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India's tech push includes focus on entrepreneurship

India's tech push includes focus on entrepreneurship

Author: David J. Lynch
Publication: USA Today
Date: April 11, 2004
URL: http://www.usatoday.com/money/world/2004-04-11-india-tech-push_x.htm

Three young computer geeks sipping cups of Nescafé might not seem like much of a revolution. But the budding engineers plotting their futures at this university coffee bar illustrate an important shift in India's approach to educating its technical elite. And it's one that could have implications for the USA.

Tanuj Khandelwal, 23, and his two classmates at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), want to launch a company to produce something called a "reconfigurable radio." Until recently, the trio would have received little help in pursuing their idea. Stifled by government red tape and starved for capital, would-be Indian entrepreneurs frequently went abroad - often to Silicon Valley - where they helped found world-class companies such as Sun Microsystems.

That was partly because India's premier technology institutes had an almost single- minded focus on teaching. In India's first years of independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru established top-flight schools modeled upon Western schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so that the country would be self-sufficient in the know-how needed to industrialize. The first school opened in 1950 on the site of a former British detention camp.

But now, amid India's drive to become a "knowledge superpower," IITB is putting new emphasis upon entrepreneurship. The shift aims to ditch the ivory tower and more closely link India's tech talent cradle with the real needs of society.

The institute also is stepping up research for corporations and government agencies and sending senior professors on lengthy assignments to mentor less elite engineering schools.

"Our earlier mission was to provide the best education. ... Today, we say we want to be the fountainhead of new ideas and innovation in the country," says Ashok Misra, the institute's director.

India remains a profoundly poor land, making the superlative achievements of its technology institutes impressive. Many of IITB's graduates go on to leading roles in the country's booming technology sector, including at the helm of top outsourcing companies such as Infosys. Only 2% of those taking the grueling entrance exams are admitted each year.

"The ones who get in through this very rigorous process are really going to be the best and the brightest," says IITB graduate Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys. "And by gathering the best and the brightest all in one place, you're really going to have something."

Such excellence co-exists with pervasive deprivation. On a recent morning, less than a mile from the institute's front gate, two women could be seen picking through a roadside Dumpster. Nearby Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the country's commercial capital, as well known for its sprawling slums as for its commerce. Even the facilities at this elite school are nothing fancy. A typical classroom holds ancient wooden desks with sloping tops. The robin's egg blue paint on the wall is faded, and the tiled flooring in the hall is cracked.

Seeking to expand the institute's footprint, Misra is slowly increasing enrollment from a little more than 3,000 students in the late 1990s to a target of about 4,900 toward the end of this decade. Still, measured against India's 1 billion-plus population, the number of graduates from India's seven technology institutes is tiny.

At a time when many in the USA are worried about the flight of technology jobs to India, there is remarkably little concern here about the 35% of IITB graduates who typically emigrate - often to the USA - after receiving heavily subsidized educations.

The new boost for would-be entrepreneurs isn't explicitly aimed at stanching the flow of bright young men and, less often, women to other countries. The only way to keep more graduates at home is by creating a domestic environment that's more conducive to innovation, Misra says.

For Khandelwal and his partners, Hakim Raja, 22, and Arpit Midha, 21, a job's location is virtually irrelevant. Technical whizzes admittedly short on marketing savvy, they each want to acquire sales skills by working for established companies for a few years before striking out on their own. Whether they do so in India or the USA doesn't seem important. "It's hardly an issue, because the market is global," says Raja, who expects to graduate next year.

The institute's innovation push includes a "technology incubator" that supports students for up to 18 months with everything from fax machines to accounting advice as they try to get new businesses off the ground. In return for the help, the institute receives a 5% stake in any new venture. In the past four years, four of 13 aspiring start-ups midwived by IITB have made it to the marketplace.

As for Khandelwal and his pals, they're busy refining their plans for an advanced radio that can work with a variety of digital technologies. They did well enough in the institute's business plan competition to win entry into all-India finals this summer.

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