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A biography of innovations from birth to maturity

R Gopalakrishnan (Gopal), worked for Hindustan Lever for thirty one years and rose to the position of vice chairman; subsequently, for close to two decades, he functioned as Director, Tata Sons. In these fifty years Gopal has had rich and varied experience to look at innovations and new products launched across the world.

Gopal’s experience got enriched when Ratan Tata invited Gopal to chair the Tata Group Innovation Forum (TGIF). In the sprawling, wide spread activities of the Tata group, Gopal strove to coordinate, synthesise and commercialise several of the research products. His extensive experiences looking at the innovation labs of Hindustan Lever headed by such luminaries as S Varadarajan and A K Ganguly and at the laboratories, research institutions and plants he visited across Europe and the US came in handy in writing this book.
In the biography of innovations from birth to maturity, this communication expert describes the link between a concept maturing into a prized product and the evolution of the embryo maturing to old age. Hundreds of anecdotal instances have been woven to present a complex web of innovations that transformed the way we live.
Gopal has been a prolific writer commenting on men and matter in his regular newspaper columns. After retirement, Gopal has shar-
pened his faculty for creative writing with speed! He promises to release his next book, the seventh, in July and two more in quick succession!
In this book, there is a comfort for those with greying hair. Gopal contrasts the Silicon Valley obsession with young people and quotes a study that showed that “inventors speak in the late 40s and tend to be productive in the latter half of their careers. Nobel winners apparently make the discoveries at an average age of 50.” He provides contemporary evidence, referring to John B. Goodenough. He says: “at the age of 94 Goodenough and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionise electric cars… Thirty-seven years earlier when he was fifty-seven years old, Goodenough had co-invented the lithium-ion battery.’
Gopal makes an excellent link between science and the human: “in science, the average time between a concept and its manifestation as a commercial product could be 30-50 years…The life of the concept (and its later manifestation as an innovation) and that of an embryo (and its later expression as a human being), both seem to take 40-50 years to peak.”
Gopal has delved deep into neuroscience comparing the evolution of a human brain with its huge complexities and accidental birth of a concept to a comparable accident in the formation of a life. Gopal visualises the viability of ideas and innovations linking it through 8 life stages and presents these through 8 chapters in his book. Look at these eight chapters:
A concept is conceived in the brain (fertilisation) and grows into an idea (pre-natal). 2. The idea is articulated (delivery)3.Development of the idea into a prototype (infancy)4. Refinement of prototype into a working model (childhood) 5. Presentation of the products and business – model (adolescence)6. Product competes in the market (adult) 7. Product achieves its potential (maturity) 8. Product renews itself to stay relevant to new concept (ageing).
In a nutshell at the end of each chapter. There are dozens of easy-to-relate examples with several desi experiments.
The five decades of experience of Gopal, his extensive travels and interactions with leaders across the globe, have been compressed into this well-researched biography of innovations. – SV

Inside… an insight

Natural way to fairness

In 1973, the marketers in the Hindustan Lever office observed a very old Indian phenomenon: the newspaper matrimonial columns were full of advertisements for ‘fair brides.’ They wondered whether it was possible to produce a cream that could make women fair naturally and without bleaching the skin. It took two years of colliding viewpoints and frenetic neurons to formulate safe products. Today, Fair & Lovely counts as an Indian contribution to Unilever. The brand has a global revenue of about a billion dollars.

Associative thinking

Companies should celebrate success but should also celebrate authentic failures. Innovation can thrive only in a climate that encourages risk-taking…. Institutions need storytellers who can repeatedly narrate inspiring examples. Innovation in human society is natural, just as nectar in food is natural. It needs to seep in everywhere.

Tata Swach

TCS had recruited as a consultant one Prof P C Kapur, who had retired from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and who had done some pioneering work on waste materials, including on the adsorptive and antimicrobial properties of rice husk ash (RHA). His novel insight was that RHA had around 85 per cent activated silica and 10 per cent activated carbon. Thus, it could adsorb bacteria (due to the activated silica) and also remove odour (due to the activated carbon). Its adsorptive capacity is high. Since its main constituents are in an activated state, it is possible to embed other substances on it. I had learned long ago from my grandfather that water stored overnight in a silver vessel was ‘good water.’ I learned that silver has long been known as a metal that killed bacteria upon reasonable physical contact.
One TCS scientist had proposed nanosilver, but could not figure out a safe and cost-effective way to use the material. I jousted with Murali Sastry, then with Tata Chemicals. He said, “Why think of silver when you can consider nanosilver?
It took three years of consistent development work by a talented team of passionate scientists, persistent development folks, adaptive production managers, and compulsive marketing evangelists to design and launch Tata Swach, a novel nanotechnology-based water purifier.

McDonald’s

McDonald’s is serving 70 million customers every day in 120 countries. The business began in 1940, opened by the two McDonald brothers. It was a drive-in restaurant where consumers could quickly pick up a hamburger and a milkshake for consumption in the car. They used known assembly-line production techniques to deliver tasty burgers of good quality on a consistent basis. The company soon transformed into a global company.
The big innovation and breakthrough came with the business model. The company had a process manual for every minute operation so that repeatability and consistency were assured. How could a hamburger be delivered, hot and tasty, in a target time from the placement of the order? How could the decor and look of a store be standardised, irrespective of whether the store was in American Midwest or Beijing? How would the brooms be applied to the floors, how would the cash counters complete their task efficiently, how would the restrooms look clean and practical? Every aspect was industrially engineered and converted into a process manual and every franchise employee had to attend training programmes at what the company called the Hamburger University.
The company’s growth and profitability was evidence of how an apparently simple product could be innovated through its business model, giving the company years of competitive advantage.

Maturity: challenged to change

In the 1970s Dubai was a nondescript habitation in the middle of the desert. I would never have visited Dubai or Abu Dhabi were it not for the fact that I had work to do there and also because it enabled me to buy a few odds and ends for the family in import-starved India! When I read about the ruler’s visions and ideas, it all seemed fanciful and dreamy. Yet, fifty years later, in 2015, the Dubai International Airport surpassed London’s Heathrow with its 78 million passengers. Dubai is a major hub for air travellers.

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