Wheres Indias Bell Labs?

Date:   Saturday , June 28, 2008

If we look at the electronics industry, there have been three fundamental innovations in the last 100 years - the development of vacuum tubes, the invention of the transistor, and the invention of the laser. All the other modern innovations in electronics are the derivatives of these three fundamental innovations. All three were developed in the U.S., with Nobel prizes awarded to those scientists responsible for the transistor and the laser. This, I believe, is due to a culture which emphasized individualism, and at the same time tolerated and respected differences. This is a culture which rewarded independent thinkers who were responsible for these innovations.

Unlike the education system in the U.S., which also has its weaknesses, the Indian education system does not emphasize problem solving methods and the students in the class always insist on getting “notes”. I experienced this “notes culture” when I was a student as well as while I was a lecturer at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. I believe this is due to the lack of emphasis on research-based studies right from the grass roots level. I still remember the emphasis on “learning by rote” which was practiced in the schools I attended.

I feel that a culture which provides its citizens an open atmosphere to think freely – a culture which tolerates dissidence – is needed to generate fundamental innovations. Bell Laboratories had this culture and that is the reason it was able to make so many fundamental contributions to science and engineering.

On the other hand, a startup needs “lonely stars” like Steve Jobs who are able to take technology ideas from Bell Laboratories or Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and exploit those ideas for developing new products and processes, and go to the market quickly with ideas and products which nobody has thought of before.

If we now move to countries like Japan and Korea, what we observe is that these countries have been able to take established ideas or product concepts, for example DRAM, and go to the market with superior or more cost-effective products. For this to happen, an organization or a country needs a culture of discipline, a culture of quality, attention to details, and a culture of continuous improvement. That is the reason why even though Intel came up with the idea of DRAM, today the Koreans and the Japanese dominate that space.

Thus, a culture which is conducive to generating fundamental ideas might not be ideal for exploiting ideas in the form of products and processes. Similarly, a different culture could provide an advantage when a technology is in its “maturity phase”. That is why though Bell Laboratories created a lot of fundamental ideas, it is the Silicon Valley which exploited these ideas to create the Personal Computer or DRAM. But when DRAM technology reached “maturity phase,” Japan and Korea were able to outdo the Silicon Valley and dominate the DRAM space because they had the right culture of discipline and continuous improvement.

What bothers me is that, to the exception of a few organizations, India does not have a widespread culture of free thinking. As a result, we have not seen a lot of fundamental innovations. On the other hand, I am thrilled by the fact that the country has produced a lot of entrepreneurial “stars”. The success of Infosys, Wipro, etc., are examples.

However, we need more ‘Wipros’, more ‘Infosys’, and more ‘Tejas Networks’ or ‘Open Silicons’. How can that happen?

While India has created a cadre of engineering talents, we need to create more talents with “domain knowledge”. So far, Indian engineers have excelled mostly in “implementation”. The way to improve the domain knowledge is to encourage Indo-U.S. collaboration. This model was introduced in companies like Tejas Networks, Beecem, Open Silicon, etc. These companies have established themselves in a highly competitive market and have spread their reach globally. The domain knowledge came in many cases from the U.S. part of the organization, while the Indian part provided the engineering talent.

The talent pool with domain knowledge will also expand as Intel, IBM, Texas Instruments, Oracle, and for that matter TranSwitch, expand their operations in India and hire talented individuals who in turn will train other employees in the organization.

With these two parallel tracks, I believe, in the next 10 years India will create the necessary talent pool with domain knowledge, as well as excellent implementation capability to establish 20 to 30 “Tejas Networks” or “Open Silicons”.

Can India succeed in the “maturity phase” of technology – for instance in the manufacturing sector as China has done? My feeling is that it can, but it will take a long time. The country needs an educated and trained workforce for that to happen. Germany’s education system is a good example for India to emulate. This system recognizes that people have different talents, inclinations, and aspirations. A country needs “Heisenbergs” to generate fundamental ideas, as well as a lot of “Steve Jobs” to create more Tejas Networks. But it also needs disciplined workers who can turn out good quality automobiles in the millions in a cost-effective way. The education system in Germany, I believe, struck the right balance.