Monday, January 30, 2012

Dr. Gururaj Desh Deshpande’s insights on entrepreneurship and innovation

I got an opportunity to listen to Dr. Gururaj Desh Deshpande on “Can Social innovations and Technology innovations leverage off one another?” at the IIT Alumni Club Bangalore event held at Bangalore International Centre, Domlur, last morning. It was a fantastic talk. Here are a few of the insights Desh mentioned in his talk and during Q&A:

· Concurrent innovation: In a place like MIT where Desh is a Board member, there is no dearth of technology innovations. However, for the researcher or the faculty member working on the innovation, the primary interest could be elegance and publishability – criteria that matter for tenure and impressing peer group. The challenge is to create an atmosphere where innovations get connected with relevance to create an impact. This is what Desh calls concurrent innovation where innovators get connected to the real world up front as opposed to much later in the life cycle. Over the last 10 years MIT has funded 80 projects and a third of them have generated $100 M or more.

· The sandbox for social innovations: In social sector, the equation (innovation + relevance = impact) needs to be turned around. The real challenge is in understanding the problem. Then you bring in the ideas to solve the problem. We need to create an environment where this happens systematically. 6 years ago Deshpande Foundation created a sandbox in Hubli to do that. What is this sandbox? It encompasses 5 districts: Belgaum, Dharwad, Gadag, Haveri, and Uttar Kannada, and is home to about 10 million people. Ideas / interventions that need to be proven get experimented within this sandbox first and successful ones get scaled. Help is provided in the form of access to advisory network, teaching, additional resources from corporate / NGOs and of course, grants. Akshayapatra (mid-day meals), Karadi Path (learning through Karadi Tales), Agasthya Foundation (sparking creativity in rural India), Sikshana Foundation (improves quality of teaching in Govt schools) are some of the organizations that were incubated in the Hubli sandbox.

· Sustainability of social ventures: In many social ventures, the beneficiary does not have buying power (e.g. mid-day meal in state schools). Hence, there is a donor. Every time the donor wants to add value to the organization, he projects his risk tolerance on the project. Unfortunately, from his standard of living, he finds everything risky. Very quickly the product does not cater to the requirements. The idea is to take the performing assets, scale them and make them sustainable. i.e. find those interventions that are already working and scale them.

There are three ways a social venture becomes sustainable: (1) By becoming part of free market economy (2) By becoming part of Govt & (3) By supported through broad based charity as opposed to funded by a few rich people. Sometimes it is a combination of the three. For example, Akshaypatra combines (2) and (3).

· Role of value system in innovation: Entrepreneurship or innovation is just a tool. It allows you to do something faster and better. It quite doesn’t say whether it is for the good of the world or for the bad of the world. So you need a value system on top of it. That is a bigger issue we need to resolve. World economy is based on consumption. In the 70s there used to be a debate between capitalism and socialism. About 10 years ago, it looked like capitalism all the way. But now we are beginning to see cracks within capitalism. Consumption based economy means everybody has to consume more and more and more which will just rip apart this whole world. There will be nothing left. So the bigger challenge is to re-think on what winning means. Does winning include sustainability, goodness? Etc. In some area where we see this happening. For example, in energy, 10 years ago it was all about producing more energy. Now, people are realizing that the low-hanging fruits in energy are efficiency and savings and you could save up to 40-50%. Now there are 50 startups in Boston area and another 50 in Silicon Valley who are trying to figure out how they can get access to the low-hanging fruit – efficiency. People are building huge database of every building and then you do audit on a building and show what you can do to achieve how much saving.

· Role of technology in education: Majority of school going kids in India still don’t have access to computers and Internet. In fact, a lot of little things like eraser, pencil, 5-10 pieces of paper, old newspaper (acts as a reading material) have much bigger impact than the computers (For example, see “spot prizes” intervention of Sikshana Foundation – it is the oldest and most popular activity). This is not to say computers are not useful. It is just that getting tablets to villages and putting them to use is a little unrealistic at this point. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to experiment on these things. One of the best experiments Desh has seen being carried out in a few California schools is as follows: Suppose you want to teach Pythagoras theorem, then the students will be asked see Khan Academy video in the evening at home and come and do the homework in the school the next day. It is changing the whole paradigm. You need a lot of interaction / debate / discussion during the homework. There are going to be a lot of innovative ways of educating each other. In Desh’s opinion, the biggest problem in education is always inspiring kids to want to learn. So any intervention that inspires kids to want to learn is going to create significant value. Technology has been trying to intervene in education for a long time. But it hasn’t. Next 10 years are going to be exciting. MIT just announced a new initiative – MITx - which will offer certification through free online courseware.


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  1. Not sure if you have heard about the hole in the wall project.
    It was a project conducted in rural areas and shows the power of self learning & educating the rest within the group. There was a TED talk also by Sugata Mitra on this.

    1. Vidhya,

      Thanks for bringing up HIW. I am a huge fan of Sugata Mitra and the systematic manner in which he has pursued and evolved the HIW idea in the last 12 years.

      The last bullet in the article "Role of technology in education" was a response Desh gave to a question regarding HIW. The questioner asked Desh's view on HIW and whether any of the projects in the sandbox pertains to HIW.

      Desh felt that HIW is a great idea but it is still some time away from reaching mass market in India. I agree with him. Each of the three core elements of HIW (a) Access to computer & internet (b) Teacherless learning in small groups (c) Granny cloud is a significant deviation from the status quo. The system will resist it like hell.

      Among the three, the one which, I feel, is most promising right now is Granny cloud. Even if teachers and parents focus more on "catching kids doing the right things" and reward them that will make a difference. The Sikshana Foundation "spot award" intervention is in this direction.

  2. Tech billionaire Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande is helping NGOs scale up and sustain philanthropy initiatives on their own steam. His formula for self-reliance is relevance followed by innovation

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)