Saturday, April 27, 2013

US-India Innovation Funding Panel at TiE Silicon Valley

I get emails from The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) all the time but yesterday was the first time I actually attended a TiE event.  I've really been missing out on some quality insights all of these years.  I journeyed on down to TiE Silicon Valley's conference center in Santa Clara to hear from panelists discussing U.S. and Indian joint initiatives in funding innovative technologies.

The best insight of the evening was from an Indian-American academic I met during the buffet dinner.  BTW, one reason I'm now considering joining TiE aside from the great events is that they serve good Indian buffets.    I'm sitting next to this guy and I ask him whether India still has a rigid caste system.  His answer was that it's much like the class system in the U.S. and other countries.  Indian class status is determined by economics now, and not so much by birth.  I think that's progress.

The introduction from a senior TiE guy extolled the organization's application of the "pay it forward" Silicon Valley ethos where established business leaders mentor younger entrepreneurs.  He noted that Steve Jobs was brazen enough to call Intel's Andy Grove in Apple's early days and Mr. Grove gave him a one our meeting.  That is rare anywhere else but commonplace in Silicon Valley.

The Indo-US Science and Technology Endowment Joint Panel members gave their introductory remarks.  The guy from the US-India S&T Endowment Fund said their fund originated from the US government's food aid program for India.  They grant $2-3M/year to startups to promote commercialization of technology with social impact.  The focus has historically been on accelerating India's development but US-based tech startups obviously benefit.  The fund reviewed about 400 proposals in its third round and will soon announce awards of about $500K each.

The next guy represented the Indian government's sci-tech policy body.  I didn't match all their names and faces with their jobs, so hang in there.  He said India's economic liberalization in 1993 accelerated the country's development.  Sci-tech funding grew rapidly and the number of published academic papers absolutely exploded.  The Indian government has a fund for non-Indian companies that can benefit the Indian market.  I believe he was referring to programs under the auspices of India's Global Innovation and Technology Alliance.

Another Indian guy on the panel addressed the country's business climate.  He said Indian business failures often end up in court.  Yeah, like that never happens in the US, right?  Former partners sue each other all the time in Silicon Valley.  I have digressed; back to the Indian guy.  India has had positive GDP growth for 31 years.  India doesn't seem to have much of a native VC sector, because 94% of all funding for early-stage startups comes from outside India.  I discovered after the panel that there is an India VC Association but the announcements on the home page all refer to investment conferences outside of India.  I think Indian VCs should pump their own activities because you gotta start somewhere.  The Indian guy also mentioned that there's a lack of quality Indian mentors for startups.  No wonder these guys came all the way to TiE; there's nothing like it back in India.

The panelist from the US Department of Agriculture predicted world population peaking in 2050, with water scarcity and limited arable land already setting limits on growth.  The USDA wants to see new agricultural tech to help grow a sector still characterized by hard work and low pay.  He mentioned that US cows in the 1940s produced 4000 gallons of milk (I'm not sure whether he said it was an annual figure or a lifetime figure), but today they produce 30,000 gallons.  Technology drove this improvement in yield.  I checked the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service for data on milk production.  I clicked through to "milk - production, measured in lbs/head" because that seems to be the metric for how much a single cow yields in a given year.  The data readout shows that the figure was 5007 lbs/head in 1947 and 21,697 lbs/head in 2012.  Maybe the USDA guy meant to say pounds rather than gallons, but his current year number is still way off and his historical number looks like an average of annual 1940s numbers.  Whatever, close enough for government work.  His basic thesis is still correct.  The technology revolution matters in agriculture.

The US Embassy India's Sci-Tech officer spoke last.  He noted that an open government platform works collaboratively with Indian innovators.  US and Indian coders rolled out upgrades to Indian government websites together and now the India government uploads much more data to its websites for public use.  He mentioned several joint programs promoting women in science, clean energy R&D, oceanography, and health care initiatives.  I'd like to see some Indian financial blogger run through that country's open source data like I do with US data.

Now we get to the panel discussion.  Someone referenced India's innovation timeline as too small and slow, asking how to scale up Indian innovation to match Silicon Valley's rapid time scale.  The panel said the board members of the Endowment Fund agree Indian innovation cycles are too slow.  Their fund has done milestone-based grant funding so far rather than equity funding.  One panelist said the Indian government has funded network centers that do virtual collaboration.

Another guy asked how entrepreneurs can expect to benefit from development funding if the Indian government's requirements for technology transfer are so restrictive.  The panelists said the Indian government takes innovation seriously, but they need entrepreneurs to help show them how to be innovative.

One TiE gal (a rare woman in a mostly male audience) said there's a huge fear of failure in India but Silicon Valley culture sees failure as a stepping stone.  She wanted to know how India would overcome this cultural fear.  The panel guy who said Indian failures end up in court commented that the Valley's tolerance of failure is unique.  Cultural change will take time.  He said India's colonial history may have contributed to its risk averse culture.

Someone asked about Indian water quality and waste.  The panel said different regions face different water contaminants, so there are many ways to deploy innovation.  The Indian ministry that regulates water use is spending money on technology.  I find it interesting that 90% of India's water is used in agriculture.

One of the final questions was about how India incentivizes US serial entrepreneurs to come and do business.  The panel extended an open invitation.  I got the feeling after several questions like this that the typical TiE serial entrepreneur is frustrated with the Indian government's limited understanding of how to develop an entrepreneurial culture.  The TiE folks have their work cut out for them.  A camera crew from the local IND TV studio was on hand to get shots of the action.

My hat is off to TiE.  I can't believe I've missed out on this organization's awesome resources for so long.  I am definitely coming down the peninsula as often as I can, and not just for the Indian buffets.  TiE people have what it takes to blaze trails in business.