How a World War helped the ball pen to take off

Last week, the Royal Air Force celebrated its century in grand style all over the UK. Nobody celebrated the fact that it was the RAF that gave a fillip to ball pens.

Sixty five ball pens sell every second all over the world, year after year. The Hungarian inventor of the ball pen, Laszlo Jozsef Biro, was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame about 11 years ago. While the creative part of the innovation appeared in my book, “A biography of innovations”, I was curious about what caused the innovation to take off.

While Biro had developed a working model of his ball pen, he struggled to perfect his innovation. However, his work attracted the major powers of World War II. A British clerk suggested that airplane navigators, who often had to make marks on maps while flying high above the ground, would benefit by the use of Biro’s device. The British RAF placed a bulk order for 30,000 of Biro’s ball pens. This massive order triggered lots of interest among inventors about the war effort. That was the beginning of the take-off of ball pens.

It is true that many Indians make startling innovations, but these innovators also need the equivalent of the RAF order.

Padman, the movie, eulogises the low-cost female hygiene product invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham. Forus Health has invented an eye screening device called 3nethra—simple to use and far more affordable. Entrepreneur Rahul Rastogi has made a match box-sized ECG device called Sanket for you know how much: Rs 5? The list is almost as endless as it is inspiring.

But these do not take off because they struggle to get their first order. Government buying can give a fillip to such nascent innovations, but that too must be within a discipline of policies and processes. For example, government buying did not help Simputer.

The Simputer was released in 2002 as a self-contained, open hardware, Linux-based handheld computer. It had an attractive price of Rs 12,500 only. In 2004, the Karnataka government used the Simputer to automate land records, the Chhattisgarh government used it for e-education and the police used it to track traffic offenders and issue traffic tickets. The key person behind the Simputer, Swami Manohar, admitted that the innovation did not take off because of “multiple factors... it was ahead of its time... it was not a failure, we showed Inxdians that hardware can be manufactured in India.”

Government buying, of course, can be made to work and be helpful. How? The regulations governing public procurement tend to be complex to keep government agencies honest, transparent and cost-minded. Therefore, if public procurement is to give the needed fillip to innovations, government must think through and articulate a clear policy. About 10 years ago, the Swedish government commissioned its agency for innovation and its department for public procurement — Vinnova and Nou — to put their heads together and articulate a policy.

For India, as a starting point, reference may be made to the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Industry and Entrepreneurship publication for “Best practices in promoting innovation through public procurement”. Particularly in the public health arena of low cost medical interventions and early diagnostics, this would have a potentially good pay-off to society.

Since September 2017, my monthly columns have focused on startups, which have great importance for the future. There is considerable hype around them, and much bleating by chest beaters about India’s inability to convert clever ideas and innovations into valuable products and services. Through my columns, I have ruminated about why startups in India do not scale up, about whether our innovators train themselves to be salesmen of their ideas, and about whether the Indian innovation ecosystem needs a local touch.

In India, the Niti Aayog and the appropriate government departments could develop a policy through the Atal Innovation Mission. Public procurement policies and executing the policies to promote innovations in healthcare, in particular, is a laudable task to undertake. 

The writer is a corporate advisor and Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. His new book, “CRASH: lessons from the rise and exit of business leaders” will be published by Penguin India in September 2018.

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