Navigating the crisis: Time for a ‘Come Home’ initiative to bring talent back

In a guest article for EVreporter.com, Kowthamraj VS discusses the road ahead for India’s cleantech sector in a post COVID-19 world.

The spirit of Indian entrepreneurs along with proactive government policies has driven the growth of the clean energy and technology sector in recent years. At a time of great uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 lockdown, state-owned NHPC Ltd auctioned 2 gigawatts of solar projects discovering tariffs below the 2019 average. The auction was reportedly oversubscribed (according to BloombergNEF) and saw strong competition during the price bidding. The resulting low tariff (Rs. 2.552) suggests that developers have taken an optimistic view of the cost of financing these projects in India and India’s handling of the crisis.

Also Watch: Impact of COVID-19 on India’s import-heavy EV Ecosystem and Battery Supply Chain

India has made it clear that the pandemic will not halt Indian clean transition juggernaut, reaffirming India’s commitment to clean technology as an enabler of economic growth and job creation. What will it take for India to turn this adversity into an opportunity, enabling India to make a quantum leap in green economy?

China after 2008 crisis

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, China launched a massive recovery stimulus program to the tune of USD 600 billion. A part of it flowed to clean technologies pre-empting the economic potential of clean products. Early in 2009, the Chinese government introduced a pilot scheme called “Ten Cities, Thousand Vehicles,” which required each of the ten cities to deploy 1000 NEVs (New Energy Vehicles) onto city roads, which put China onto a path of future mobility dominance.

Furthermore, Thousand Talents Program (TTP) was established in 2008 to recognize and bring back leading international experts of Chinese origin in scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which catalysed the realization ambitious clean growth plan.

Opportunities post COVID-19

Post COVID-19 crisis, lower interest rates and potential state interventions to catalyse economic revival sets the stage for enormous job creation through clean technologies development, manufacturing, and deployment in India. It will also help India take part in the value chain of potential green recovery outcomes of advanced economies. India has the potential and responsibility to take the lead in developing and deploying solutions geared towards the developing world.

Talent is drawn – like a magnet – to opportunity. India needs several hundred clean-tech entrepreneurs and few million technologists to make India the hub of scaled clean-tech development. This is where reverse brain drain from clean-tech powerhouses like Silicon Valley, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo will play a significant role in complementing India’s local entrepreneurs and technology innovators. Difficult economic conditions in advanced economies will fast-track the movement of Indian talent back home. 

You’re trained to solve the biggest climate challenges the world faces, but you only end up solving it for the 1%. Building Clean-tech for India solves it for the 99%”, quips Siddharth Sridharan while explaining why he moved back from Silicon Valley. He was the product head of the Bay area-based Volta Charging before moving back to Chennai to launch Zap Mobility, which provides battery management solutions for electric fleets. “India clearly signalled its intention in clean technologies by announcing ambitious targets for EVs and Renewable Energy year after year, which gave us the confidence to move back”, Sridharan adds.

India’s challenges in clean energy transition are markedly different from the developed countries whose per-capita energy consumption is several folds higher than ours. India’s energy demand keeps increasing while the developed world’s energy demand is set to decrease. India executed the world’s largest efficient LED lighting program (UJALA) which was so successful that it is now expanding to the United Kingdom. India through proactive policies increased its solar capacity by 600% from 2010 and is now one of the top five renewable energy countries in the world by total capacity. India’s Draft National Energy Policy by NITI Aayog also clearly emphasizes India’s transition from heavy fossil fuel dependence to a clean future. 

Dr Aravind Kumar Chandiran decided to take a position in IIT-Madras after working with world-renowned scientists like Michael Grätzel in Switzerland and conducting research in the World’s No.1 lab for Chemistry in Berkley, California. “India has shown its intention clear in clean energy by bringing down renewable prices from one of the highest in the world to probably the lowest in just a decade. Now, most Indian students who did my research program in Europe (World-renowned MESC program) are back in India innovating for India,” says Dr Chandiran, who now does projects with DRDO, Ashok Leyland among others to solve India’s unique challenges.

For a newly joined faculty to reach the million-dollar grant club in a standard US academic institute, it takes somewhere between 5 to 10 years, whereas in India it is now possible in less than three years, which is evident from many research groups in top IITs and IISc”, adds Dr Chandiran. A researcher with serious intention to deliver a credible technological outcome will find it easier to get funding in India than in western countries.

Returning techies who have the experience in either building or scaling technologies often bring their network and credibility with them. They also play a significant role in bringing in other techies to work with them which creates a virtual cycle for talent agglomeration and resultant economic activity and recovery. 

China has clearly understood the value of returning techies, hence showering them with a range of incentives to move back. They also conduct awareness and networking events in top tech hubs and universities to drill down the fact that China wants them back. 

Concluding Thoughts

Indian offices of international Venture Capital firms often go to Silicon Valley to encourage Indian talent to move back. Now, it’s time for the Indian Government to take notice and create an enabling environment for techies willing to move back. Taking learnings from China, a ‘Come Home’ initiative to let international Indian talent know that the opportunities in clean-tech are back in India more than anywhere else, even in difficult times, and their home country wants them back will go a long way in attracting talent which will help India open new economic frontiers through clean technologies.

 About the Author

Kowthamraj VS is part of the Energy & International Co-operation team of NITI Aayog, Government of India’s premium Think-Tank. He works on clean energy policies and programmes. He was an Alistore Scholar from European Commission’s EM+ program. Views expressed are own. 

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