Betting On Indian Brains

Date:   Friday , November 21, 2008

Four years ago, Ta-lin Hsu went, saw and … declined to conquer India. His conclusion: opportunities in India were “somewhat limited” when benchmarked with China. Not even a 7x return on an earlier investment in a private sector bank swayed the head of H&Q Asia Pacific, one of the most successful VC firms in Asia.

“Overseas Chinese had the money to fund China’s growth, but overseas Indians didn’t have money,” said Ta-lin. “The NRIs had Ph. D.’s and big brains — but no money.” And India would not be able to grow nearly as fast as China, he added.

The Internet changed all that, and now Ta-lin is singing a different tune. “I wish I had [come to] a different conclusion,” he says, doubly wistful because “overseas Chinese money went up in smoke [in the 1997 Asian financial crisis].” As the Internet age dawned, Southeast Asia was mired in the biggest financial meltdown in the region, and even China was affected by the catastrophe. What is more, the Chinese government viewed the Internet with grave suspicion and even today is “actively impeding growth.”

In sharp contrast, Ta-lin says, India profited rapidly by its own right. Companies such as Infosys came of age while newer companies like Hotmail, Exodus and Sycamore produced vast wealth among Indians, creating a groundswell of Indian entrepreneurship both in the US and India. Even “five of the seven Internet analysts at Goldman Sachs were Indians,” Ta-lin recalled. Suddenly, it is India that is ahead on the curve … not China.

“In 1996, maybe it was right” to stay out of India, but “it is no longer right” in 1999, Ta-lin said to himself. In pure economic terms, Ta-lin still rates China as the one with greater potential, but “one doesn’t know what may happen in China and there is so much control over the Internet.” Thus says the man who has preferred to tread cautiously on the political minefields of Asia and also picked up some great bargains since the Asian meltdown of the 1990s.

Ta-lin is not dancing with joy at the Indian political scenario or the infrastructure. He is downbeat on both. “Yes, I do have concerns,” he said. “We have never sought political favors anywhere, and that is why power shifts have not affected us.” As to the infrastructure, it is still inadequate even in places such as Bangalore, the high-tech hub in the country, he says.

So why is Ta-lin still bullish on India?

It is because he is betting on Indian brains, on the vast intellectual capital available to India’s information technology sector — most notably through Indian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. “We bet on people,” he asserts. Like real estate moguls hold “location, location, location,” to be the key to success, Ta-lin’s mantra is: “management, management, management.”

Ta-lin, who has over the last two decades played a large role in the development of high-tech in Taiwan, said the rapid and successful development of the software industry in India intrigued him, more so because no other Asian country was able to duplicate India’s success. “I was impressed by the success of ‘bodyshopping,’” Ta-lin said, using a term that is not endearing to most Indian software companies. “Taiwan tried to plan development in hardware and software together, but 20 years later the “hardware curve exceeded expectations, and the software curve has remained flat.”

So last year when Ta-lin went on his journey of re-discovering India, he spent most of the time in Bangalore studying the success of Infosys. He now pins down India’s success in software to its “ingenious way of communicating with the West” — in English — and by judicious use of the time zone difference.

One of the first fundings by @India is not to a startup in India, but to Purple Yogi, a Silicon Valley company founded by Rakesh Mathur. “Our goal is to connect India with Silicon Valley and the rest of Asia,” he said.

A sharp thinker since his IBM days as a researcher, Ta-lin is advocating “blinding simplicity, not a chop suey” of ventures in India. His second mantra: “Zero in on Internet ventures.”

Ta-lin has scrambled to put together a high-profile team for, an independent “oper-vesting” venture on the lines of CMGI. Ramesh Vangal, the man who established Pepsi in India amid great resistance from nationalists, is the chairman. Kannan Ramaswamy, a former Unilever and GE Capital executive, is the CEO. H&Q AP has put in seed money to the tune of $32 million and Ta-lin expects to attract an additional $18 million in investments from companies such as Infosys and Sycamore Networks.

The man who has been called the John Doerr of Asia may not be wrong when he says, “India has found a niche in the Internet.”