Frugal Innovation for a National Challenge

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dr Anuradda Ganesh, Chief Technical Advisor, Cummins Technologies India Pvt Ltd. & Adjunct Professor, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay

Mr Tito Kishan Vemuri, Founder and CEO, Proinn Consultancy® (Bangalore)

Mr Ajay Joshi, Technology Sensing, Incubation and IP Leader, Cummins Technologies India Ltd.




Historically, the greatest periods for scientific development and innovation have been during war time – propelled by the necessity to meet strategic and logistical requirements for the country. The COVID-19 pandemic, which can arguably be said to be a war (albeit one where countries had to fight a common enemy as opposed to each other) witnessed a similar pattern. This time around, scientists across the globe were enabled and empowered by digital technology, and collaboration was encouraged. To say that innovation was required to save humanity itself would not be an overstatement.


Across the globe, scientists, technology developers, start-ups, entrepreneurs, industries, and the government were all pushing the boundaries of science-based innovation – to develop and scale access to vaccines. India, with its limited resources and time, also resorted to “frugal Innovation” to make available affordable and value-added customer centric products and processes, including high quality PPE kits, ventilators, etc. There was also extensive support from the government in identifying and bridging gaps in the ecosystem to ensure that these innovations were made accessible to those in need, by enabling multiple funding options, and empowering institutions to become self-sufficient.


The digital space in particular provided a platform through which innovation has the potential to reach every corner of the country. The phenomenon is especially visible in the education sector, where online classes provide continuity for education. It would be appropriate to summarize this by stating that India excelled in crisis-driven innovation. The key success parameters which led to fruitful innovation in the country were mobility of funds, government support and empowerment, and breaking boundaries for addressing technical challenges. The article attempts to detail the existing ecosystem, as well as the challenges and opportunities brought about by the pandemic.


1.0 Introduction


War has often been the greatest stimulus for scientific development and innovation - driving the nation's strategic and logistical requirements. Examples are many: the first ‘flu vaccine’ developed by the US military during World War-I to combat the influenza pandemic; ‘penicillin’, though developed earlier in 1928, was taken up for mass production during World War-II to help fight aggravated infections causing deaths in US military; gasifiers which were developed by the Germans to power trucks during the World War II, etc. The list is long, and it is evident that innovation is usually accelerated in times when there is a pressing need to ensure survival. This time too, during the CoVID-19 crisis, we saw umpteen innovations. Researchers, technology developers, manufacturers were all digitally connected, and the global scientific community understood the importance of collaboration in fighting the war against the same enemy- the corona virus.


The demand for rapid and efficient innovation has never been more urgent and demanding –we needed vaccines and for, scaling its production and distribution, we needed medical facilities and supplies, accessibility to daily supplies, etc. The Pandemic also forced India to innovate in many other spaces, especially education. The subsequent digital education has provided continuity in education in the last two years, which would otherwise have resulted in crores of students losing precious time. Digital education also opened-up many other opportunities like improving the education system itself, increasing outreach into the rural areas etc. In such a crisis-driven situation, “Frugal Innovation” (both for products and processes) played a very important role in India. “Frugal Innovation” is the ability to “do more with less”- that is, to create significantly more business and social value while minimising the use of resources such as energy, capital and time”1


This article is an attempt to understand (a) what we as a country got right during the pandemic; (ii) the role played by the government, industry and academia; and (iii) the lessons we can learn from the overall phenomenon of innovation during this time. A few important parameters relevant for benchmarking and Global Innovation Index (GII) rankings have been used to understand the “response” to the pandemic in the innovation space and to identify gaps and challenges. The article ends with certain recommendations for addressing the identified gaps and building on the lessons learnt to drive positive changes.


2.0 Innovation during Pandemic and learnings:


In these challenging times, India witnessed a great synergy between research institutes, government and the industry. Everyone was caught unaware, and lives changed. Fear gripped - fear for the lives of dear ones, of losing bread and butter, of diminishing space, of deteriorating mental health, increased domestic violence, of being isolated, and the list is endless. There was no time to wait, and it was imperative that all step up together. No sector was less important than the other, be it healthcare and medical infrastructure, education, daily supplies, or the migrant crisis. In this time of need, innovations burgeoned. There are a number of reasons for the quick response - including the urgency of the humanitarian situation and a proactive approach to crowdsourcing ideas by the government. This time, innovations were driven primarily by humanitarian requirements rather than the need for “monetisation.”


It is perhaps right to say that in India ‘Frugal Innovation” was at its best during the pandemic. Resources were scarce, there was little time, and the existing infrastructure was at the brink of collapse.


2.1 Examples


This resulted in the widespread use of digital technology, communication and collaboration to improve access to information and services. A few examples of the technology innovations are the development of ventilators, PPE kits, the Aarogya Setu app’, etc. Glimpses on how these happened are described briefly below:




From producing almost no ventilators domestically (as supplies were primarily dependent on imports from Europe and China), India indigenously manufactured 60,000 ventilators in just three months. Individual groups of technologists from academia, small industries, start-ups, as well as established market players (in consultation with doctors and medical professionals) came together and worked on designing these ventilators.


A typical case study of the “greenfield emergency ventilator” showed that a ventilator design was ready in just two days with the help of a team of engineers and program managers (mostly working from home), to design, write the codes, prepare the bill of materials and identify vendors. A multi-source strategy was applied to enable a switch-over to any supplier depending on availability. India’s leading car manufacturers were approached to scale up the manufacturing of ventilators, which collaborated with a government-approved ventilator manufacturer to meet the demand.


Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) 3


India realized the critical role of PPE in combating this pandemic as early as March 2020, wherein the Ministry of Textiles stepped up to lead the assessment of the availability of all protective wear for our frontline health workers. The Indian textile manufacturing industry, researchers from institutes and defence organisations, as well as students came to the fore in this exercise – and India successfully started and scaled manufacturing of masks, followed by complete PPE sets, including body coveralls, gloves, shoe covers, etc.


From zero, India now produces nearly 4.5 hundred thousand kits every single day. The PPE industry in India has witnessed 56 times growth from the start of the pandemic and India eyeing a sizeable share of the global PPE market valued at $52.7 billion in 2019, expected to reach $92.5 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 8.7% during 2020-2025.


Aarogya Setu4


Aarogya Setu (translation from Sanskrit: the bridge to liberation from disease) is an Indian COVID–19 "contact tracing, syndromic mapping and self-assessment" digital service, primarily a mobile app, developed by the Indian government. It is a COVID-19 tracking app that uses GPS and Bluetooth features of smartphones to track the infection. It helps determine whether a user has been in close contact with any other infected person and is designed to track the distribution of the virus-infected population.


Aarogya Setu crossed five million downloads within three days of its launch, making it one of the most popular government apps in India. The application is mandatory for everyone living in the COVID-19 containment zone. This app has been able to identify more than 3,000 hotspots, 3–17 days ahead of time.


In March 2021, Co-WIN portal was integrated with the app which allowed users to schedule an appointment for COVID-19 vaccine through the app by registering their phone number and providing relevant details.


Government Frugal Innovation


Various analyses have been recently published on innovations that have taken place, and the findings as well as recommendations of these studies are interesting. One such study on the Break the Chain Campaign by Kerala Government5 analysed how the Kerala State Government (KSG) combated the spread of CoVID-19 using the “Break the Chain Campaign”. The author uncovers the KSG led use of frugal technologies as platforms that helped decision making and strategy development to fight the pandemic. It defines the term Government Frugal Innovation (GFI) as “involving minimum resources to produce efficacious (or modify existing) goods or services at low costs developed by, in partnership with, or facilitated by the government, with the aim of improving social welfare. GFIs not only harbours the promise of low-cost innovations, it also involves more open platforms with the participation of other public sector or governmental units, along with firms, and could also involve citizens, and arises in resource-scarce contexts.” The author describes the five arms of GFI in this case of the pandemic as :


  1. Empowering (Informing, educating and communicating on resource management);
  2. Arming (equipping, deploying and monitoring);
  3. Identifying (testing and tracing);
  4. Containing (fencing and isolating); and
  5. Supporting (food, medical, psychological).


2.2 Enablers


It is observed that institutions where the government had enabled ecosystems for innovation and start-ups (such as the Science and Technology Incubators (STIs) were able to take off first as the requisite resources and infrastructure were already in place. The IIT’s, IISc’s National Laboratories were well equipped and motivated to innovate in the relevant fields. For instance, IITs alone worked on several projects in various areas as seen in the chart below6.


Fig 1- Covid-19 Number of projects at various IIT’s


The collaboration between the office of Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India, and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was remarkable. The office of the PSA and CII were at the forefront in driving technology development, funding and facilitating technology transfer. More than INR Thousand Cr worth of opportunities were provided for 50+ institutions through 190+ industry and philanthropic partnerships, especially in the areas of health, agriculture, waste management, energy and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). 7


The CII in partnership with the office of the PSA formed a consortium of National laboratories/institutions and big manufacturing companies. To facilitate technology partnerships, CII organized several webinars connecting industry personnel with innovators. The office of the PSA simultaneously worked on enabling collaboration between innovators and industry, culminating in the launch of a platform called Innovation & Science @Bharat. The platform has been instrumental in facilitating industry-academia partnerships for social and industrial development. The industry-academia collaborations include joint research and development (R&D) or contracted industry R&D, establishment of theme-based Centers of Excellence (CoE) by industry in academic institutes to promote innovation and finding innovative solutions for social development. Its objectives are: 1) social Impact through science, technologies, and innovations; and 2) promotion of emerging technologies.


2.3 Observations


Based on the review of the impact (and in some cases, the lack thereof) of innovation in battling the COVID-19 crisis, the important learnings may be summarised as follows:


  1. Readily available ecosystems (such as research parks, innovation systems) at various institutes (mainly IITs and National laboratories) helped tremendously in timely innovation.
  2. For the innovators, clarity on what is required and for what purposes was critical in their success.
  3. Collaboration between the government and CII helped bridge the gaps in the identification of suppliers for components, technology integration and later, in scaling production (The gap for uptake of technologies from TRL4-TRL7/8 was bridged this way).
  4. Since the innovations were driven by a social/humanitarian cause, there was enhanced collaboration between various organisations, as well as easier access to funding as both philanthropic commitments and corporate CSR was made available.


3.0 How sustainable are the current innovation levels?


As witnessed, there were many innovations intended to address specific challenges posed by the pandemic. For instance, the “cardboard beds” which were designed in response to the shortage of beds in hospitals. The life of these innovations post-crisis is questionable . Many philanthropic investments were made available as one-time commitments for a specific cause.


There was neither the time nor adequate resources to undertake any deep science-based innovations (apart from vaccine research). To maintain the “innovation spirit” that spurred in the country and encourage more sustainable deep science or technology-based research, the government will need to take a few drastic measures through policies and interventions.


The Global Innovation Index (GII), over the past years, has served as a fantastic benchmarking tool to enable countries to identify the areas which needed prioritised attention. The GII attempts to cover both inputs and outputs of the innovation chain. For India specifically, both the input (R&D investment, number of researchers etc.) and the output (no. of patents, trademarks etc) are seen to be weak. At the same time, it is also true that the mere number of patent filings would be an inaccurate metric to assess the innovation potential of a country, as only 4-5% of the patents are commercialised and monetized8. Patents are filed in the early stages of the R&D (at typical TRL3, after which it requires investments by various stakeholders in the market economy to take it to TRL 6-9 to make it ready for commercialisation). It is therefore necessary that finances are made available throughout the R&D life cycle (and not just the initial stages) to help monetise the innovation output.


The learnings from the pandemic throw light on ways to bridge a few of the gaps detected. Some recommended solutions include identifying and prioritizing clear focus areas, connecting innovators to the industry, etc. The office of PSA and CII joint initiative during the pandemic was a very successful undertaking and has given an opportunity to the industries to get some insight into the ecosystem (developed by the government) and large technical capability available for R&D in India. Indian research institutes also, in turn, have had an opportunity to connect with industry and understand their needs. The fact that India has such low conversions from patent to commercialisation speaks volumes.


As such, a mindset change is required for India to grow as a superpower and make a mark in directional research and innovation - innovation that is able to transcend beyond the laboratories and thesis to truly have a positive impact on the lives of people. This desired change in the mindset can be effectively enabled by creating a shared need between the government, industry, and academia to develop key technologies and differentiated solutions. Further, a commitment from the above parties needs to be established to deliver the same for national growth and prosperity.


4.0 Conclusions and Recommendations


COVID-19 brought to light the innovative spirit of young researchers and innovators in the country. With clarity on needs and directions to innovate, a collaborative effort enabled timely outcomes. It also demonstrated that industry has the intention to promote indigenous innovations and capability to scale up for a given purpose. If the Government of India brings key technology needs from each line ministry, a collaborative approach led by CII and PSA with industry and academia can enable frugal and deep science innovations with limited resources. With limited resources, adopting methods that enable fast innovation in key areas will ultimately lead to progress and high-end technology development.


To build an upward trajectory for innovation with inventions for India, a few strategic recommendations are set out below:


  1. GII being a global measure of innovations for a country, India should aspire to be within the top 10, for it to be a leader in technology-driven innovations.
  2. Define focused innovation areas, driven by national interests such as increased self -reliance and sustainable development (for e.g., avoid situations like semiconductors chip shortage). It is imperative to identify critical parts of key systems and become a part of a hub and not a spoke. To clarify, it is not necessary to develop everything in-house; the focus is on reduced dependency on imports for key inputs.
  3. Re-define policies to encourage and incentivise innovation in India.
    1. For instance, each corporation, MSME, academic institution, etc. could allocate an appropriate percentage of their yearly budget towards R&D addressing the prioritized innovation areas.
    2. Inventor-friendly intellectual property policy to be evolved to promote, incentivise and safeguard the economic interest of Indian innovators. We can look towards the inventor policies of Germany, UK, Japan, France, China, etc.,
    3. To increase the patent filings in India, possible changes that may be considered are to incentivise first filing in India for their innovations.
    4. Ranking of the academic and research institutions, as well as STIs, needs to be shifted to patents monetized through commercialization (inclusive of defensive patents) rather than only filing of patents.
  4. Investment in skills development for the nation on innovation. The methods to invent and innovate have evolved significantly over the last 50 years. A formal innovation skill development program using these methods needs to be launched across industry and academia to accelerate invention-driven innovations (deep science and technologybased).
  5. IP awareness across the country includes information in policies and laws relating to Patents, Trademarks, Trade secrets, Mask work and Copyrights, as well as success stories of commercialized inventions coming from each line ministry addressing the focused innovation areas.


Frugal Innovation helped India wade through and survive the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the process has shown the path to help rise steeply on the innovation curve. If we consider the pandemic as a ‘pilot project’ –we can now use the lessons learnt to scale up in deep science and technology-based innovation in India and be one among the top 10 on GII.




We extend our sincere thanks to the Office of Principal Scientific Advisor for the discussions and sharing information on the initiatives and efforts taken for engagement with Academia and Industry for taking forward the innovations through funding, supply of components and mass manufacture of the innovated products. We are thankful to the Technology, Design, R&D, Innovation & IP division of Confederation of Indian Industry for providing insights to their initiatives on the engagement with Office of PSA, industries (including MSMEs) and academia for the same. We duly acknowledge Dr Premnath Venugopal, Head, NCL Innovations Pune, in providing us with the innovation side perspectives and the impact of the Government initiative to support innovation during the crisis. We also acknowledge Dr Shankar Venugopal, VP Mahindra and Mahindra for his constructive comments to improve the paper. We duly acknowledge Ms Vayshnavi Ganesh for the critical contribution of editing the drafts.




  1. Radjou Navi, Prabhu Jaideep. (n.d.). In Frugal Innovation-How to do better with less. Hachette India.
  2. Sharma Ankita, V. K. (2021, Aug 16). Helping India Breathe: Ventilator Manufacturing During Covid-19. Retrieved from Invest India:
  3. Lakshmanan Remya, N. M. (2021, Aug 16). Personal Protective Equipment in India: An INR 7,000 Cr industry in the making. Retrieved from Invest India:
  4. Shubham, V. (2021, Aug 16). Aarogya Setu now world's most downloaded covid-19 tracking app. Retrieved from India Today:
  5. Soumodip, S. (2021, Aug 16). Breaking the chain: Governmental frugal innovation in Kerala to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from The National Center for Biotechnology Information:
  6. Covid-19 Research at IIT's. (2021, Aug 16). Retrieved from Council of Indian Institutes of Technology:
  7. Communication with Office of Principal Scientific Advisor, GOI.
  8. Sagacious-IP. (2021, Aug 16). Best Practices on IP and Technology Commercialization. Retrieved from Sagacious IP:


About the Authors


Anuradda Ganesh, Director and Chief Technical Advisor at Cummins Technologies India Pvt Ltd, Pune and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay, Mumbai India. Dr Ganesh advises on the future technology trends, future regulatory policies and R&D and innovation policies and guides Cummins build strategic technology and product pipelines. She is currently serving in various National level Committees and at Confederation of Indian Industry, representing Cummins and as Subject Matter Expert. A PhD in Chemical Engineering, she brings in a unique combination of excellence in academia as well as industry.


Tito Kishan Vemuri, CEO of Proinn Consultancy®, Founder Chairman of ATTI, India’s regional MATRIZ Association and Director of TRIZ deployment of MATRIZ in India. With 25+ years of corporate experience in technical innovation, operational excellence and organizational change, Kishan has facilitated 1000+ inventions. He enabled to achieve millions of USD savings, over the last 15 years using the structured innovation methods of TRIZ, to various clients. Invent in India®, Structured Jugaad® and Proinn Consultancy® are registered trademarks of Tito Kishan Vemuri.


Ajay Joshi, Technology Sensing, Incubation and IP leader, Cummins Technologies India Pvt. Ltd. He has over 20+years of experience in new product design and development. He is a certified six sigma Master Black Belt and sponsor from Cummins. He is co-inventor for many patents specially in the field of engine and related technologies. He is a certified TRIZ level professional from MATRIZ and is an expert at IP Law.


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