John Hoffmire: Kamesh, you are a man who wears lots of hats. Tell me about your many responsibilities at Tata.
Kamesh: As a Senior Vice President, Strategic Collaborations and Programs in the Group Technology and Innovation Office of Tata Sons, my job is to create and deliver strategic collaborations and new technology programs for global impact. So, in a way, I wear a focused singular hat, but yes, the way we go about delivering impact opens into many avenues and opportunities to make a difference.
The fact that my role allows so many critical departures from the regular ways work and mandates are normally undertaken is what keeps my days exciting. It’s a bit like building a technology eco-system that brings together the best minds and innovative ideas and technology-led approaches for solving challenges. This is accomplished working with Tata group companies, and globally with key industrial players, start-ups, academia, labs, and also the governments to curate strategic cutting-edge industrial business and beyond business programs. Bringing social impact programs to fusion, as a spin off through these collaborative efforts, is the most rewarding part of the job for me.
John: That’s a tall order. How do you harness this kind of collaboration?
Kamesh: It’s a privilege being with Tata Sons. The foresightedness of our group’s founder fosters pioneering and facilitates a culture of collaborative thinking Let me touch on few approaches we are using to leverage the collaborative framework.
The first one is credited to my colleagues who help run several programs that foster innovation. One of the collaboration programs is called Tata InnoVerse. It is based on the principles of open innovation. The main objective is to find and collaborate with new talent and problem solvers wherever they might be. As of now, a diverse community of more than 30,000 solvers have registered on Tata Innoverse from different nooks and corners of the world. The solutions submitted by these solvers have helped us to find answers for many challenges, and these solutions are now in different phases of implementation.
Another example which leverages the Tata eco-system, is delivered by the Foundation for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (FISE), supported very generously by Tata Trusts. FISE has a mission to create large-scale sustainable social, economic, and environmental impact. Toward this end, FISE nurtures start-ups through their “lab to market” journey, helping them create high quality, commercially viable, accessible, and affordable solutions. FISE further provides critical technology and business incubation support to mission-driven start-ups.
I should also mention FISE is a technology business incubator supported by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. With government support, FISE is a unique Tata Trust initiative and an approach to create and leverage our eco-system that creates real value.
The third line is a first-of-kind effort to bring the global technology eco-system in play to curate and deliver technology solutions for global good. While engaging geographies in many parts of the world, this project is where my passion lies. I am really charged-up around the concept of combining governments’ might, academia’s intellect, and industries’ agility and process skills to relentlessly implement together for impact.
This collaborative aspiration has also resulted in creating bridges with like-minded global communities and is building interesting social impact programs.
John: These are all very exciting lines of business. What is an example of a kind of product you are generated through Tata’s collaborative and open innovation?
Kamesh: Tata Sons’ Group Technology and Innovation Office (GTIO), the office that I work for, rolled out three technology pilots: 1) a smartwatch for industrial workers that was tested with Tata Steel’s workforce to help with their safety while operating in harsh environments; 2) a drone-based pesticide spraying system for small farmers that helps with productivity while minimizing water usage and preventing pesticide overload on the soil; and 3) a hydrogen fuel cell supporting green energy and electric vehicle regimes using graphene.
Also, new bi-lateral programs are being attempted in the field of health and wellness. These are related to a very natural human expectation that the science and technology worlds, as well as governments, in the post pandemic era, will develop and maintain safer and proactive healthcare systems for citizens.
John: That’s a broad range of products and industries. I’ve heard the expression “salt-to-software conglomerate” when talking about the range of Tata’s companies. What exactly does it mean?
Kamesh: The Tata group comprises over 100 operating companies spread across six continents and now grouped in 10 clusters. These being: Information Technology, Steel, Automotive, Aerospace & Defense, Infrastructure, Consumer & Retail, Telecom & Media, Tourism & Travel, Trading & Investment, and Financial Services. As you can see from the clusters, we are into the manufacture of consumer products on one side. And we move all the way over to building software on the other. Tata Chemicals even manufactures and sells iodized salt. This is is why it’s called a salt to software conglomerate.
Interestingly, the group has been driven by the purpose of embarking on businesses which serve the Indian national cause – be it steel-making to support infrastructure, or hydro power to make energy, or textile mills to create jobs, or setting up of Indian institutes supporting science and research. What still glues all of us together is our founders’ vision and purpose. One of the many quotes which inspires me the most is this one: “In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence. Jamsetji Tata”
John: You were recently part of the “Roundtable on Emerging Tech, Ethics and Governance” in association with the British Deputy High Commissioner’s office in Bangalore. Tell me more about that if you will.
Kamesh: The idea of the roundtable was to convene UK and Indian political leaders, business leaders and academics to discuss the twin challenges of ensuring that policy frameworks covering new and emerging tech are appropriate to enable growth, and address issues of ethics and inclusion. The discussions covered topics of cyber space, quantum, AI and 5G technologies. It also covered health and wellness where the objective was to identify opportunities for strengthening UK-India collaboration in new and emerging technologies, particularly around sound governance structures to address equity and inclusion.
An idea proposed by me, which was well received, was about a new approach to collaboration on global themes. As part of this, I proposed to create a joint mandate in healthcare with a focus on elder care as an example. This is a theme which has the potential to impact millions of lives. At the same time, elder care is a topic which calls for many new and emerging technologies. There is so much potential to make positive progress in this area using a bi-lateral approach. I am hoping to shape this up with a number of UK contacts.
John: Speaking of contacts who reside in or work to advance the United Kingdom, you and I have been involved with the British High Commissioner’s office through a special program. Will you tell me about your time as a Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership Scholar (CRISP)?
Kamesh: I was a Chevening CRISP Fellow in 2018. The program focused on issues facing leaders in all fields and explored challenges and changes in business management, strategy, leadership, innovation, and globalization. It was a pivotal experience for me in that I met extraordinary and inspiring colleagues who were passionate about global challenges. My time at Oxford with this amazing cohort of talented and deep-thinking individuals was a time of personal and inspirational growth.
Post the fellowship the very British High Commission offices in Delhi where I interviewed to become a fellow with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office have become a fantastic gateway for creating new collaboration opportunities where I get a chance to meet-up with visiting dignitaries. I distinctly remember one such meeting with the Deputy First Minister of Scotland. We met through the then High Commissioner, Sir Dominic. This meeting resulted in an exciting program with the Government of Scotland which I am actively curating. We are also exploring programs supporting SDG goals with the UK Science Innovation Network under the British High Commission offices.
In addition, we are working with various British colleagues on some phenomenal multi-lateral impact programs around green energy, innovation at grassroots, start-up competency enhancement, and COVID-19 detection kits to name a few. These are all projects that grew out of encounters I had with extraordinary people I met through Oxford. In fact most of programs I have been working on have involved a fellow Chevener. I am delighted to say fellow Cheveners come with a natural trust factor. When we work together, we can do so without fear of a breach. I strongly believe this network provides wonderful opportunities for us to make a difference – using our collective mindshare and shared purpose.
Though consortium programs of this sort are somewhat new on the block, and many have their own challenges, they are worth building. Creating a value system for collaborative impact is an aspiration I want to pursue as I continue what I began as a Chevening Fellow.
John: It certainly was a highlight for me to have had the chance to get to know you while you were at Oxford. You are doing amazing work for Tata and for the broader social and scientific innovation movements. Thank you for talking with me. I wish you continued success.
Kamesh: It’s been a pleasure and highlight for me too, John, to reconnect with you. You have been an inspirational guide and I value your contribution as a mentor. Hopefully I will have more opportunities and continue to learn from your rich and varied experiences. Thank you
Kamesh Gupta is Senior Vice President, Strategic Collaborations & Programs, Group Technology & Innovation Office (GTIO), Tata Sons Pvt. Limited. He is also an alum of the Chevening Research, Science and Innovation Leadership Fellowship (CRISP) program at Oxford (2018), a social impact enthusiast, and a charismatic business leader
Interviewer: Dr. John Hoffmire is the Chairman of the Center on Business and Poverty, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business