India needs more successful startups that are based on research

Second innings.
Second innings.
Image: EPA/Jagadeesh NV
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Indian startups are often criticised for lack of innovation. But there’s nothing wrong with that, says a co-founder of one of India’s most iconic IT companies.

Thirty-five years after setting up what is now India’s second-largest infotech firm, former Infosys CEO Senapathy Gopalakrishnan, better known as Kris, spends his days guiding young entrepreneurs.

A businessman for most of his career, Kris now pushes for research-backed startups, both in his personal capacity and as a trustee of Infosys Science Foundation, a not-for-profit Trust with a corpus of over Rs130 crore (over $20 million).

“My personal story is not about research, it’s about business. But today, I am encouraging research,” he said. “At Infosys Science Foundation, we support six areas: engineering and computer science, humanities, life sciences, mathematical sciences, physical sciences and social sciences.”

In an interaction with Quartz, Kris spoke about the need for Indian entrepreneurs to focus on research-backed startups, why it has not happened so far, and the need to make science cool.

Edited excerpts:

What do you think is more important for the growth of a startup ecosystem: research or commercial success?

There is no conflict between business and research. All researchers will not become entrepreneurs and vice versa.

If you want a research idea to benefit the society, you have to wrap it around a business. It has to go through a chain: research, which creates a new technology, which is converted into a product and taken to the common man. But not every business will go through this process because not every startup begins with a research idea. Someone could just start something like a tea shop, which has nothing unique.

India must encourage research because long-term sustaining value comes about if you have research as the primary driver for an industry. It is very difficult to defend a business like a tea stall because somebody else can easily copy it.

Did Infosys start as a commercial venture or were you research and innovation-focused?

We had an idea of remote software development and we wanted to create a business that leveraged that idea. So we started with developing software, putting it on tapes and shipping it. Gradually, technology allowed us to do all that in real-time and it scaled up.

Do you feel researchers today have more opportunities than you did when Infosys was launched?

Oh, there’s no comparison! India was a closed economy back then. But for us (Infosys co-founders), looking back does not matter now because we were very successful. The opportunity today is to make it easier for the current crop of startups. What India needs now is to improve the quality of research in its labs, increase the number of researchers, create the chain from research to business and make sure that government policy allows ideas to do well in our country.

Do you feel it’s wrong that valuations and funding hog the limelight over research and innovation?

No, there’s nothing wrong with that. What we do need is to create more success stories of startups that are based on research. Startups backed by heavy research are not getting enough attention and we need to help them.

India produces thousands of engineers every year. Why do we still lag in innovation?

Almost 95% of research in India is supported by the government alone. In that space, there were many unanswered questions, like who owns the intellectual property (IP), should the government allow you to commercialise, etc. However, now things are changing. Government-backed institutes now have IP policies. So if you want to commercialise an idea, you have a route to do that. Also, now there are incubators and private investors who will help you. These are all step-by-step changes which are pushing the rock up the hill. Hopefully, it won’t roll back and go over the top. Then we will have an avalanche on the other side.

Do you think there are sociological reasons that have worked against research in India?

India is a poor country. If anybody goes to study in a college here, his or her first priority is to get a job and take care of the family. That’s the priority of every middle-class or lower middle-class child and parent in this country. Research, unfortunately, is not that well paid.

You will see research taking off when the students have the comfort of spending five years doing research, without thinking how much money they are losing. This change will happen as our per capita income rises, private investment in research goes up, and there are more examples of research converting into businesses that make a tonne of money.

Is quality of Indian education a deterrent to innovation here?

There is clearly a need to improve the education system and bring in more experiential learning. Having said that, we haven’t really understood what intelligence is. Mugging up and being able to pass exams is also competitive. That’s also a skill. A lot of people have done very well in this system. (NR) Narayana Murthy is a product of the same system, and so am I.

We need to show students that science is exciting, lucrative, and cool. We are trying to do that through Infosys Prize. The prize money of these awards is quite substantial and can support a researcher well. Also, now there are some good examples of commercially successful businesses that are based on deep research. For example, Mu Sigma, it’s based on data science.

How patient are you with your investments?

Research is open-ended. When I wear my hat of supporting research, it’s philanthropy. When I invest in a startup, I am looking at a five-to-seven year timeframe to get returns. But when I am supporting research, I know it could be 10 years or even beyond that. Or research may even fail.