With the covid-19 pandemic impacting all industries across the world, there has never been a better time to channel and leverage our demographic dividend, data and demand through innovation for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). India has rapidly internalized the concepts and actions of innovation through a multidimensional national strategy, starting from the launch of the Make in India and Startup India initiatives, and the hugely empowering roles of the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) of the NITI Aayog, besides a plethora of sectoral incubators under the ministry of electronics and information technology, department of biotechnology and other ministries.
This is reflected in an extraordinary rise of India to the top 50 innovative countries up from its 81st rank just a few years back in 2015! The positive march of the startup culture, structures and processes will gain fresh momentum by institutionalizing the key message of covid-19 times in the working together of the industry, startups, academia and government, with clear and present objectives, and shared purpose and vision. Covid-19 has further triggered the innovations in science and technology, which are going to be a part of the system forever.
The innovation ecosystem will continue to build on the foundational programmes already initiated, and gain substantial further impetus within the framework of a new policy on science, technology and innovation, 2021, which is in its final stages of formulation.
While it is generally not well understood, invention and innovation are totally opposite processes, wherein inventions create new knowledge, while innovations transform that knowledge into new socioeconomic opportunities. It is thus vital that the invention and innovation ecosystems work together seamlessly to create and sustain a knowledge society and economy. Although our science and technology knowledge-producing systems, such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), research labs and universities, have deep strengths, the weakness has often been in the quality, relevance and direction of the knowledge produced, and its lack of strong connect with knowledge consumption led by the industry and other societal stakeholders. The unprecedented rise of the technology-led startup movement has provided a compelling link to joining the invention and innovation ecosystems at its back and front!
Starting 2016, the department of science and technology (DST) initiated a major directional shift in the startup ecosystem by enhancing funding by nearly five times and by launching a new scheme called the “National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovations (NIDHI)”. The key idea was to strengthen each vital link of the innovation chain since the strength of a chain is only as good as the strength of its weakest link! NIDHI addresses the needs of scouting, mentoring, networking and training of innovators; prototyping support; business plans; sustaining factors, such as fellowships and timely seed funding; and transition to manufacturing and market together with the creation of a network of technology business incubators. NIDHI has thus nearly doubled the number of DST-created incubators in the last five years with an emphasis on quality and empowerment.
A recent third-party assessment of DST incubators alone showed that nurturing of 3,681 startups through a network of around 150 incubators generated 65,864 jobs as direct employment, created new wealth of ₹27,262 crore, and produced 1,992 intellectual property in the last five years. The collective strength and power of NIDHI was tested successfully during the current pandemic through the “Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis (CAWACH)” programme, which supported over 70 startups with speed and scale to produce an array of relevant solutions in personal protective equipments (PPEs), N95-99 masks, ventilators, diagnostics and disinfectants, among other products.
(Ashutosh Sharma is secretary to the government of India, department of science and technology, Government of India. Views are personal and do not reflect Mint’s)