Innovation Leader: VP at Mahindra – Shankar Venugopal, EGMP 2011
Mr. Shankar Venugopal is by far one of the humblest of people one would have the good opportunity to meet. A man of wisdom, an innovator with a deep passion for tech, his journey is nothing short of inspiring. He believes in continuous learning and has never shied away from taking up new tasks/ challenges in spite of a very busy schedule.
From his ISRO days to where he is now, much has changed but his core belief remains unchanged. Mr. Shankar in a way is a pave maker of his life, as he always knew his destination and puts all his energies into making it a reality.
In a conversation with the very inspirational Mr. Shankar Venugopal –
Can you please tell us about yourself?
Shankar | 51 YO | Ph.D. IISc, EGMP IIMB | VP @ Mahindra
I am an Inventor, Innovation Coach and I like to work at the convergence of multiple technologies.
I derive my identity largely from the goals that I pursue. I am focused on building technologies and innovative products that enable sustainable mobility. My research is focused on materials for clean energy and electric mobility. I am currently exploring precision farming technology – my recent inventions and patents enable intelligent and responsible use of resources in agriculture.
I derive my energy from being an innovator and by coaching technology innovators and tech entrepreneurs. I balance my time innovating myself during the week and mentoring others during the weekend. I teach courses on innovation management at business schools. I greatly enjoy designing and teaching courses that are at the interface of technology and business.
Spirituality has been my source of strength – I found meditation to greatly improve my focus and creativity. I have been studying Bhagavad Gita for some time now. I follow Sankara’s philosophy and my ideas are strongly rooted in Advaitha (seeing Unity in Diversity).
Can you please tell us more about your role at Mahindra?
I am a Vice President at Mahindra & Mahindra. I lead technology innovation for the automotive and farm businesses. I am based at the Mahindra Research Valley, which is our new product development hub. There is good synergy between my innovation role and my other two roles.
I head the intellectual property and knowledge management functions. I work closely with inventors across various groups and shape their ideas into strong patents in strategic growth areas. My focus is on protecting the IP in our new products and making investments in future technologies.
I am the Dean for the Mahindra Technical Academy. I am responsible for building technical capability across the organization from a fresh engineer all the way to the chief engineer and CTO. What I like most about this role is the opportunity to learn new technologies from experts and contextualize them to the emerging needs of the industry. I enjoy driving industry-academia collaboration with Universities in India and abroad to accelerate the learning and adoption of new technologies.
Mahindra Tech Academy – a learning project at Mahindra, is very close to your heart. Can you tell us more about it?
We created Mahindra Technical Academy (MTA) to make life-long technical learning easy for busy, engineers. MTA’s motto is learning at any time, from anywhere and at any pace. We use digital technologies to provide customization and flexibility to the learners. Our courses are designed and taught by practising engineers who build our automotive / farm new products. MTA is located at the heart of Mahindra Research Valley (MRV), our new product development hub. Apart from the traditional engineering labs, we have an innovation lab, concept development center, design thinking studio, etc. Whenever an engineer has a new idea, he/she comes to MTA to explore and evolve their idea. We train engineers in TRIZ innovation, Design Thinking, Data Analytics, Mechatronics, Robotics, IoT etc. MTA prepares our engineers to build future skills and pursue innovative ideas. As the Dean of MTA, I am always surrounded by young, aspiring innovators. This is my dream job and I get paid for it. It’s a win-win for me and I couldn’t be happier about it.
What prompted you to leave a ‘stable’ govt job at ISRO and join the private sector?
ISRO was my first job – I took up this job just a day after I submitted my doctoral thesis at the Indian Institute of Science. I worked at the laboratory for electro-optics systems (LEOS) and I developed indigenous photosensor technology and qualified it for space application. I had developed a new class of sensor materials during my Ph.D. and this discovery helped to win the gold medal for the best thesis. I was very keen to develop applications for this new material and develop many more such new materials. However, the focus of LEOS was device development and not new materials discovery.
It was then that GE approached me – they were creating their first global research center, outside the US, in Bangalore. My role was to build a world-class lab for new materials development. The possibility of doing world-class materials research while being in India was a very attractive proposition to me. My wife (also a Ph.D. from IISc) and I had decided to work in India and GE was a perfect choice. We both went to work at GE’s Research Center in Whitefield, Bangalore. I was hired as the seventh employee and I had “007” as my employee number. GE set the foundation of my tech career – I broadened my technical knowledge base by working closely with inventors across various groups, I honed my innovation (TRIZ) and IP skills. I was the first, along with my friend and co-inventor Gopi, to reach the tenth patent milestone and I won GE’s Edison Inventor Medal. I got ready to make my second career transition – from being a researcher to a technology manager. By integrating innovation and IP with my research skills, I could successfully transition to technology management.
From GE, I moved to Dow to head a global R&D group on catalysts. From Dow, I moved to Honeywell as the Innovation leader for Emerging Markets. Later from Honeywell, I moved to Cummins as the Director for Technology Planning and Innovation. And from Cummins, I moved to Mahindra & Mahindra as a Vice President about six years back. I greatly enjoy the opportunity to learn new technologies, work with innovators and build innovative new products. Though I was always in India, I could manage globally distributed teams and drive innovation across my teams in US, Europe and India. I have been fortunate to be mentored by some of the best minds in the industry who inspired and empowered me – like Dr Gopichand Katragadda (at GE) and Dr Pawan Goenka (at Mahindra & Mahindra). I met many smart innovators in these organizations and they became life-long friends – I thank them for making my career journey so wonderful.
Where do think India stands on the innovation and tech front? What more can be done in an individual capacity to strengthen the drive?
India ranks 46th in the Global Innovation ranking and has the potential to be in the top ten by 2025- 2030. India is uniquely positioned to leapfrog the technology curve and lead the world in emerging technology areas like electric mobility, renewable energy, affordable healthcare etc. There are two things that we can do to accelerate our journey to the top ten in Global Innovation.
Creating Technology Roadmaps – I am leading an effort to build the 2030 technology roadmap for lightweighting vehicles. Reducing the weight improves the fuel efficiency and has a positive impact on the environment. I worked with experts across industry, academia and government to brainstorm ideas for reducing the weight by 30% by 2030. I am currently leading a technology roadmapping initiative on EV Batteries for CII. India has to build such technology roadmaps for all strategic growth areas. The government should support innovations that are aligned to the national roadmap. This will improve our RoI on R&D investments and take us to the top ten very quickly. Small nations like Singapore and Israel have demonstrated the power of this approach.
Mentoring Young Innovators – During the Covid lockdown months, I launched “KinderSpark” – innovation coaching for young school students across the country. We ran this virtual program for the top 100+ young innovators for over three months. The excellent quality of ideas developed by these children gives me the confidence that India will be a global innovation leader very soon. We need to supplement our school education with trainings on innovation, design thinking etc to transform these students to young innovators and entrepreneurs. As Industry experts, we should dedicate time to mentor students and shape up their ideas into innovations
If we do these two things right, tech road mapping and mentoring of innovators, we will be among the top ten most innovative nations.
Can you please tell us about some products/projects that you have worked on making their way from research to market?
I would consider “Innovation FLOW” as my most meaningful contribution. I developed a proprietary innovation method to grow ideas into innovations – Innovation FLOW – and over the last ten years, I have trained about two thousand innovators. Innovation FLOW has lead to many patentable inventions and innovative product ideas. FLOW enables easy collaboration among innovators from different domains.
The first innovative product that I built was a White LED. This device is at the heart of solid state lighting and helps the world to move away from fluorescent lighting (that is based on mercury). Mercury is bad to the environment and I was keen to replace mercury fluorescent lamps with a technology that is better, safer and more efficient. We invented a class of wavelength conversion materials that became the key product differentiator for our LEDs. We built a strong portfolio of patents, through our inventions, and GE launched the product in North American and European markets. Our White LED won the Most Innovative New Product Award in the European Lighting Fair.
The second innovative product that I built was an Arsenic remover from water. I developed a robust materials technology to remove arsenic from water and integrated the module into commercial water purifiers. The ground water, in many parts of India, is contaminated with Arsenic and consumption of this water leads to chronic diseases. Our innovation is a low-cost arsenic adsorber technology – I could successfully overcome the IP barriers and enable commercialization for Indian markets. I won the Outstanding Innovator award from Honeywell in recognition of this ground-breaking work.
My current interest is in precision farming. I am exploring ways to bring technology to the Indian farmer at an affordable price. We have invented smart agricultural implements (rotovators, sprayers etc) and built a strong portfolio of patents to commercialize the technology. These implements are the building blocks of precision farming and they are aimed at democratizing precision technology for Indian farmers.
How have been some interesting and rewarding experiences in your professional journey?
10X growth in 10 years – it is satisfying to note that my efforts have been adequately rewarded through my rapid career growth. I have been reskilling myself regularly in innovation, IP and new product development. I have constantly moved across industries – consumer products, speciality chemicals, electronics and automation, engines, vehicles – automotive and farm. I like taking the best ideas from one domain and using them to solve similar problems in another domain. In this process, I am always a beginner and I am surrounded by experts – but this does not make me feel uncomfortable. My curiosity and applied creativity has helped me to grow 10X in the last ten years – this has been the greatest reward in materialistic terms.
Innovation Awards – I always believed that I can become more innovative by learning and practising systematic methods to think out of the box and solve problems. IISc conferred me with the Best Thesis Medal based for my PhD Thesis – this was the very first big award to come my way. Explaining your PhD work to somebody is a long and laborious task (especially during a job interview) – if you have won the best thesis medal, I realised that nobody asks you to describe your PhD work.
GE’s Edison Inventor Medal was my first big award after I joined the corporate – the award recognized me as a prolific inventor and helped to transition from a R&D role to a full-time Ip and Innovation role. In this new role, I worked with inventors across many groups at GE and quickly broadened my technical knowledge. This learning gave me the confidence to work in diverse industries and greatly accelerated my career growth.
More recently, I was recognized as one of the top 50 Innovative leaders at the World Innovation Congress. This recognition helped me to connect with innovators across the globe and exchange best-practises in leading innovation. I mentor young innovators in Israel and Singapore and I admire the innovation models adopted by these two small nations.
Book – Currently I am working on a book on Recombinant Innovation (Springer) – I consider this opportunity as the greatest reward. I have been interviewing innovation leaders across many different industries in India and abroad for this book. The book gives me a chance to crystallize my ideas and validate them with experts.
Given your busy schedule, how do you manage time and what hobbies/ interests do you pursue in your free time?
Reading – I love to read and I have built an excellent collection of books over the last twenty years. My reading spans across philosophy, psychology, physics, leadership and creativity. But I don’t get enough time to read all the books that I buy, so I started a book club where we meet virtually and discuss books. We routinely host author talks in this forum.
Spirituality – I wanted to learn Advaita philosophy and Bhagavad Gita from a Guru. But I was unable to take a break and attend residential programs. Luckily, my Guru started teaching Gita online during the Covid pandemic time. Recently, I completed the first reading of the 18 chapters of Gita. I am happy to note that the spiritual teachers have adapted the digital tools so well and that make it easy for people to remotely learn from their Guru.
CII and SAE – I dedicate my weekends to lead various CII (Confederation of Indian Industries) and SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) initiatives. I lead the CII CTO Forum – where we bring technology leaders across various industries to share best-practices on adapting new technologies. I lead the Branding and Communication Board of SAE and I am focused on building EV technology skills amongst our students and industry professionals.
Managing my time has been quite difficult – I am able to manage so far because of my supportive spouse and daughters. They support me enthusiastically in all my endeavours. This work-life balance has been the key enabler for my career growth.
Any words of wisdom.
Innovation is creating value from an insightful idea and taking it successfully to the market. Innovation has three key dimensions – insight, value creation and path to market.
In this hyperconnected world, understanding all about the things around us is very easy. But what is most difficult it to know our own self. All the external knowledge becomes useless in the absence of self-knowledge.
Our thoughts, words and actions should be in sync to be a successful leader. If we practise this unity of thought, word and deed, then we can never go wrong.