Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Not Money, Not Markets, Its a Mindset: Game Changing Technology

2010- start of a new decade and amidst all the hype about the decade that was (best, worst, etc.) a newsitem that caught my eye wasTata's launch of a water filter (Swach- means clean in Hindi) for rural poor (less than Rs. 1,000 or $21.50) which needs no electricity or running water. "It took over a decade of research but it is opening up a complete new market said Tata Chemicals' boss R. Mukundan".

What's a decade? Nothing - when you think about the global problem that is healthcare and the billions spent on treating poverty associated diseases that affect 5 billion people - a decade of research seems really worthwhile. Renewable Eenergy and healthcare are supposed to be the new growth areas for business, yet how many corporations are getting into the space with innovation in mind?

Tata is getting into the lower cost housing market (I hope with innovation) and has already reset expectations for fuel efficiency and renewable energy use with the Nano car. So, I expect their filter will also generate financial as well as social benefit and be good for the environment. It took about 44 scientists at Tata Research Development and Design Centre, a subsidiary of Tata Consultancy Service and has the potential to save billions in wasted spend while helping billions of people.

So why is it that technology for the next billion customer seems to be such a stretch for the world? We cite lack of capital (where's the ROI?) or markets (how can the poor pay?) and put off climate change concerns.

But maybe the new decade starting with 2010 will be a decade when profit, people and planet - all will matter in playing the game. The fact that large corporations are getting into it is significant - they have capital as well as the marketing to reach large numbers of consumers.

After reading about the filter I also read about the cheapest refrigerator ($69) - the portable, top-opening unit weighs only 7.8kg, uses high-end insulation to stay cool for hours without power and consumes half the energy used by regular refrigerators - from the Indian conglomerate Godrej & Boyce. And then there is Vihaan Networks Ltd (VNL), the Indian telecom company whose solar powered base station can be built for one-tenth the cost of a regular one, is profitable at just $2 of revenue per user per month and will go to market in India, Africa and Southeast Asia. VNL is one among 26 global firms selected by the World Economic Forum as "Technology Pioneers 2010" -- the most innovative start-ups from around the world that will have a critical impact on the future of business and society.

So, I start the decade full of hope. If we can imagine it we can do it- Innovation is a mindset that changes the game - markets will follow - even developed markets.


Jeanne Heydecker said...

Hi! Thanks for mentioning VNL. (Disclaimer: I work there.) We think we've developed a disruptive technology that will change the way the telecom industry builds out wireless networks in the future. Did you know that in India alone, mobile operators used 2 Billion litres of diesel fuel to power their network infrastructure last year? As the competition gets fiercer with more telecom companies vying for market in the Indian urban centers, the price is coming down faster and faster. The government wants to connect the unconnected, but truthfully, the cost of diesel fuel alone prohibits this mandate from every being accomplished is operators continue to use traditional systems.

Bringing not only voice, but internet to rural parts of India will open up all sorts of opportunities for distance learning, medical information, access to financial markets, etc. that are not available nor financially feasible right now.

While I applaud Tata for developing a new affordable water filter, I disagree with your premise that the Nano is a welcome addition to our economy in India. Adding more fossil fueled automobiles to an already clogged infrastructure (never mind the additional pollution) is a short term answer to a huge problem. Fossil fuels are finite. What the sun produces each day in potential power, if completely harnessed, would service the needs to power everything on this planet for the next 8 years. The focus has to be placed on utilizing renewable technologies to power the infrastuctures we need now. VNL is trying to do its part and is being recognized for doing so. Let's hope other industries can do the same. :-)

Neerja Raman said...

Jeanne - Congratulations to VNL team for your game changing innovation. I wish you every success. While I understand you point about Nano, consider that it has put auto-re-engineering (made hybrids-the darlings of green auto market- obsolete in an instant) and Indians as innovators onto the global map. The Nano made big money think electric cars -something that Tesla as well as Reva failed to do. Sometimes you are the revolution; sometimes you are the one that catalyses a revolution.