An Innovation Factory Looks to India

Steve Hamm

Satyam Cherukuri left India and came to America more than 20 years ago to seek a graduate degree. Now the CEO of Sarnoff Corp. is retracing his steps. Not content to rely on American and European scientists to produce innovations for his research-for-hire outfit, he has set up an outpost in Bangalore. This is a clear sign that India isn't just a source of low-cost tech labor. It's a vital part of the global brain pool. Cherukuri's move is smart. Any tech company that doesn't tap into the best scientific talents in the world wherever they may be, is likely to get its butt kicked before too long.

The way Cherukuri sees things, tech outfits need to establish what he calls "global innovation supply chains"--and fast. Sarnoff has its headquarters in Princeton, NJ, and additional offices in Silicon Valley, Belgium, and Japan, as well as India. The Bangalore office has 70 scientists and engineers so far, and will grow fast. "It's not about cheap labor, though that's how this trend started," says Cherukuri. "Now it's about creating a new ecosystem for how technology is created and consumed. It's not an optional choice anymore. You just have to do it."

Cherukuri compares today's Indian tech outfits (Tata, Infosys, Satyam, Wipro) to the Japanese car companies in the 1960s. At first American consumers thought they produced junk. Later, they were seen as superior. But he thinks they could make an even bigger impact on the global tech industry, and faster, than the Japanese did on cars. That's because Japan's biggest skill is in taking innovations created by others and turning them into products. He thinks the Indian tech companies will be innovators themselves, both in hardware engineering and software programming.

We in America had better get with it--or risk being left behind.

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