‘Frugal innovation’ an alternative for cash-strapped research

Although countries like China have raced ahead of India in research spending and investment in science and innovation, India’s culture of creative improvisation has led to inexpensive, low-key innovative solutions, sometimes known as known as ‘frugal innovation’.

Describing this as a “distinctive specialism” of India’s research system, a new report suggests that as India’s science budget has been rising by 25% a year, “combined with deepening scientific and technological capabilities”, ‘frugal innovation’ could be an important source of competitive advantage for India, and a basis for strategic collaboration with Western countries.

The report from the UK’s innovation foundation, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Our Frugal Future: Lessons from India’s innovation system, was published in late July.

It said cash-strapped economies in the West, as well as developing countries, can learn from India’s ‘frugal innovation’ and research, particularly at a time when the United Nations and other groups and governments are calling for universities and research to play a greater role in resolving chronic world problems such as poverty, and food, energy and water security.

“Successful frugal innovations are not only low cost but outperform the alternative and can be made available at a large scale. Often, but not always, frugal innovations have an explicitly social mission,” according to the report.

“India’s got the Frugal Factor at a time when frugal innovation has ever-greater relevance around the world,” the report said, adding that “today this strength has a new significance”.

“The pressure for financial austerity and environmental sustainability are making frugal approaches to innovation attractive to developed economies.”

India’s challenges

India is “not yet a science superpower” and the country remains a challenging place to be a researcher or do business, the report said. Yet these very deficiencies, including infrastructure gaps, have helped ‘frugal innovation’ thrive.

“A number of factors have come together to create a particularly conducive environment, including a vast price-sensitive market, a culture of creative improvisation, a vibrant civil society, an emerging funding system for social innovation, and a government keen to create an ‘inclusive’ model of innovation that aims to connect the country’s leading scientists with its greatest societal challenges.”

‘Frugal innovation’ is not just low technology or cheaper versions of existing technologies. In some cases it combines low and high technology. In others, it creates new, more efficient systems for delivering technology, which makes them cheaper.

Examples of frugal innovation

An old wedding hall down a dusty track an hour outside the city of Pune is Tata Chemicals’ Innovation Centre, where the Swach water filter was conceived. The rice-husk ash and silver nano-particle filter developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology combines low and high techology to provide a cheap alternative.

At $20 the Swach filter is 50% cheaper than its nearest competitor and functions without electricity or running water. Tata is already exploring market opportunities in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America.

The Open Source Drug Discovery programme of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – India’s largest research and development (R&D) organisation – is leveraging human capital for science in new ways to radically reduce the cost of drug discovery.

Launched in 2008, it is crowdsourcing the elements of discovery of a new tuberculosis drug. Scientists from all over India and beyond are connected through an internet platform, thus pulling together the distributed power of thousands of human brains.

In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College, among other leading global universities, the science crowdsourcing platform will soon begin a synthetic genome project.

And in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan the non-governmental organisation Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti has collaborated with Stanford University to jointly develop the $20 Jaipur knee, fêted by Time magazine as one of the best 50 inventions in the world in 2009.

“There are innovative solutions to everyday problems in every Indian village. We need to push for low-cost and workable models that can be scaled up. There is immense opportunity for innovators in the country,” said Professor Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network. It consists of a database and members who scout out, develop, sustain and reward grassroots innovators.

Increased funding

The environment for collaboration with India on such research projects is promising, according to the report.

As research becomes increasingly networked internationally, companies and universities that set up R&D centres in India to adapt Western products and ideas for the Indian market are increasingly realising that the country could create products that could disrupt global markets, the report said.

Around 750 multinational companies’ R&D centres in India employ up to 400,000 professionals – up from fewer than 100 such centres in 2003.

The innovation environment in India has also caught the attention of international universities and research firms, with the government’s announcement of a new US$1 billion ‘inclusive innovation fund’.

This is significant when compared to the lacklustre growth and de-leveraging in developed economies, environmental constraints around climate, energy, water and other resources, and caring for rapidly ageing societies – all of which will increase demand for frugal products and services and frugal innovation processes.

Around three-quarters of R&D funding in India comes from government, and consistent support for science has led to world-class research capabilities in physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering, and advanced space and civil nuclear research.

Funds from other sources include £120 million (US$187) from seven social venture capital funds with about £80 million invested in 72 social enterprises in India over the past six years. Foreign direct investment in research in 2010 was over US$4 billion.

A long-pending expansion of higher education is under way, with the government setting up nine more Indian institutes of technology, five Indian institutes of science education and research (IISERs) and 30 national institutes of technology across the country.

When fully operational, the IISERs will each produce 2,000 PhDs in science and technology a year – doubling the current national output. The CSIR also plans to award 1,200 PhD and 2,000 postgraduate science degrees annually, beginning this year, to boost scientific manpower.

UK-India collaborations

The report suggests that the UK should develop a strategy based on India’s unique model by bringing together different government funded agencies to support innovations with both social and commercial impact, such as clean energy, healthcare, education and design – all of which could have frugal elements.

Joint research funding with India could also be further increased, the report recommended. The research councils’ current annual investment is roughly equivalent to 0.3% of the UK research budget. For the UK to become India’s ‘partner of choice’, “it needs to move to deeper collaborations and to increase the resource envelope available”.

While joint research and higher education partnerships between the UK and India have increased substantially over the last five years, countries such as the US and Germany have also deepened links with India.

The US and India authored nearly 12,000 articles together between 2006 and 2010, three times as many as the UK and India. The US remains the preferred destination for Indian students, with 104,000 Indian students choosing the US to study compared to the 39,090 who chose the UK.