Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma “The Impact of U.S. and Indian Innovations in Global Business”

The University of Chicago Delhi Center, Lalit Hotel

(As prepared for Delivery)


Good evening. It is a pleasure to address this group and to participate in such an important and timely discussion. Secretary Kant, I am especially honored to be with you on this occasion, as your life of service has been an example of continual innovation. You have been the engine behind initiatives and ideas that have inspired and influenced India in a profoundly positive direction.  And I am pleased to be addressing this event that is organized by the University of Chicago.  The University has made a strong commitment to India by establishing its impressive and beautiful Delhi Center.

I was also pleased to recently receive an email from the President of the University of Chicago announcing a new endowed chair in Sanskrit studies made possible by a multi-million dollar donation by Guru and Anupama Ramakrishnan.  The announcement of the Ramakrishnan Professorship comes as the University’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrates its 50th anniversary.  Sanskrit is also the South Asian language with the longest continuous record of being taught at the University of Chicago, having been offered since 1892.  There’s no doubt that your programs, along with those of the International Innovation Corps, have made a very positive contribution to U.S.-Indian relations over decades.

What Does It Mean to Innovate? 

There’s no question innovation is essential to achieving economic growth, prosperity and security in so many areas.  We know, just from the data collected about the U.S. economy, that innovation is essential to our growth.  In fact, from 1948 to 2012, over half of the total increase in U.S. productivity growth came from innovation and technological change, according to the White House.

The challenge, I find, is that we use the word “innovation” a lot – and we do not often know exactly what we are referring to.  It reminds me of the phrases “smart cities” and “public private partnerships” – important terms to be sure, but terms that probably mean something different to everyone in this room.  And, that’s ok.  For me, “innovation” signifies a commitment for change – and a drive and quest to make life better, safer, easier, healthier in so many ways.

I had the great privilege to be in Silicon Valley when Prime Minister Modi was there last fall.  I heard him speak in several different forums about innovation.  He called for bringing together the best minds of India and the United States, who could use the latest advances in science and technology to solve our two countries’ – and the world’s – biggest challenges.  In short, he encouraged all of us to look at ways to harness our great networks of entrepreneurs and innovators to improve the condition of ordinary people.  My takeaway was that we should not settle for business as usual that involved long and winding paths for economic development – it was time to be disruptive in our thinking, not accept the status quo, and drive for the greatest social impact.  That’s what innovation means to me, and I appreciate the Prime Minister helping to articulate such a clear vision of how technology, new thinking and social development are inexorably linked.  As the Prime Minister said when he was in Silicon Valley, “In this digital age, we have an opportunity to transform the lives of people in ways that were hard to imagine just a couple of decades ago.”

This vision tracks quite well with President Obama’s.  Some of you may not be aware that last October the President announced a new Strategy for American Innovation, and similar to Prime Minister Modi, he called upon Americans to “harness innovation to help address our Nation’s most important challenges.”  He emphasized investing in advanced R&D, launched efforts to make the Federal government more innovative to improve its performance, and identified nine strategic focus areas, including advanced manufacturing, precision medicine, the advanced study of the brain, autonomous vehicles, space exploration and research, and clean energy, just to name some of the nine areas.

A question I am often asked is whether this move toward innovation sacrifices the fundamentals of learning, hard work and the time-tested value in human relationships.  In other words, are we looking for short cuts through technology, with the hope that the latest app will deliver a new way of living?  Well clearly, we can’t think of technology as a panacea – it is not a cure-all, and we cannot forget that the fundamentals are still essential.  The trusted relationships that we form, the ability to build consensus and navigate societal cleavages, and our ability to hear and understand each other still form the core of our interactions and no device or smart application can substitute for that interaction.

But to ignore our scientific and technological advances is also a big risk. Innovations that fail to keep pace or draw upon the best and latest technologies may simply not be sustainable or scalable, and both are critical.  Take, for example, the insights of John Chambers, the new Chairman of the U.S.-India Business Council, who led Cisco for decades and kept the company at the forefront of many ground breaking developments.  He says that there are around 10 billion devices connected to the internet today, and that by 2030, there will be closer to 500 billion connected devices.  This trend toward digitization, what he calls the “Internet of Things”, will change every aspect of day to day business, from supply chain to customer interface to productivity. Yet only 25 percent of executives have a proactive plan to address digitization to head into this new emerging area. Companies and leaders that recognize this trend and adapt will find new profit streams and benefit from being in tune with customers’ expectations.

Of course, the move toward digitization is not simply a private sector phenomenon.  We see it in government, civil society, educational institutions, and so much more.  The more digitized, high tech world has transformed how we communicate, how we learn, and in how we interact and excel professionally and personally.  So innovation and technology go hand in hand.  While technology cannot be a substitute for a good idea, it can be the accelerator, the connector and the enabler.

Innovation on Display 

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to see incredible innovation taking place all across India.  In my first 15 months, I’ve traveled to some 18 states, and well over 45 cities.  I’ve learned so much from the incredible array of scientists, business professionals, start-ups, students, government and community leaders who are driving change in India, and constructing solutions for today and future generations.  And, what’s been particularly exciting is to see how Indian and U.S. innovators are working together.

Nawneet Ranjan founded a slum innovation project in Dharavi that works with teenage girls to improve their digital literacy and empower them to apply their technological skills in the community.  Despite limited means, the “Dharavi Girls” took an MIT online app-making course and developed several mobile apps.  One of the apps, which is available for download, is a women’s safety app with a GPS locator and panic function.  After producing this first successful app, the girls are developing a second round of apps to address issues such as women’s health, child labor, and unemployment.

During a visit to South India last April, I visited a migrant community on the outskirts of Mysore, where many of the adults make cricket bats in their tents.  Through a partnership between USAID and SELCO India, we are providing portable, battery-operated solar energy units that produce enough electricity to power a light and charge a mobile phone.  The introduction of these mini-power plants into this community is changing lives.  The lights allow the workers to increase the number of bats they can make, thereby increasing their incomes by up to 30 percent.  The use of kerosene is decreasing in favor of clean solar power.  But these are just the tangible benefits.  As one of the workers told me, the solar lights were also reducing his family’s exposure to snakes, rodents, and insects, making his wife and children feel safer.

At Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, I saw new seeding technology developed by the ‘U.S.-India-Africa’ Triangular Training Program that helps to disperse crop seeds through muddy terrain— suitable for African agricultural production conditions.  The ‘U.S.-India-Africa’ Triangular Training Program is training agriculture professionals from Kenya, Malawi, and Liberia in solutions proven to reduce poverty and hunger (like the new seeding technology) that participants are using to advance national food security efforts in their countries.

In Jaipur last Monday, I went to the legendary Jaipur Foot organization, which has provided prosthetic limbs to well over 1.5 million people in India and to tens of thousands of others around the world.  Their new low-cost artificial knee was developed jointly with U.S. designers in Silicon Valley giving so many a new lease of life, a chance at full employment, and a dignified quality of life.  I even had one of the patients who had an above-the-knee amputation, demonstrate his newly designed knee in a 40 yard dash through the Jaipur Foot parking lot – it was so impressive and inspiring, and yes, he was really fast!

As I mentioned, some innovations and innovative thinking don’t necessarily rely on advanced technologies.  At the NGO Sulabh right here in New Delhi, millions of new toilets have been constructed based on their basic design, which is fully biodegradable and has the potential for converting waste into sources of biomass fuel.  No massive infrastructure costs, just incredible ingenuity to solve a longstanding health and safety issue.

I’ve met the leaders of the rickshaw drivers’ co-op in Patna, where the drivers could finally own their own rickshaws, driving up their profitability and improving the quality of service provided.  I’ve seen the great work that two young Americans did in Calcutta in bringing women out of the sex trafficking industry with a for-profit handicraft venture that provides valuable skills, benefits and a safe place to work.  And, I’ve seen the good work that our consulate in Hyderabad has done to combat trafficking with their TIP Caravan, working with NGO Prajwala, where a bus of volunteers, many of whom were trafficked, is visiting dozens of rural areas and cities in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.  Partnering with local NGOS, police, judiciary, government officials, schools and community organizations, they are often drawing crowds of up to 10,000. The anti-TIP message is carried to the grassroots in a way that has never occurred anywhere, and other states are clamoring for a TIP Caravan. This will dramatically change the conversation about trafficking in persons.  It’s a new and innovative approach.

These examples only scratch the surface on what is happening around India, with Indian innovators, and with U.S. and Indians working together.  You can see why one can be so excited and optimistic, as the Prime Minister was when he was in Silicon Valley, because there is so much promise in our work together.

Creating A Culture of Innovation

The question for those of us in government is how can we nurture a culture of innovation and ensure that there is an ecosystem to support innovators, their ideas, and the deployment of their solutions.  Prime Minister Modi and his team answered that question so directly in their Startup India Action Plan.  With his focus on improving the ease of doing business, the IP and tax regimes, supporting young entrepreneurs, enhancing financial incentives, and streamlining regulatory regimes – it was an innovators’ wish list, and we have pledged to be a close partner in this effort as it moves forward.  You can count on our support.

When we talk about supporting young entrepreneurs in particular, I am reminded of a famous commencement address given by the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple.  He recounted a story about failure – a big failure, in fact, as he puts it, at the age of 30 he got fired from Apple, the company he created.  But this is what he said:

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.  During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance.”

If you think about what we are asking these young people to do – take risks, explore, innovate, and help us solve the big and small problems confronting us – there is bound to be failure.  But, as Steve Jobs tells us, the failure is essential to getting to the next step, to freeing the mind, to trying even harder.  Again, for governments, we have to work together to create the financing, regulatory, and mentoring regimes to ensure young and old alike can get back up, dust themselves off after a misfire, and launch again into this exciting ecosystem of innovation.

Our Focus Areas in the Year Ahead 

In the year ahead, we have a number of big and small initiatives that will draw upon the best in class innovations and innovators from our two countries.  We will continue to be a close partner in Smart Cities, aiming to help ease the burdens of massive urbanization and striving to make cities more liveable, safer, cleaner, greener, and more efficient.  We will continue to invest in the latest clean and renewable energy through our Mission Innovation program, where both our nations have committed to double clean energy R&D, and through smaller scale funding programs such as the

PACEsetter fund we established with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to accelerate the commercialization of off-grid clean energy access by providing early-stage grant funding.  We are currently reviewing a variety of innovative proposals, including community based solar pumps; piloting a pay-as-you-go home energy system; user-friendly gasifier and engine for irrigation; and waste to energy innovation at small scale.  Our U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund and Millennium Alliance have strong track records in promoting innovation, and we will continue to support both efforts in the years ahead.  The Endowment Fund has provided financing for projects in agriculture, neo-natal care, and helped support the ReMotion knee at Jaipur Foot, while the Alliance has supported technologies that can do blood testing on a chip; handpumps that filter water; and an innovation to help farmers with haldi (turmeric) harvesting.

We also have a very busy upcoming summer that will further highlight and promote the innovation in and between our two countries.  The 3rd SelectUSA Investment Summit will take place in Washington, D.C., June 19-21, 2016. President Obama and many other senior government and business leaders hosted the prior two Summits. This year’s SelectUSA Investment Summit theme will be “The Innovation Advantage”.

On June 22-24, 2016 the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit will take place in Silicon Valley. This strategic location highlights the important role that entrepreneurship plays in the U.S. economy, and also provides a unique platform to connect global entrepreneurs with prominent investors and mentors.

Finally, at the U.S. and India first ever Strategic and Commercial Dialogue held in Washington, D.C. last year, we initiated a work stream on innovation and entrepreneurship. The second Dialogue will be held later this year in New Delhi and will deepen and expand these discussions, finding practical applications for this innovation track.

In conclusion, I am frequently reminded of Prime Minister’s Modi’s charge to all of us that it’s too limiting to think of the U.S.-India partnership in terms of what we can do for each other.  The real promise is in what we can do for humanity, and for global peace and prosperity – that’s the real promise in our partnership.  As our best minds continue to work together in this wide range of areas, there is no doubt that through innovation and our deepening collaboration in the years ahead, we will not only help transform the lives of our citizens, having the social impact that our leaders called for, we will also help transform the lives of millions around the world.  That’s a goal worth striving towards.