Dr Abhay Jere never thought of getting into government service or being a part of the government. But destiny had other plans. He was appointed as the first Chief Innovation Officer of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) last year.
“It is a completely new dimension and an eye-opener. It has widened my horizon,” says the researcher-scientist of his latest avatar of a being in a government position. In his previous role, Jere was Associate Vice President - Life Sciences at Persistent Systems, a position he continues to hold but is not allowed to contribute to because of his current role with the government.
The MHRD established an ‘Innovation Cell’ at the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in 2018 with an aim to systematically foster a culture of innovation in all higher education institutions across the country, and roped in Jere.
Jere admits that his family was initially “quite apprehensive” about his taking on the position. “They were concerned about whether I’ll be able to sustain, coming from a very different background. Whether I will get frustrated,” he says. However, those concerns were laid to rest, he adds as he is “very happy” with how things have shaped up in the last one year.
Jere started working with Persistent Systems in 2010 in the area of personalised genomics and personalised medicine after working on HIV research in the US and India.
But he always had a keen interest in working towards building an innovation ecosystem in India. Since 2011, he actively worked in this area. “India needed to work towards innovation. And I thought if I can help build that, it would be great. And every other year I found myself doing some innovation event or the other,” he says.
In 2013 he organised “India’s biggest innovation mela” called ‘Inclusive Innovation’, which saw a turnout of 1.5 lakh people. In 2014, he helped identify innovators for CII’s ‘India Innovation Initiative’. Then in 2015, he organised the ‘Goa Idea & Innovation Competition’ involving educational institutes from across India, in a bid to create a model “for harnessing the innovation and creativity of youngsters”.
Jere says he then realised that hackathons were the best way forward to actually create products, and started working on the format, starting with the Digital Pune Hackathon in 2015. Several public organisations such as Pune Police, Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority, and the electricity board were tapped to identify five problems plaguing the city, and these issues were given to engineering students in the city as a challenge to solve.
“That initiative made us realise that there is a huge interest among students to contribute towards the country. Also that such a platform would groom them to become technocrats. We also realised that such a hackathon at the national level would go a long way,” Jere says.
And that is how the Smart India Hackathon, a nationwide initiative by the government to provide students with a platform to solve problems faced by Indians in their everyday lives, was started in 2017 and has since become an annual affair. The primary idea behind the programme, besides the obvious problem solving, was to inculcate a culture of product innovation and a mindset of problem-solving among youngsters, according to Jere, the brain behind the programme.
“Because I was doing the Digital Pune Hackathon, I approached Prakash Javadekar, who was then the MHRD minister and also from Pune. I told him about my idea to take the local experiment national. He was keen and that is how the Smart India Hackathon started. This eventually resulted in the creation of Innovation Cell at the MHRD,” he shares.
The Innovation Cell is funded by the AICTE, which is under the MHRD. The ministry felt that while hackathons were a great step forward, a more comprehensive approach was needed – this led to the formation of the Innovation Cell.
The 2019 edition of the Smart India Hackathon saw both the central and state governments participating along with 95 private organisations. Four hundred problem statements were put out and around 2.5 lakh students from “almost every engineering institute” participated in what the ministry claimed was the “world’s biggest open innovation competition”.
How Smart India Hackathons are different
There are global tech giants who also conduct hackathons in India. So what sets Smart India apart?
Dr Jere says, “We are different because of the problems and the scope of problems offered. For example, if you see Dell and IBM, they do two kinds of hackathons: to engage internally and to engage students from a hiring perspective. But here (Smart India) we are saying that for small problems for which the government has to get into tendering...students can build tools for the government, get connected with the government, and improve themselves as technocrats.”
It is a sort of a public service and students are keen on participating because they believe they will be able to get associated with various government organisations such as ISRO, AAI, and others for internships, he adds.
The prize money for the Smart India Hackathon ranges between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, and is equally distributed among the students of the winning teams. Post the hackathon, the Innovation Cell supports the winning teams with up to Rs 3 lakh in funding. They also receive mentoring from the concerned government departments, which engage with the winners for six months.
The scope of the Innovation Cell
A programme called the Institute’s Innovation Cell (IIC) under the MHRD’s Innovation Cell was launched in November last year.
Speaking of the idea behind the programme, then HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar had said it was “to encourage, inspire and nurture young students by exposing them to new ideas and processes resulting in innovative activities in their formative years”.
IICs have already been established in 950 institutes and the Innovation Cell guides them on a monthly basis. “We believe if they do this for the next couple of years, if they follow us, an innovation ecosystem will get created within the institutes. The IICs are actively organising events like hackathons and tech fests to give a platform to students from these institutes,” Jere says.
The IICs are a composite body including professors, students, a patent or legal expert, a banker, and local industrialists.
To further encourage these institutes to invest more in innovation, the MHRD has introduced the Atal Innovation Ranking for colleges. The Innovation Cell is currently in the process of introducing startup policies for universities.
“The policy will cover things like how they can support innovation and the students, who owns the IP (intellectual property), what is the entry and exit strategy, if the institute is giving funding or mentorship how much equity can they take. All this is to bring some uniformity across India,” he says.
The Innovation Cell is currently exploring a hackathon for all the BIMSTEC member countries (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan). Last year, it started the Singapore-India Hackathon. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi was impressed with our hackathon model and pushed us to collaborate with Singapore,” Jere says.
While hackathons are annual events and a great community building platform, the Innovation Cell is also actively focusing on building an “India-first developer community” where small problems can be put out with price tags through the year and solved via the community.
“Through the Innovation Cell, we want to start a culture of innovation and grand challenges. Where ideas can solve global problems, where students can team up with our government as well as with other governments,” Jere says.
An MBA with a twist
Starting this year, the Innovation Cell has introduced an MBA programme in innovation, entrepreneurship and venture development in a few institutes as a pilot project.
“Under this programme, students will do their own startup. It is an incubator-based programme. At the end of two years if the startup takes off, that’s ideal and if not the student has an MBA and will be employable with loads of practical knowledge,” Jere says.
The pilot project has taken off with Kumaraguru College of Technology, Gujarat Technological University, Graphic Era, and SR Engineering College. There are plans to explore this model to see how well it is working and then expand to more institutes.
“Currently, our education system is based on swallow and vomit, and doesn’t allow much space for new, creative and out-of-the-box ideas. If we want to change this, we need to ensure innovation becomes the epicentre of our education system,” Jere says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)