Closing the Gaps in the inclusive Innovation Ecosystem:
The innovation ecosystem has to be more inclusive to accommodate the aspirations of rural or small town innovators and start-ups. Several reforms and improvements have taken place in the recent years to give push to the emerging innovative technological solutions. However, several changes or improvements still remain to be tried and/or institutionalised. Let me list some of these from the perspective of boosting public procurement as an incentive to scale socially useful solutions by start-ups/ lab scientists/grassroots innovators but suggestions will apply to other entrepreneurs as well.
In the light of STIP discussion, these suggestions might have relevance. I discuss fouir issues how to modify the current framework of STIP draft and procedures to give impetus to startup movement and enlarge the entrepreneurial landscape: a) Large scale user trial, b) validation and testing by public agencies, c) generation of data for regulatory approvals after efficacy has been established, and d) public endorsement of solutions that meet the standards that exist or creation of new standards and certification according to those benchmarks.
- Large scale user trials for innovative technologies
Before any public procurement process can start, it is completely understandable that public authorities will ask for data of large scale trials for ensuring that solution is fit for public procurement as well as for private applications. The large scale procurement not only requires financial support but also institutional support. In the case of drugs and vaccines, the clinical protocol trials have been well established. With regard to medical devices or non-medical technologies, say water filter or malarial prevention kits or dermal cream for saving workers from the adverse effects of pesticide, etc., mechanisms and funding windows for large scale trial remain to be developed. In each case, the solution has to be tried preferably by public institutions at large scale with an oversight of experts and data of high quality. For a small innovator, who does not have a large investor support, meeting such institutional requirements may be very difficult. How do we create a platform for such rigorous evaluation of solutions? There are four ways not mutually exclusive which can be tried for the purpose:
- A technology which meets the sufficient requirements of robustness and efficacy at lab level is selected for public funded large scale trial with the provision of subsidized supply of a given number of pieces for meeting the public need after approval.
- Public funding of large scale trials, say under public health authorities or Primary Health centre or Krishi Vigyan Kendra under a full-fledged grant for the purpose with no constraints about subsequent sale in the market to private or public users.
- A new authority is created supported by public research organizations under ICAR, DBT, CSIR, ICMR and Earth Sciences ( with possible private sector participation if desired) for executing these trials through public/CSR funds with a small equity in the future cash flow of the technologies.
- Providing only institutional support with full cost being borne by the innovator with no obligation except willingness to provide the product or services to authorities at a reasonable price.
In all the four cases, the institutional support is imperative and only the financial cost and infrastructural support have to be provided under varying conditions of future supplies of the innovative solutions and/or a part of revenue therefrom. It is understood that the protocol of trial will have been approved by the regulatory authorities so that they do not ask any new data which was not disclosed before trial. Those who want to meet international standards may on their own collect additional data that may be required by various target countries. In the true sense, except during Covid-19, when large scale procurement of testing kits, PPEs, ventilators took place from public and private entrepreneurs/agencies on a fast track basis due to emergency, there have not been many such cases. Without public procurement at pilot level followed by large scale utilization, low cost diagnostics, assistive devices or other solutions well recognized by public institutions and in many cases funded by public authorities may not scale. The conditions of Primary Health Centres, quality of public water supply, sanitation and numerous other services have a huge of scope modernization by incorporating new solutions. The government rules for public procurement also need further modification. Under GFR [Government Financial Rules], a provision was made that three years balance sheet may not be insisted. But the process of getting bank guarantee or financial assistance to manufacture products against future payments ( often with delay) has not been streamlined. If the efficiency shown during Covid-19 can be sustained during normal period, a lot of problems would be solved. But it is well known that bureaucratic efficiency evident during emergency tends to get diluted during normal times due to pulls and counter pulls in the system.
I would propose that young entrepreneurs and small companies may need advance payment against the future supply to encourage rapid manufacturing and deployment of innovative solutions in the public systems. The translational speed of technologies will increase manifold with such a support. Exceptions apart, even public institutions lack funds for large scale on-farm or in-workshop or user level trials through a high quality market research agency. It is alright to bemoan that solutions don’t flow fluently as they should to the field, but it is a totally different situation when we try to assess the available pathways, institutional mechanisms, and resources for meeting such an urgent and important need.
In agricultural research, the discipline of extension has evolved to bridge this gap. But in industrial technologies, we did not have very efficient and dynamic distributed mechanisms for trying solutions for waste management, energy conservation, water conservation, worker safety, productivity improvement, etc., at a very large scale in different industrial clusters. It was expected that if solutions are good, the industry will come forward to demand the solutions. However, such has not been the case in 90 per cent of the cases. The hunger for innovations, I may be pardoned for saying so, has been low in even many large-scale industries. At the same time, the outreach processes of technology transfer offices of the labs/start-ups also need to be considerably strengthened. We have to accept that majority of the R&D in almost all sectors except electronics and a few other related disciplines is still pursued in public sector and/or by young startups.
Validating and testing by public agencies:
Thanks to the initiative of the Principle Scientific Advisor’s office, many public labs now disclose the cost and services available for testing at various labs. However, one has to go a few steps forward to provide facilities approved by regulator for validating and testing various kinds of technologies. I-STEM is a very good start: “I-STEM (Indian Science, Technology and Engineering Facilities Map) is a National Portal, which assists researchers to locate the specific facility (ies) they need for their R&D work. The portal also assists in shortlisting and identifying the facilities based on distance and time of availability.” It is not enough to know the facility. One also should know the time required for different tests and validity of different types of reports by different regulatory agencies and for different purposes. This will help the regulator as well as the entrepreneur in ensuring compliance with the public requirements and thus reduce transaction costs of all concerned. In fact, ideally one should also know the time slots available and the person to be contacted for different kinds of tests so that one doesn’t face difficulty in locating the right place, person, cost and time. While validation of technological innovations, the confidentiality of the data will have to be maintained. There may also be opportunities for improvement of technology. It is upto the research and testing institutions to offer advice for improvement of the solution freely or at a given charge. Such support for fledgling startups can also be part of what is now called as scientific social responsibility.
- Generation of data for regulatory approvals
This is one of the costliest steps in the translational chain of an innovation to a market journey. Most investors feel shy in investing at this stage. BIRAC thus provides some support for the purpose. But, this problem exists in all the scientific and technological domains. The data generation also involves ethical clearances, risk assessment, insurance cover for mitigating them and other incidental consequences. For a young startup to be able to meet all these requirements in time and with sufficient rigor may not be easily possible for want of funding and institutional support. A tested and validated technology may need data to demonstrate its robustness under a variety of user conditions. Under Aroma Mission, such trials were facilitated through a special funding. The results are for everybody to see how, thanks to CSIR’s intervention, vetiver and other aromatic plants grow in regions where they have not been grown earlier such as Kutchch, Gujarat, Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, Bundelkhand, Central UP, etc. Similar support is required for finding cross-regional applications while generating data. The All India Coordinated Research Project [AICRP] at ICAR for different crops helped in generating data through multi location, multi year trials for assessing robustness. That is a model worth replicating for industrial technologies as well.
- Developing or modifying existing standards for innovative technologies:
This is a task which requires not only rapid ramping up of the current efforts but also much more progressive approach in creating standards. Once standards are created for such innovations that are superior to globally available solutions, then compliance with these standards is WTO compatible, non-tariff incentive for domestic innovations and inventions. As Indian science, technology and innovations systems rapidly evolves into producing globally competitive solutions, creation of Indian standard for incentivizing Indian innovators without any discrimination against international players will be a very appropriate competitive advantage. In certain cases, such solutions can become globally acceptable standards and thus become binding for other countries for creating markets for Indian innovations. Many American and European firms created such innovations in telecom sectors which became globally accepted standards for internet-based traffic for creating huge market for routers and other hardware technologies of the concerned countries. Time has come to create globally respected standards for new innovative, inclusive, sustainable and affordable technological Innovation value chain.