Wipro announced in May that it will open a technology center in Mountain View, California, to partner with startups in artificial intelligence and automation. And Infosys has just announced an investment in Palo Alto-based venture-capital firm Vertex Ventures, “to boost its access to startups focused on disruptive technologies”. Both companies seem to believe that setting up a Silicon Valley office or investing with a second-tier VC firm will help them survive the disruption their businesses face (Explained here: Why I Have Become Pessimistic About Indian I.T)
They are sadly mistaken.
To start with, successful startups in Silicon Valley see venture capital as a commodity. They pick and choose their investors and don’t give them the time of day. Being a small part of a venture fund that has a tiny share of ownership in a startup will certainly not provide access to ideas or technology, and is a waste of money. It’s an open secret that the majority of the Valley’s unicorns (i.e. companies with billion-dollar valuations) are imploding. Infosys and Wipro are coming to the party when it is about to end; instead of restructuring and reinventing themselves as they need to do, they are chasing rainbows.
The irony is that the biggest opportunities are actually at home. India added nearly 150 million internet connections via smartphones in 2014 and is the fastest-growing market in the world. By the end of this decade, virtually all of India will be online. This will allow it to leapfrog into the latest technologies and transform itself. Silicon Valley is beginning to recognize this opportunity; witness the rockstar reception that Prime Minister Modi received on his recent trip. Companies such as Apple, Tesla, Google, and Microsoft rolled out the red carpet because they see India as their market of largest growth.
Indian entrepreneurs are also not very far behind their kin in the US. They are mastering rapidly advancing technologies such as computing, sensors, artificial intelligence, and robotics. In medicine, for example, K Chandrasekhar‘s Forus Health has developed a portable eye-screening device, called 3nethra, that can detect cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and cornea-related problems; Kanav Kahol has developed the Swasthya Slate, a health device with 33 sensors for measuring BP, blood sugar, heart rate, blood hemoglobin, and urine protein and for diagnosing diseases such as HIV AIDS, syphilis, dengue, and malaria. These technologies are better than any I have seen in Silicon Valley.
In genomics, Anu Acharya‘s company, MapMyGenome, is performing world-class analysis of genomic data to provide insights into the genetic basis of many aspects of an individual’s health, including traits, lifestyle, drug responses, inherited conditions, and diseases. Team Indus, founded by Rahul Narayan, in competition with companies that had been funded by American billionaires and supported by Nasa and leading universities, won a $1 million X Prize for its lunar lander. There are dozens of other startups in India that are building AI technologies, drones, and robots. Even a large player, inMobi, has, with its data analysis and advertising technologies, leapt ahead of Silicon Valley.
The challenge Indian startups face is that Indian companies such as Wipro and Infosys don’t take them seriously. As in the Hindi expression “ghar ki murgi dal barabar”, they have an inferiority complex about anything Indian.
Yet, as Chandrasekhar, Kahol, Acharya, and Narayan have shown, Indian entrepreneurs can surmount the obstacles. I expect that over the next few years, in addition to health devices and lunar landers, they will leverage technologies to build:
- Digitally connected cities that monitor things such as traffic patterns, air quality, noise, radiation levels, and water quality, and manage pollution, waste, parking, traffic congestion, security, and almost every other aspect of a city’s functioning. These can be built inexpensively using sensors and computers.
- Sharing economies for products and services — to facilitate hire of laborers, technicians, maids, and painters and for tractor sharing on farms, jhuggi rentals, bike sharing, and seed swaps.
- Applications to automate public services — for booking railway tickets and monitoring train arrival times, analyzing government productivity and efficiency data, and providing virtually every other aspect of government services.
- Digital tutors and learning apps to transform education through technology.
- Precision agriculture — through CRM-like (customer-relations management) systems for logistics and production; sensors that monitor soil humidity and optimize watering and fertilizer usage; and applications for educating and connecting farmers.
- Digital manufacturing plants using robots, AI, and 3D printers. Instead of replicating China’s labor-intensive and destructive manufacturing, India can leap forward by applying automation to such tasks.
These are just a few of the areas in which technology will transform India and create billion-dollar opportunities, which is what India’s IT industry should be looking at. These opportunities will help them reinvent themselves and they can then help western businesses make the same transition.