Possibility to Actuality – Shaping frugal and disruptive innovations for India

“When you think something is impossible, you do not disturb the person who is doing it” – Amar Bose.

With due respect to Thomas Carlyle’s celebrated prescription, it is time we improvised it for the sake of innovation. Our responsibility does not just lie with doing what is clearly at hand, but we also need to look what lies dimly at a distance. Possibilitiarian is a person who, in doing so, converts possibility into actuality.

Every successful organization today needs such a ‘Dreamer at the Top’, a possibilitiarian doing the impossible against all odds. This prime mover dares the team to dive deep and soar high towards timely thought and action, but in a manner hearteningly devoid of provocation and intimidation.

Science would be deficient if it were only to remain a hope for future. It will remain a potent force short of purpose if it fails to meet the pressing needs of today. Intention is the key driving force of innovation. No wonder, right intention is the foundation of most scientific breakthroughs.

The Covid 19 challenge has thrown down a gauntlet of this century – The Virathon. Unlike prior hackathons, this life hack has brought the entire innovation ecosystem to the brink of several paradigm shifts. A case in point is the Bench to bedside progression in science that spans, on an average, 17 long years – from lab research, clinical research, and guidelines to clinical practice. Thanks to Covid-19, this time frame hasshrunk to 17 days, making the bench seem right next to the bedside. As the Virathon continues, innovators and researchers are forced to take a big leap forward to create a hyperloop for knowledge aggregation.

If the end goal of education is knowledge, and that of knowledge is service, we can leave this world by making it a tad better than from where we started off. All you need to do is ‘raise the right question’. When one swears allegiance to a principle, the ‘answer’ appears as soon as the question is right and ready, just like how the master appears when disciple is worthy and ready. Innovations are the fountainhead to set this largely intuitive process in motion.

Jugaad and frugal innovations have found its earliest origins in India. If innovations represent our ambition, intentions should be the driving purpose behind them. Both collide within you, they are an inspiring combination, and leave you transformed. An unknown force takes over, it drives your life to make you a witness of your unfolding idea, not its creator. If innovation is your passion, make compassion your purpose. If innovation is your power, make intention the underlying force.

At the end of one of my lectures, a starry-eyed medical student asked me: Sir how do I get a brilliant idea? I replied: develop a deep yearning to help one patient in need, and do not stop until you have solved his or her problem. The entire universe will conspire to flood you with most brilliant ideas. Remember, perfection becomes effortless if the innovation is unflinchingly focused on removing an individual’s pain, not tweaked to ‘meet’ the market potential. Any success achieved in solving an individual’s problem seamlessly attains scope, scale, and size, thereby impacting the masses and thereafter the markets in an organic manner.

During my interaction with students, I am often asked – ‘Which branch of medicine do I take up’? Which branch has better scope? I invariably surmise ,“I don’t know, ask yourself”. One must necessarily look within to discover inherent interests and deliberate upon how they could benefit your patients. If one is sincere about this introspection, scope and fulfillment become a foregone conclusion.

En route your educational voyage, you will often come across a subject, a chapter or a topic that ‘speaks’ to you. You will sense an instant connect, akin to a reunion with a long lost pal. This premonition of destiny will become your driving force! This has been my experience with oncology, as also my interest in research in the area of Voice. I connected with it from the first year of my med school and relished exploring its depths. My professor Dr. Humbarwadi inspired me to look at the voice box differently. We spent much time dissecting the nerve to the voice box; he would speak to me at length about the enigma and exceptionality of the voice box. Today, when I connect the dots, my ongoing work on Voice prosthesis innovation seems to make all sense. The truth being told, you connect the dots when you turn back, not when you look forward. You need to keep creating the dots as you move forward in the path of innovations and stop intermittently. At some point it will all make sense.

The former Chief Justice of India Justice M N Venkatachalliah has been one of the most revered mentors. He once told me: we should examine India’s development beyond GDP. This limited and inadequate economic parameter can even be achieved through immoral and illegal means, say by allowing pirates or criminals to run riot.

He shared with me a beautiful note, etched in my memory for life: “if three doctors walk all the way for their homes to the hospital, the GDP is low. If the same three buy a brand new BMW and drive it to the hospital, the GDP is way better. However, if on the way, the car meets with an accident and all three doctors lose their lives, our GDP may be turn out to be the best!

GDP is but a feeble way to assess progress. Let us envision an India of holistic ideals and purposes, beyond mere economic goals, that stands tall to inspire the world towards scaling similar strides. We must envision India’s development as an expansion of freedom across spheres. Through my innovation of 1$ voice device, I only did my bit to expand the freedom of speech.

This ascetic spirit of India was envisioned by Swami Vivekananda. He and Jamsetji Tata met en route a Japan to Chicago voyage when Swamiji shared his aspiration with the visionary industrialist, “What a wonderful feat it would be, if the philosophy of the east met the science of the west”. Years later, Jamsetji incepted the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), donating almost half of his personal wealth for this noble cause. Jamsetji’s letter addressed to Swami Vivekananda, which has been embossed on the IISc walls, is a towering inspiration to millions who harbor similar ambitions rooted in selflessness.

Counterintuitive approach to innovation

During a Tuck School of Business global leadership program conducted by renowned strategy & innovation expert Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, the Rolls-Royce team offered me a remarkable perspective on innovation: unlike the 20th century when knowledge was power, today ignorance is power, as the offbeat views and lateral thinking of non-domain experts has become so very crucial to frugal and disruptive innovation, especially in these Covid times. We need collaboration beyond conventional spheres, not competition between warring cartels.

The ultimate truth about ideas defies popular perception: “Ideas never come from you, they come to you”. Although they reach out to many, only the receptive pay heed and accommodate them. What if we could share our ideas, maybe even allow someone to whisk them away them, in the hope of a larger good to society through a better use. If we copyleft our work, it will help us evolve as also serve others in the true spirit of innovation. I have known from personal experience that such an attitude strengthens ideas through powerful collaborations. The copyleft principle (unlike the copyright) unleashes the power of an idea, its true potential, from conceptualization to implementation.

Some time back, an innovator called me up for a possible collaboration on a similar voice device for throat cancer patients. The call was essentially to connect with me and clarify some of his doubts. We ended up discussing a few principles of speech and I urged him to study my designs. One of my colleagues glared at me in absolute perplexment, as if I were insane beyond repair. When he asked me for my logic, all I told him was this: if this man were to disrupt the process or device for speech better that me (less than a $), I will salute him. But I am more than confident about disrupting his innovation further, at a pace twice faster.

That is how innovators should compete to ensure that the world gets the absolute best. We must always ‘Pay it Forward’ to society, breaking free of fear, insecurity, and conformity to convention only to see the world anew each passing day.

We must never forget we are all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The greatest innovations of today could well turn out to be the biggest blunders of tomorrow. We live in an era of a versionable generation gap. Our greatest competitors are in fact our strongest collaborators. What better time than this to harness the power of collaboration to its fullest, thereby expanding our outreach to masses for achieving far-reaching, measurable, and sustainable social outcomes.

The foundations of frugal and disruptive innovations will thrive on a value-based education. When innovators are led by benevolence ahead of breakthroughs, the innovation becomes transformative.

Sadly, in the medical sphere of today, we are only innovating illnesses, not therapies. Worse, we are further innovating on top of these ‘man- made’ ailment innovations. No wonder, most medical students feel a compelling need to build a hospital to cherish what they assume is the crowning glory of a successful career.

Today, the holistic term health care is invariably held synonymous with the incidental term medical care. The latter is only a part of the former, and it comes into play only when there is a deviation from health. Health care is about treating the root cause, not merely the effect which is only the tip of the iceberg. It is an indisputable fact that a healthy society thrives on as less ailments and hospitals as possible. High time we broke the conformal barriers that disallow health care innovations to serve the larger cause of humanity. High time we neither raise eyebrows nor ring alarm bells that an integral member of the medical fraternity should be endorsing this critical need.