Thursday, September 29, 2011

One group’s effort to bridge the Invention Innovation Continuum

The National Academy of Agriculture Research Management (NAARM) in Hyderabad kicked off a 3 day “Mega Meet on Technology Commercialization” today (September 29th, 2011). I was invited to the Inaugural Session and came away impressed by the enthusiasm and belief that was expressed by the speakers. It is not as if the Agriculture Sector has the buzz of a high powered VC convention but I went along because I have a view that it is a sector that is very important to this (and other) country(ies) and wanted to get a first hand impression of what some of those who very much believe in developing the sector think. That they were expected to discuss the commercialization of technology with its implications for all sectors was an added incentive. While there was no mention of financing issues except in a tangential sense;  I came away from the meeting further motivated and incentivized to – once I have developed a broader understanding of financing issues in India - apply my mind to financial solutions in this sector and in the area of technology commercialization. Not so much because there is a need, there is no doubt there is. More so because I got the sense that the people in that room were committed. They did not appear to be there for a 3 day vacation but to roll up their sleeves and try and structure ways and means of commercializing technology in the agriculture space. Scientists, inventors, farmers (and farmers that were inventors), Intellectual Property experts, business managers, academics and others were going to sit down together, work shop-style and evaluate some inventions (and innovations) and discuss as to how best to commercialize them. Their intention is to then take some of the best ideas forward (bridge that continuum) by forming a council that would over time, after the work shop, guide the commercialization of the technology and products. I wish them well and will attempt to follow their progress.

What follows are some salient points made by the speakers and a couple of websites well worth noting. Please do Google some of the speakers as it will give you a better sense of their motivations and abilities.

The central message in the speech by DSK Rao, Director, Agribusiness Knowledge Center, NAARM, was that customers were the key. A very well-made point and one that has to be the key. Does not every Angel Investor or Venture Capitalist feel comfortable knowing their business prospect actually has customers? The point DSK Rao was making therefore was that the group that was gathered had to come up with intelligent ways to get the products successfully commercialized and to realize the importance of positioning the product in the market. He also gave some examples of seemingly good products not getting traction: one was when he compared a multi-protein chappathi that found no buyers while people paid a lot to eat pizza; another was the hard time a person who bottled coconut water had in competing with the aerated drinks available in the market.

Dr. A.S. Rao, Director of Innovations at the Center for Innovation, Incubation, and Entrepreneurship at IIM Ahmedabad spoke about how the invention and innovation landscape has changed. He noted that “in the early days” an innovative product would be show-cased at an “extension center” and those who wanted to or could replicate it, would. He contrasted that with the current world of intellectual property (neither good nor bad – but different). He spoke of the various sources of invention: from inventions that were not for the general domain (example atomic power) that one arm of government would invent and another arm of government use; to the DRDO India (Defence Research and Development Organization) that develops products that can also be produced by private industry and used commercially (or lead to that); to the Universities that develop inventions (Dr. Rao noted that many leading western universities had Knowledge Transfer / Commercialization Centers); to “garage-based” scientists (which would include farmer-inventors).
Dr. Rao spoke about the NRDC (National Research Development Council) that intended to help commercialize technology by buying the technology, selling the license to the technology, and sharing the proceeds with the developer of the technology. Dr. Rao noted that the model did not work well and suggested that the cause was a flawed model. He then spoke of Intellectual Ventures ( which has a similar purpose but which is more successful (and which has invested in India as well). According to their website, “ we invest both expertise and capital in the development of inventions. We collaborate with leading inventors and partner with pioneering companies. By providing access to our portfolio of patents, we help our customers innovate and reduce their risk by Bridging the Invention Gap™ between the invention rights they currently have and the invention rights they need.”.

PVA Rama Rao, the ex-Managing Director of NABARD (National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development) spoke of the failed government institutions and policies. He noted for example that Extension Centers (which appear to be “field” Knowledge Centers) often do not have personnel, equipment or both! He also noted that in his view government policy appeared to be based on convenience when it should be based on compulsion.
Rama Rao’s central view was that Food Security was a key issue for the country. He noted that barring an aberration last year, food production in India was about 200 million metric tons while we needed a further 25% in a few years time to have Food Security. He was therefore keen that issues be tackled with a sense of urgency; and that the PPP model be made into the PPPP (the fourth P being Panchayat) model to better ensure adoption of solutions to the sector’s issues.

Ms. C.S. Ramalakshmi, IFS, Commissioner of Sericulture, Andhra Pradesh spoke quite forcefully about a few issues.
1)      She made the point that when technologies or sectors are scheme and subsidy driven they often fail when those crutches are removed. (She did not offer a solution but I think that this is a point worth thinking about – how does one give the support but ensure success when the crutches are removed?).
2)      She spoke about the failure of a government-led scheme (cannot remember the name) for composting that was a failure because it proved costly to farmers and the government wanted their process to be followed without any amendments by the farmers. She noted that consequently “thousands of units were sanctioned but not installed”. Comes back to the point about customer need and involvement DSK Rao also made.
3)      She spoke about NREGA being something that we have to live with even though it resulted in increased labor cost. She noted that sericulture was a labor intensive industry and that therefore it was even more imperative that productivity be increased through innovation. She gave the example of a farmer in Chitoor who designed an elevator cum trolley to transport mulberry leaves to feeding silk worms and noted that the invention reduced that farmer’s need for labor. Her point was that machinery could (and in her mind, should) be locally produced and customized at the farmer level (“if individuals can design their own sarees and handbags today why cannot farmers customize their machinery?”) since different farmers have different needs and a given farmer’s needs are not static over time.
4)      She noted that China exported a lot of silk and produced a lot of bivoltine silk (from the internet I was able to learn that this strain of silk worm, as opposed to multivoltine, has less quality issues) and that India had issues with the production of bivoltine silk due to cooler temperatures and lower humidity (the mulberry leaves dry faster and that is a problem). Yet farmers were finding indigenous localized solutions to increase their ability to produce bivoltine silk. She also pointed out that Japan made the best silk but technology transfer from there was too costly so the Indian silk industry developed solutions locally. Her point was that innovation was not the problem, replication was.
5)      She said that to ensure replication, customization of machinery (increase in productivity) etc. entrepreneurship was needed. She stressed though that the technology must be validated by the farmer. The point was that the end-user need to test the idea and rate its usefulness. She then closed by saying that it was therefore good to see actual farmers in the room and pleased that they were a part of the workshop on the commercialization of technology.

Another point well noting is the website This organization aims t “take Indian inventions from the lab to the market”. Its founder, Arpit Agarwal was a part of the workshop.

Overall, my impression is that the problems in the sector will not be solved soon but that if well thought through, this group has the potential to start finding solutions to the commercialization of technology in the agriculture sector. I  wish them the very best.