like manner. It is like a mobile health solution. There is an end-device—to that extent it is a variable-cum-IoT solution—that can be used to plot ECG and measure blood sugar, and then it uses the same component as an IoT solution would, taking the data using the end-product so that the sensor senses it through a gateway that essentially uses the phone as a platform. Then, it pipes it to the cloud.
This mobile health solution sitting on the Intel platform was the very first mobile solution that was taken to the market. So, we have that innovation group here and last year we took one of our standard SOC (system on chip) and we value-engineered it to come up with a cost reduced version of it, we did that among the teams from China and India and we came up with a whole new version which became a part of the Intel roadmap. So, we have created solutions for the local market as well as the global market.
How big is the R&D team in India?
We have got around 6,900 employees now in India, and 70% of the workforce is in R&D. So, it is really our primary focus.
How difficult is it to hunt for talent? What is Intel’s strategy to get the best talent?
Getting people with the right skills and talent is not a challenge. The challenge is getting people who are good in other skills like communication, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. So, I speak to batches of college graduates that we hire on a regular basis and invariably I will ask them questions about me and there is just this silence—that is indicative of the gap that they have to overcome when they join a company like Intel because risk-taking is one of our six values at Intel and risk-taking manifests itself in ways as small as that. We have a strong internship programme; in fact, of the 300-400 interns that we take, we convert more than 50% into employees. We don’t restrict ourselves to tier-I colleges, we go to tier-II and tier-III colleges primarily because we don’t get the diversity that we want, otherwise. About 30% of our new hires are women and it’s not unusual to find that in tier-II and tier-III colleges, 50% of the students are women.
You are also involved in the Clean Ganga project. What is that about?
We have committed to playing a role in the Clean Ganga project. We are working with a system integrator (SI) who will help us take it to the market. In the Clean Ganga project, we will bring all of the different pieces that we can in putting an IoT solution in place. It is part of the Digital India umbrella for us.
The proliferation of start-ups has suddenly changed the landscape in India and they are getting funded easily these days. One gets the feeling that start-ups are much more innovative and nimble whereas the larger firms are not so.
And here we are talking not just about Intel, but also about other large MNCs as well. So, obviously, the truth is somewhere in between…
There is some truth to the fact that larger companies have to strive to keep their innovation gene functioning. Many studies show that as companies get bigger and age, the culture tends to become more conservative. So, I think there is some truth to start-ups being nimble and more risk-taking.
But, in terms of what you see in the media, the evidence of the R&D work we do over here remains rather ignored, because it is a part of the global supply-chain and it is very difficult to discern its impact in a particular country and that is not going to change anytime soon. We are indeed going up the value-chain and moving into strategy ownership. Here, we have an opportunity for us to take our R&D to the next level, across MNCs. We have been talking to folks in the government to see if it resonates—and it does resonate. The reason it resonates is because everybody understands that actually R&D and design in India is the best way to leverage what we have been able to achieve in the IT sector so far. We can make India an R&D powerhouse. That would require the government to offer more incentives. While one may say that the government has come out with a lot of incentives, they are not tailored to MNC-captive R&D centres.
What do you think will represent growth for Intel in the next five years?
We want to continue being a relevant player in all new areas of development. We must move beyond execution into strategy ownership, and that is not going to be a simple thing for us to do. At the same time, it is going to be the crowning glory.