Needed: An ecosystem to nurture ingenuity

Last week, an Indian start-up, Chakr Innovation, unveiled a device that uses ozone to clean the pores of N95 masks, allowing each mask to be reused 10 times after decontamination. This week, I advised a young woman wanting to deploy foot-operated hand-washing stations in busy markets. The pandemic is fostering innovation — technological, financial and behavioural. Policy must accelerate it.

India is drafting a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP2020). Since Independence only four S&T policies/resolutions have been published, in 1958, 1983, 2003, and 2013. The current crisis makes it clear that S&T cannot be ivory tower preoccupations. Innovation — successful application of ideas and technologies — should take precedence. 

India has seen mixed progress. During 2005-18, India’s ranking for total publications in the US National Science Foundation database jumped from 10 to three. In purchasing power terms, per capita research and development (R&D) expenditure doubled in the last decade (gross R&D expenditure tripled). But R&D spending as a percentage of GDP dipped from 0.81 in 2005-06 to 0.7 in 2014-15, frozen there since. Full-time equivalent research professionals per million population — 218 in 2015, up from 110 in 2000 — remain one of the lowest in the world. 

Rather than fret about limited private sector R&D, we must internalise the need to commercialise innovation. Rather than just count patents, we must evaluate how innovations cater to India’s circumstances, say, ambient temperatures, dust, or crowded spaces. Policy must place firms at the centre, nudging innovation-push and consumer demand-pull, to encourage research investment.

Four categories of innovations and technologies can be identified, with rising degrees of risk and declining appetite for private investment: Transitional technologies (technically proven but need local adaptation; innovations for resilience (to combat climate risks); foundational technologies (applicable across many sectors, but need policy direction and public-private co-financing); and breakthrough technologies (significant disruptive potential but with major risks). Here are six ideas from these innovation categories. 

1. Green buildings and materials challenge to combine the need for low-cost homes, low-carbon cement, and low-carbon and energy-efficient cooling. Sustainable housing is not just a social priority but now a public health imperative. A prize model could bring vast energies and resources from the private sector, given that much of the demand for housing and cooling would be met by private enterprise. 

2. National Bioenergy Mission with clear annual, and rising, targets of agricultural biomass to be procured and proportion of municipal solid waste converted into liquid fuels. Advanced market commitments (public procurement channelled to final consumers, as was done for LED bulbs) can be the route to facilitate private investment.

3. Nature-based, climate-resilient infrastructure will be critical to reduce devastation from extreme weather events. Innovations in protecting or increasing mangroves in coastal cities, or planting a “green wall” as a bulwark against desertification could be promoted via green bond financing of natural infrastructure. 

4. Circular economy of critical minerals will be necessary as India seeks to locally manufacture batteries for stationary and mobile applications and reduce energy insecurity. This could be promoted via regulatory mandates for minimum shares of recycled or alternative minerals, thereby kickstarting a robust secondary market for e-waste.

5. Green Hydrogen Mission: Hydrogen can substitute for coal in heavy industry but is energy-intensive to produce. Green hydrogen, derived using renewable energy, can be a technological big bet for India, with strategic applications in several key industries, including steel, fertilisers and petrochemicals, and long-distance transport. The European Union has set a target of 40 gigawatts of green hydrogen capacity by 2030. Plants in Japan have started producing the same. The aim of this mission would be to reduce costs, by leveraging falling costs of renewables and economies of scale, with pilot applications by 2025.

6. Carbon Dioxide removal challenge: India’s official climate assessment finds that, in many respects, India will be affected worse than the world on average by warming. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are already very high. To keep temperature rise to under 2oC, 100-200 billion tonnes of CO2 would have to be captured and stored by 2050; even more beyond that date. Without a high carbon price, capturing CO2 from the air, then using or storing it, does not have a market today. It also carries known and unknown risks. This is exactly the kind of breakthrough technology for which India should promote a national challenge, inviting firms and researchers to collaborate.

Commercialising innovations will need supportive ecosystems: Technology Information portal for R&D activities and funding; increasing capacity of the Indian Patents Office with simplified patent filing and awarding processes; open innovation platforms and joint ownership of patents more suited to R&D consortia; innovation prizes and risk guarantees to crowd in private capital; reformed public procurement norms, which value resource efficiency, not just lowest cost; updated product certification standards; more accredited testing facilities; and accelerators and incubators for start-ups to take innovations from lab to field and from field to market. 

In a gripping part of his book, Fire and Fury, Dr Anil Kakodkar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, describes how our nuclear scientists solved the problem of dwindling uranium supplies. This included increasing capacity factors of power plants, recycling depleted fuel from research reactors into power reactors, and even scrubbing ventilation ducts to recover scrap to make fuel! Genius means exceptional natural intellectual ability; ingenuity is the ability to solve difficult problems in clever, inventive ways. We might have many geniuses, but we need the ecosystem to nurture ingenuity. Can necessity not be just the mother of invention but beget an ecosystem of innovation?
The writer is CEO Council on Energy, Environment and Water ( and co-chair of energy, environment and climate change for India’s forthcoming Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP2020). Follow @GhoshArunabha @CEEWIndia 

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