Innovating for India

When I was at business school at SPJIMR in the early nineties, a senior executive from P&G’s global team came to speak to our class about their work leading up to the launch of Ariel detergent. It was a fascinating session — detailed and insightful. And for us newbies, it showed us how one of the best-run global multinationals painstakingly crafted strategy for a complex market like India.

A few years later, as a business journalist for this paper, I did a series of investigative, in-depth feature stories on not just Ariel’s journey in India but also on the big shifts in P&G’s global strategy and how that played out in India. That was the time when P&G’s much-talked about battle against Unilever’s much-vaunted subsidiary, Hindustan Lever, made big news. Those were the days when consumer product companies ruled the roost, defined modern marketing, and were considered the best places to work.

Maybe they still are. Except that marketing of soaps and detergents, colas and biscuits don’t quite fire up the public imagination as they used to. India has bigger challenges at hand. There are enormous problems to solve in spaces like education, healthcare, agriculture and even manufacturing. Innovative entrepreneurs are leveraging technology and new business models to change the ground rules completely. And as I had mentioned in the last instalment of my column, India is the biggest laboratory of social innovation in the world. And even global firms are starting to look at the India opportunity through a new lens.

In the last month, I got a taste of two such exciting projects that signal just how much the needle has moved. I met the head of strategy at Medtronic Lab, the company that is best known as an innovative maker of medical devices. The lab, a brainchild of Omar Ishrak, its global CEO of Bangladeshi origin, is mandated to create low-cost, disruptive solutions for under-served segments in emerging markets.

When he set it up last year, Mr Ishrak wanted the lab to open up new addressable markets in emerging markets and help tackle chronic healthcare challenges. The lab has already begun work in Africa and India. Here, it has recently hired an award-winning social entrepreneur to lead the development of a new solution to treat diabetes Type II, a disease that is taking on scary proportions in India, the diabetes capital of the world. The new ‘intrepreneur’ has a five-year runway. She will use a combination of design thinking, ethnography, rapid prototyping tools and techniques, and frugal innovation methods to craft a commercially viable solution, with technology and R&D support from the lab. That’s not all. Mr Ishrak is hoping that the leadership team at the lab can also act as evangelists to transform mindsets of its leadership team in the US and other developed markets — and help them develop a deeper understanding of markets in Africa and India.

Now, take the case of a completely different venture from the non-profit world: Khan Academy. In December 2015, Salman Khan, the iconic founder of Khan Academy, decided to open up a new front in India, through a multi-year partnership with Tata Trusts and Central Square Foundation. Its free online video-based content, technology and platform could be a significant way to solve the knowledge deficit in Maths and Science (and later, all subjects) among learners in the K-12 space. However, the challenge is to stitch together an ecosystem of stakeholders across the various state educational departments, schools, both government and private, teachers, school boards, students and their families. It is no mean task. Khan Academy’s managing director told me that they’re slowly starting to gain traction. A recent talent search initiative to find teachers to help co-create its video-based instruction in at least five languages, including English, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi and Tamil, has yielded great results. The Karnataka government’s education department has taken the lead to support a pilot to create local language content. And the results of that pilot could open doors for more such state governments to embrace partnership models with Khan Academy. Lean principles will once again shape the project, as it gathers momentum. The Karnataka pilot is managed by just one person, with the digital tech support from Khan Academy.

While both these experiments are at an early stage, they provide a good mental picture of how emerging market innovation models could blossom in future. 

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, P&G pumped in billions of dollars behind the Ariel market development and launch in India, with global R&D teams from Japan and the US making frequent trips to India, trying to reverse engineer a global formula to fit the needs of the local market. Instead, the Medtronic Lab and the Khan Academy model are scrappy, frugal and very local. And I’m willing to bet that it could emerge as a more sustainable way to innovate in emerging markets like India.

The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel

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