Competitions, Grand Prizes, and a National Movement for Entrepreneurship

In the previous post, I shared an overview of recommendations made by the Expert Committee on Entrepreneurship and Innovation at NITI Aayog. In this post, I highlight two key short-term recommendations we have made: competitions to solve particular problems, and perhaps using the resulting buzz to seed a national movement to spur entrepreneurship in India.

Competitions to encourage innovation have been used since time immemorial.  History tells us that the King of Spain offered a prize around 1600 to help measure longitude accurately; the British followed suit for the same purpose a century or so later. Yet another century later, Napoleonic France resorted to competitions and prizes.  And so on, ever since then.

Lately, companies have realized that a good way to get their problems solved is to source talent from outside their boundaries.  That is, it’s folly to rely purely on in-house talent, none of us, not even the largest organizations, has all the answers readily available in-house. Foundations are also getting into the act. The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, for example, awards prizes as inducements to would-be innovators who then compete with each other in response.

In this sense, we are all taking a page from an age-old history, leveraging society’s understanding of incentives and the human spirit.

Why have prizes through competitions, when the patent system already rewards would-be innovators?  Well, the answer is that the patent system is imperfect in the best of circumstances (as are the copyright and trademark systems), let alone in a developing country like India where the intellectual property regime has to go through a lot of maturing before it can provide adequate inducement to entrepreneurs. Right now, patents from many developing countries aren’t truly valued by global investors, and the efficiency with which the system runs is quite low. This is normal. It takes time for all this to mature. In any case, there is no “either-or” situation here. No reason why developing countries can’t use competitions like our predecessors did in history or corporates around the world are doing now, while we’re also strengthening our conventional patent system.

With this in mind, our Expert Committee has recommended launching some Grand Challenges which I hope will be implemented in short order.

05-Competitions

In our committee’s pyramidal model of India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, competitions are part of the top layer, one among the set of initiatives that we believe will deliver payoffs soon.  The relative-immediacy of the payoffs does not mean that pulling these off is easy. Far from it! Their execution requires meticulous design and governance considerations which our report has laid out in some detail.

These competitions can help support entrepreneurs in a range of currently under-supported sectors – agriculture, healthcare, clean energy, education, all come to mind.  Some of these sectors do lend themselves to the angel-financed and venture-backed models that predominate in e-commerce spacein India, but others less so. The e-commerce boom is heartening but it is insufficient to create a modern economy.

I expect that the success of the government-initiated competitions will prompt interest from others to participate, foundations, private corporations and so on.  That should be welcomed. The idea is for the state to provide a platform to encourage, not a new way to monopolize activity. The more talent gravitates to these efforts, the better off we all are.

08-LargeScaleMovement

Firing up the competitive spirit, and using it to ferret out talent and direct it towards creative activity, can contribute to a groundswell of excitement. Ultimately, that’s the way to create a grass-roots movement for entrepreneurship. This movement, as we make clear in the report, can be supported in other ways, some of which are symbolic and others substantive.

The Prime Minister’s speech on Independence day in 2015 was an example of a symbolic exhortation, Start-Up  and Stand-up India. To the extent that we can look for opportunities to remind all – in government, civil society and the private sector – that there is room for creativity, so much the better.

Such exhortations can be supported by a movement to create apprentice entrepreneurs of sorts. Personally, I like the idea of our youth getting involved in social sector entrepreneurial ventures. They will accept lower compensation – perhaps even just in a voluntary capacity – in return for the opportunity to be involved in a creative project. This might give them a taste for what it means to be entrepreneurial. I can imagine mainstream corporates looking favorably on the work experience thus gained, so that even those who discover that entrepreneurship is not their avocation of choice, nonetheless benefit from the experience.

Ultimately, that’s just one way to excite the grass roots.  There are others, I’m sure. In keeping with the spirit of experimentation that must accompany any entrepreneurship, even the design and execution of competitions, as well their contribution to a grass-roots movement, will also require creativity and iteration. Hold on tight!

 

 

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