Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs talk Indian Technology and Innovation


Ritu Jha-

At an informal Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs (SAE) round table discussion entitled “Bridges that Connect and Divide Silicon Valley and India: Catalyzing Change Via Tech & Entrepreneurship,” one thing that the table agreed on was what works in the US doesn’t necessarily mean it would work in another country and human connection is more important than technology.

“I believe in human connection, it’s a very important, technology is just a tool to scale,” event moderator Radhika Shah and co-president Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs, said stressing that local context is important.

One example that was highlighted during the discussion was Flipkart, founded in 2007, by Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, both IIT alumni and former Amazon employees. Flipkart is one of India’s eCommerce retailers, that after a roller coaster ride has been finally been bought by Walmart. Shah said that Flipkart’s initial payment system was done by credit card only, a system which didn’t work, and at that point, they were only in a learning mindset. Now they are using more human-centric thinking. They are talking to people and using technology to help scale solutions.

“Technology is good at scaling both good and bad things. But it is not a replacement for thinking from the human perspective,” said Shah.

Paula Mariwala, President of Stanford Angels, and Entrepreneurs, India, agreed to the statement above and also highlighted the issue of the gap between high tech Silicon Valley and India. She told indica that “in case of Flipkart, you have to understand, he came from Amazon, but he had to understand that the local consumer is not the same as the one sitting here in the Silicon Valley. He is sitting in Bihar or Goa.”

“India is different and has a layered society, so what works in Goa won’t work in Bihar,” said Mariwala.

Continuing further she said that “Even though a person who is an Indian living in the Bay Area, says an [idea or technology] would work in India, I would say no.”

“There is a gap in time. From the time [that person] left India and India of today is different.”

“So, you have to understand the changing time, culture, and ecosystem. That is very important.”

“Accept there is a gap, and you will build a bridge,” she said. “For example, when we talk about AI or other technology solutions, you must have adaptability, so while it’s important to have robust technology, one should keep the problem that you are trying to solve at the center.”  

Mariwala, a venture capitalist who has invested in over 45 companies in India, when asked during the meeting also shared her view on what works when it comes to investment. “You fund an innovation-based business model because the business model has to change with time. Technology will fuel it but it’s really the business model or your execution model that has to adapt. Technology is just an enabler.”

The attendees, most of whom from academia, also shared their perspective on how India is turning into a manufacturing hub with machinery coming from China. They shared that there are many regulations the requirements, yet there is still a huge gender disparity in society. Even when it comes to cell phones usage.

Shah told indica on hosting the meeting, “We were looking at bridging the [gender] gap and also understanding what’s common and what’s different between Silicon Valley and India.”

“We heard from Indian counterpart Mariwala and we believe that in the tech innovation and entrepreneur ecosystem, investors can play a key role. And yet we need voices from [different] sectors,” said Shah, who hosts mission-driven barnstorming sessions around the theme and has made about 14 to 15 investments, many in deep technology.

“I am a believer in the power of technology,” said Shah.

Using the example of Blue River which is building the next generation of smart agriculture equipment, Shah said it’s “a company that has transformed the agriculture industry by bringing the best of computer vision and robotics to transform the industry, using less fertilizer as well as less of women. Big technology disrupts the market.”

When asked if technology or human connection can help in building the bridges?

Shah said, “Again, I believe human connection is very important technology is just a tool to scale.”

Another attendee, Søren Juul Jørgensen, Research Fellow at WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University and also a former a diplomat at Danish Foreign Service told indica on the sidelines of the meeting, “Denmark has an innovation center in Delhi, connecting Danish science, innovation, and entrepreneurship with Indian science development entrepreneurship.”

It has been around seven years and they are totally integrated into the full Danish science and working on basically promoting innovation collaboration between Denmark and India.

“Innovation is fairly broad but very much [focused] on social and sustainable energy and climate change,” said Jørgensen.

What drives them there is entirely related to the sustainable goals and how you can make innovation technology to support and scale towards the United Nations sustainable development goals.

“We need to remember when we talk about technology it’s not an interesting thing, the interesting thing is how technology relates to humanity and human values and culture and customs, and that is what is important,” said Jørgensen.

Sarah Henry, Senior Advisor on Gender at the Gates Foundation and is starting a new Global Gender center at Stanford spoke about the consequences of technology, cell phones, for example, could have a negative impact as well. She also highlighted the toilet issues in third world counties.

She said they received the craziest ideas and design and there were 1700 proposals from 113 countries.

“[They built] beautiful toilets using the best technology and then you put it out in the market and no one is using it,” said Henry pointing out that technology should be built while keeping in mind who we are trying to serve. It takes 3 to 4 gallons of water and who carries water, women. They have to walk miles to fetch water. Also, it’s known that women biologically use the bathroom more than men so all these innovations…..often times should be done differently, and raises different questions about “who are we trying to serve.”

“We have seen that over and over again,” Henry said at the meeting.

“Technology push model doesn’t work, it should be a market pull,” said Mariwala.

Maya Vishwakarma, an attendee known as “Pad Woman of India,” and founder of Sukarma Foundation, said she traveled to China to gain knowledge about pad manufacturing machines and products being used said that when it comes to women’s hygiene China appeared to be more successful.

“What I discovered about menstrual hygiene, they have solved this problem years back, and India is trying to solve it but at a smaller scale. They are not [moving forward] in terms of big solutions,” said Vishwakarma.

China is developing machinery and creating pads and exporting to India. In India, manufacturers are not creating machines to innovate on a larger scale. Secondly, FDA regulations are not as strong as in the US.

The pads are not tested to see if they are hygienic or not. “So we are seeing [more awareness,] but we are not solving the women’s hygiene problem.”

When indica asked if the present government has had an adverse impact on foreign investors supporting non-profits, Mariwala said, “Quite honestly it has [been] impacted. They want to divide and rule.”

“Everybody [wants] economic growth, but when there is no social growth there will never be economic growth,” Mariwala said. Sounding not pleased with the government targeting non-profits she added, “What is the point of making it a homogenous religious country, give growth to everybody, it impacts investment when you drive away people who wanted to do good.”

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