Is Silicon Valley the right model for Indian start-ups?
By Ravi Kiran
There is a pattern around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to many a foreign shore. A visit gets announced, media starts building up some excitement and collecting bytes, people quickly take sides and soon, we have quotes full of wisdom, advice and comments from many an expert.
As the prime minister arrives in the foreign land, a section of Indian diaspora feel genuinely touched by the ‘historic’ visit, cultural events get organised, yoga gets promoted, Bharat Mata gets her due slogans, media thrusts ‘How do you feel?’ mikes to local people’s lips, the prime minister’s comments are reported with excitement by our media here and more bytes are taken.
This last trip was not much different. From the Indian start-ups, innovation and venture ecosystem viewpoint, however, it was. While start-up founders may not care much about a permanent seat on UN Security Council for India, debates on sustainability and the like, they do care about Silicon Valley.
Whether you are designing a low-heat mobile battery or an IoT device for agricultural applications or building the latest hyperlocal vegetable delivery service for north Thrissur, ‘the Valley’ is one of those terms which has been driven into your mind where it has found its secure place of worship. You read about it, you read tweets about companies there, you hear people referring to it in all start-up events, sometimes, if you have time, you even download and watch a show by the same name as a torrent or if you are ‘oh, one of those TV-types’, then on HBO. Any which way, you just can’t escape it.
How much of that excitement has borne fruit and how much of what the prime minister’s visit achieved will be good for our start-ups? That’s a question that may have different answers depending on who you are asking I guess. Here is my view.
Symbolic or Substantive? Visits like this and meetings with the super-CEOs have a lot of symbolic value and would certainly be good for us in the long run, no doubt about that. In many ways, India’s perception in the minds of overseas folks is qualified positive and to make it an unambiguous positive, we certainly need bridge building exercises. It’s not possible to vote for symbolism only, but I don’t reject symbolism altogether. On this score, my vote is positive.
Are Google, Facebook and Qualcomm poor companies? I would love to read more about what our super CEOs will do for India and by when, but what I have read about the outcomes depresses me a bit. They all seem nice and you could argue something is better than zero; but I feel Prime Minister Modi might have been better off talking to Sunil Mittal, Rahul Bajaj and 498 other Indian businessmen who could adopt one railway station near their home and make it WiFi enabled. Or one of our many unicorns and unicorns-to-be to create a fund bigger than the $150 million India-dedicated fund Qualcomm announced it would set up. Are these outcomes enough? How badly do we even need these? My vote: negative.
Let’s now turn to the real question: Is Silicon Valley the right model for Indian start-ups? While Silicon Valley’s demonstrated ability to create global tech companies is laudable and it will continue to attract global-minded start-ups, the context of India, our social structure, regulatory understanding and our problems must be understood differently. This mind-set to find one city as a role model rather than create a culture of innovation and risk friendliness is what is already making many people give Bengaluru the sobriquet of India’s Silicon Valley, is lazy, cheap and short sighted.
I firmly believe that India needs more than one role model. Our issues are quite well known and oft debated. Does our government really understand innovation, risk friendliness and start-ups? Do we really want to have a supporting infrastructure? Are our policy-makers and implementers sufficiently outcome focused? Are our engineering colleges coded to create innovators? Do we, as a society, really value intellectual property?
I would love to know if our prime minister learnt something in the super-CEO meetings that would help us find lasting solutions to these issues – in our own way.