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 / Autumn 2010 / Issue 60(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Gandhian Approach to R&D

So all of this technology is being developed and used to enhance prosperity, both for the provider of the low-cost product (in this case, for example, Bharti Airtel, one of Asia’s largest telecom service providers) and also for the user (in this case, the fisherman). Technology is going to be a game changer. If you provide people with high innovation at low cost, they will become more productive and efficient, and their earning potential will increase. We can keep improving lives in India and around the world just by making this technology affordable and accessible.

S+B: For the private sector to fully embrace the idea of innovating in emerging nations, won’t there have to be a system in place to protect intellectual property [IP]? Has there been progress made in this area?
Certainly, to turn knowledge into wealth, protection is required. Without it, investments will not come in. I’m a strong believer in establishing benefits for those who create ideas; at the same time, I’m a believer in sharing ideas with society. There needs to be a balance. But so far our track record hasn’t been good. The World Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency charged with developing an effective global IP system, has held assemblies on IP protection during which the developed world and the developing world end up on opposite sides, and the meetings end without resolution.

We had an opportunity at a conference held in New Delhi in October 2009, called “Climate Change: Technology Development and Transfer,” which brought together governments, experts, industry representatives, and civil society. We said that 70 percent of the technologies needed to combat climate change exist today. We don’t have to create them; it’s just a question of sharing. At this conference, it was suggested that we create a global fund to help poorer countries license innovative climate change technologies for use in less-developed areas. This would give everyone access to critical intellectual property and pay the inventors for their work. It would be similar to the Global Health Fund [a public–private partnership created in 2002 to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria]. But this idea was not adopted. Unfortunately, sharing of and access to technologies for the global good are not yet close at hand.

S+B: Where are the next breakthroughs going to come from?
We have to be willing to invest in research that is highly risky. When I was director of India’s National Chemical Laboratory, I dedicated 1 percent of my budget to run a “crazy idea fund” — a fund to support ideas with a one in 1,000 chance of success. It was only 1 percent; otherwise I would have lost my job. But it made a difference, because people started asking crazy questions, trying to find solutions in areas we would typically dare not visit.

Similarly, I think if we identify 10 grand challenges, let the best minds in the world create ideas, and then fund them, we’ll find the breakthroughs we need. Two models exist for this. The first is the foundation approach, in which global inventor competitions are set up, with the winner receiving a monetary award to carry the idea forward. The second is the open source model, in which there’s no money involved, but the best and brightest get involved for the fun of it. For example, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research now has a brilliant director-general, Dr. Samir Brahmachari, who created an open source drug discovery (OSDD) initiative to help find new drugs to combat tropical diseases that are traditionally neglected.

The strength of the model is that anyone can contribute via computer, adding to the research that already exists on the website: biologists, chemists, mathematicians, doctors, industry experts, management professionals, software engineers, university and college students, and established scientists. The incentive for contributors is the joy of science and seeing things happen. In addition, the project gives awards to those who solve important challenges. For example, project leaders awarded 120 Acer netbooks to the best contributors to OSDD’s Connect to Decode 2010 project, which expanded our understanding of the tuberculosis genome through the online collaboration of about 800 participants. Today, more than 2,000 partners in more than 75 countries are studying tuberculosis through the OSDD model, working together to create breakthroughs.

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