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PM Modi’s Silicon Valley Visit: The Hits and Misses

PM Modi’s Silicon Valley Visit: The Hits and Misses

PM Modi once again reaffirmed his rockstar image in his whirlwind Silicon Valley tour. He hobnobbed with the bosses of the tech giants of the world, presented the Digital India dream to the Valley’s investors and entrepreneurs, lobbied hard to present India as an attractive destination for investments, reaffirmed his government’s initiatives to bring about a transformational change through technology, and even managed to conduct an emotional, but rather safe Townhall with Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But what actually are the key takeaways from this much hyped visit for people back home? Where has the PM’s visit succeeded in eliciting the interest of the Valley and which aspects remained untouched? Here is what we think about the tour’s hits and misses.

The Hits

  • Google committed to help India set up base for free Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations, though much was not revealed about the connectivity of the projects.
  • Google will introduce 11 new languages in Android next month, including Gujarati (hardly a surprise here).
  • Microsoft will take low-cost broadband technology to some five lakh villages across that country in collaboration with the Indian government. We will wait to see how  this plan rolls out.
  • Qualcomm that said that it would invest $150 Mn in India to create a venture investment fund that would probably help start-ups in the country. That is the only concrete funding news emanating as a result of this visit, but that’s a drop in the ocean. In the week from 14-19 September, 23 Indian startups raised about $263 Mn in funding altogether. And that is just the amount that is disclosed.
  • Prime Minister Modi also invited Apple to set up a manufacturing base in India and its CEO Tim Cook responded positively. We will have to wait and watch on this one.
  • Seven MOUs were signed between various Indian and American entities to boost startup activity in India. These include –
  1. MOU  between  National Association of Software and Service Companies ( NASSCOM) and The Indus Entrepreneurs to collaborate in order to support the creation of a vibrant ecosystem to foster technology entrepreneurship in India and Silicon Valley.
  2. IIM Ahmedabad’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) and Lester Centre for Entrepreneurship of the Haas Business School of the University of California, signed a MoU to collaborate on mutual incubation, and support each other’s activities of mutual interest.
  3. CIIE also signed a MoU with Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. The programme will assist early and growth stage cleantech companies with market expansion through partnerships and funding opportunities in California and India.
  4. CIIE also signed a MOU with Google to support technology and impact entrepreneurs through strategic support.
  5. CIIE signed a MoU with Tata Trust for founding partner for the Bharat Fund which will provide seed funding to Indian entrepreneurs.
  6. Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms and  California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences signed a MOU to develop Indo-US Life Science Sister Innovation Hub in order to enhance science-based entrepreneurship, research, academia and businesses by leveraging each other’s ecosystems.
  7. Department of Biotechnology and Prakash Lab, Stanford University signed a MoU on Foldscope – a frugal science innovation that has emerged from a lab of an Indian with majority of Indians working in this laboratory. This lab will work with DBT to further develop and deploy the products from this lab.

The Misses

  • While Modi and Zuckerberg gave a very emotional performance in the Townhall organized at Facebook’s headquarters, but the discussion was rather safe and failed to raise important issues. It was expected that the discussion would touch upon Modi’s stand  about the fate of net neutrality in India. Facebook, with its Internet.Org, is trying to bring web connectivity to millions of Indians but it clearly flouts the rule of net neutrality. Nothing was spoken about that and after the meet, Zuckerberg changed his profile picture to supporting Digital India which rather seems to have a hidden agenda as – Facebook’s much-criticized anti-net neutrality platform which has been renamed to ‘Free Basics’.
  • The Townhall meeting was expected to touch upon how “communities can work together to address social and economic challenges” but that was hardly discussed. It focused more on Modi’s initiatives, his background, and Zuckerberg’s revelation that he visited a temple in India. No questions were raised on the key issues including India’s internet regulatory framework and concerns over freedom of expression, turning the meeting into a personal tete-a-tete.
  • No real outcome of his meeting with Elon Musk of Tesla. There were discussions about how battery technology could help farmers. Discussions also happened on how the power ball concept- which stores electricity in a battery for long term- could be used to leapfrog development in India. Musk also gave a presentation to Modi on the revolutionary technologies being developed by Tesla, which is likely to change the face of the motor industry and will affect developing countries like India as far as renewable energy is concerned. But no announcement by Tesla to commence such projects or collaborations with the government were announced.

Though, of course it is noteworthy to mention that the first India-U.S. Startup Konnect in the Silicon Valley held on September 27 was a start in the direction of fostering more collaboration between the Valley and startups back home. The Startup Konnect presented India’s prowess in the startups sector with 35 startups showcasing their products, prototypes, and achievements to investors and other potential Valley partners.

The PM has managed to charm Silicon Valley techies, sell his Digital India initiative successfully, and sent out signals that he wants to foster the same spirit of entrepreneurship in India as is embodied in the valley. But now that the hoopla about his visit has died, and we know who for sure was impressed and how much, it’s time to assess the real results from this tour.

Lots of promises and plans have been made which only time will tell how soon they will be fulfilled. The PM himself has announced the formation of Bharat Fund which will invest in startups in sectors such as Health, Agriculture, Renewables and Technology. And there are issues which still have remained untouched. Will the government ease out the regulatory framework for startups?

There are talks that the government might announce some relief for startups in policies in the coming days. Several key proposals are on the cards such as including the launch of the startup mission by early December and reducing compliance for new business till they reach a certain threshold. As a resolution to the capital gains tax issue which is levied on profits made by early stage investors when they exit a company, reinvesting the profits could be made free of taxes. It is also being mentioned that the government might make it possible for startups to have no interaction with the government, including no tax filing for at least 5 years or until they reach a certain revenue turnover.

A lot of proposals are in the air. How soon will they see the light of the day? Will the Indian startup ecosystem see more interest, investment, and alliances from the Silicon Valley? Will the cobwebs from the startup ecosystem be removed so that the number of tech startups redomiciling from India to Singapore or US decreases? Right now, it’s a question worth more than $150 Mn.

Related: PM Modi’s Visit To Silicon Valley: A Story of Great Expectations