CHENNAI: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Tucked away on a leafy college campus in this booming city of 7 million is a fiery, 54-year-old professor who wants to change the way India does business.
Ashok Jhunjhunwala doesn't teach business or accounting. He teaches engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, one of the universities that helps make up India's world-class system of technical schools.
The IITs, as they are known around the globe, have a long history of turning out top engineers. Thousands of their graduates have flourished in the global technology marketplace, with a good portion landing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many have also stayed home, or returned to India, to help fuel the world's fastest-growing tech economy.
But now academics like Jhunjhunwala — along with the country's business leaders — want more for their students than good jobs. They're hoping to instill in their graduates the spirit of innovation and incubation that has been the earmark of Silicon Valley for decades. They want to use technological invention to help India ascend.
To put it bluntly, India is sick and tired of simply cranking out the world's best engineers. It now wants to create the world's best ideas.
To do so, it will borrow heavily from the model perfected in Silicon Valley, where the academics of Stanford mix with bankers and business experts to create opportunity. Not surprisingly, many of the top supporters of IIT's push into “entrepreneurism” are the very graduates who found their way to the Bay Area over the past 20 or 30 years. The lessons they've learned are now being passed back to their alma mater.
“IIT always undervalued innovation,” said Jhunjhunwala, his tone somewhere between disappointed and indignant. “That's changing, and so is our culture. You have to have the confidence and the ability to innovate. What's great about the US is they allow you to fail.”
And, in a weird way, learning to fail could be the key to India's future. The theory goes that fostering an entrepreneurial climate will help the country overcome its widespread social problems, mostly centered on poverty and illiteracy. The Indian intelligentsia believe deeply that the solutions to these basic dilemmas will come from enterprise rather than government.
But that's not the only motivation. From a pure business standpoint, innovating and creating its own Microsofts and Ciscos logically stands to benefit India's place in the global marketplace.
For more than a decade now, this country's technology environment has been built on cost arbitrage — or, in plain English, cheap labour. And while that has served India well, lifting the economy at a pace matched only by China, the next level of global competitiveness lies in creating markets, rather than serving them.
So professors like Jhunjhunwala are creating business incubators and helping students grow into entrepreneurs, fighting to foster a risk-taking, innovative culture that could rival Silicon Valley's someday.But as in any good fight, there is resistance.
Halfway across the IIT campus in Chennai, a city formerly known as Madras, M.S. Ananth sits in his well-appointed office overlooking the campus, considering the direction his star professor is taking over in the electrical engineering department.
Ananth is a chemical engineer by trade but a philosopher by personality who finished his graduate work at the University of Florida. He likes to say things like, “Education is the art of living gracefully in ignorance.” He's a traditional academic who wonders about the role business should play in academia. And he happens to be Jhunjhunwala's boss, serving as director of IIT Madras for five years.
Primarily, Ananth is concerned that US academic models are creeping into the IIT system. He worries that “people who are bringing in money are getting more and more important. That worries me about the US graduate schools.” And it's beginning to worry him about IIT, as well.
“As teachers, we were taught that once you learn something, you go to class and tell people about it,” said Ananth. “Now, you go and patent it.”
The concern is that profit motive will supersede the search for knowledge, a notion that academics in the United States wrestled with in the 1960s.
At Stanford, businesses stemming from academic research are so common that the university doesn't even have a formal business incubator. Entrepreneurship is baked into the culture.
Rajeev Motwani, a Stanford computer science professor and a 1983 IIT graduate, understands where the director is coming from but doesn't see any real threat.
“I don't see anything improper in it,” said Motwani. “The IITs are doing the right thing. They have to jumpstart the process. And one way to do it is to create an institutional incubation process. It's good for society at large. The only catch, I suppose, would be conflicts of interest. Are academic principles being violated? It's a question, but I'm not concerned about that.”
Despite his misgivings, Ananth is not in denial. He understands the IT boom has created entrepreneurial possibilities never imagined by chemical engineers of his generation. And so he is overseeing the creation of a research and development park on the grounds of IIT Madras, where 620 acres of "academic land," as he put it, will be transformed into a centre where private industry can intermingle with academic innovation.
“Research parks have made tremendous contributions,” said Ananth. “But you must maintain the academic environment. The university is a place where you look for unity in concepts.”
And it's also a place where young students hope to change the world.
Whatever tension may exist on a theoretical level at the IITs is less evident on a practical plane. Jhunjhunwala and some of his colleagues, for instance, recognized that his university did not want to get into the venture capital business. So, true to his philosophy, he innovated.
The professor created a business incubator called the Tenet Group to help foster technology startups. But, in a classic Indian twist, the mandate is quite different than what you might find on Sand Hill Road.
Rather than trying to build the next Yahoo or Google, hoping to serve the world, Tenet's entrepreneurs are hoping to serve the needs of rural India.
As Jhunjhunwala put it: “We formed Tenet with the objective of taking IIT students to the next level. We also decided to focus on rural areas, where 700 million of India's 1.1 billion people still live. We're trying to show that innovation can happen in our own markets. In doing so, we're coming up with new ideas to help the nation.”
Walking around the group's offices, which are integrated into the IIT campus, one can see many examples of this “socially conscious entrepreneurship”:
— Midas Communications Ltd., one of the earliest Tenet companies, has grown to deliver telecom services to millions across India using breakthrough wireless routing. The company employs 600 in Chennai and does business in 25 other countries.
— Oops Private Ltd. is creating ways to bring video conferencing to remote villages, using the low-end technologies available. Oops has figured out a way to do video conferencing on bandwidth as low as 20 Kbps, allowing kids to attend classes with teachers hundreds of miles away.
— ReMeDi Ltd. is using similar bandwidth optimization technology to help villages that have no doctors. And they're delivering the systems for the equivalent of $250 (Rs11,070).
The list goes on. Low-cost weather stations. Rural ATMs that cost about $1,200 compared with the usual $10,000 to $15,000. Thin-client computers that cost about $100. It's all coming out of an IIT system once derided for a lack of innovation.“India was dormant,” said Jhunjhunwala. “Now it's growing. But the rural areas are being left behind.”