What will it take for high tech startups to bloom in India

A few weeks ago, I heard the pitch from Team Indus which is the only Indian team competing for the Google X prize to launch a rocket to the Moon. In the process of competing for the prize, it is building the next generation aerospace company in India. I left the room with a lot of optimism in the future of high tech in India and with the thought – What would it take to see many more bold startups from India aiming for tech breakthroughs like advanced materials, super computing, blockchain technologies and space?

Nasa photos

Pic from: http://history.nasa.gov/ap11ann/kippsphotos/apollo.html

India has seen hundreds of consumer internet startups by founders who had just graduated. These 23-25 year olds understand the millennials and technology better than anyone else. They built startups that took advantage of the current technologies to define new business models. However, few ventured into advanced sciences, as high tech startups require people with doctoral and post doctoral degrees, research background and experience in the relevant field. Though Indian’s bloom and flourish in research labs outside India, few have built hi-tech businesses here.

The spawning of high tech startups in India could be driven by a trifecta of diverse forces. First, we need to create a higher education system that focusses on real innovation. India has very few institutes that are renowned for advanced research, so people who want to pursue research end up studying in the US / UK. Most end up working in high tech startups in the Silicon Valley and Cambridge, UK. To provide these talented people the opportunity, the Indian government must focus on building advanced education institutions on par with the best in the world and open up 100% FDI in higher education. There are examples of how this has been done. Saudi Arabia founded KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), a private post graduate research university that brings together the best faculty from around the world in areas of super computing, visualization, nano fabrication etc. The university has become the nucleus of research and development in the region.

Next, We need to bring together research and business ideas. The scientists and researchers at the various advanced institutes, like ISRO, IISc and HAL are our best bet to start up in the near term. These institutes must encourage their scientists to commercialize their ideas. Most accelerators are focused only on popular business models and consumer internet, which require little intervention. We need specialized accelerators for high tech businesses like the global aerospace business accelerator by Airbus in Bangalore. Government and industry must promote / incentivize many such accelerators that incubate technologies that take longer to gestate.

Finally, the Indian investors – both venture and corporate must build capabilities to evaluate high tech. Opportunities in this space have potential for very large impact and outcomes. Investors could form alliances with universities and foreign funds that have experience in advanced tech investing to understand the technologies. They can take cues from Israel’s venture capital and incubator industry that plays an important role in the booming high-tech sectors like material technology, medical devices and internet security.

With these forces coming together and the large domestic market, India will be among the best places for true innovation and commercialization. I hope to see the next breakthrough medical devices, AI robots and spacecraft designed and built in India.

Let a 1000 high tech startups bloom in India.

Moonshots

I believe every individual and business must focus a percentage of their resources on moonshots. Moonshots are experiments that strive to achieve what almost seems foolish to pursue, but if they succeed, it will not only make the experimenter a rockstar, but also further mankind’s quest for knowledge. Google uses a part of its resources for such projects, the driverless car and the Google glass can change the way we live in this world.

These investments are risky and enough knowledge and research needs to be done before jumping into your next product development, business expansion or alternative investments in real estate, art, angel investing and derivatives, but it is worth the effort for you and the society.