|Desh Deshpande has been named the INDIA New England Person of the Year. The noted entrepreneur has dedicated his current efforts to mentoring others. Photo by INDIA NEW ENGLAND
INDIA New England's 2013 Person of the Year Guraraj "Desh" Deshpande is well known for his many tech successes as a founder and executive, but the reason the newspaper has highlighted him for the past year is his continual influence in innovation and entrepreneurism. However, unlike the serial entrepreneurs who repeatedly start and sell one cutting-edge company after another, Deshpande's efforts now are focused on helping others succeed in the startup world.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The center is dedicated to helping turn ideas and research and innovation into viable commercial applications and companies. Backed by an initial $20 million invest from Deshpande, the center uses small cash grants and funding to make "great ideas" a "reality." The center has funded 90 projects, 27 of which have become companies that have raised more than $350 million and now employ over 400 people.
The Deshpande Foundation, which was started by Deshpande and his wife Jaishree in 1996, is also hitting a high with efforts beyond the MIT center. The foundation currently backs three other centers: the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in India, the Merrimack Valley Sandbox in Lowell/Lawrence Massachusetts and the Pond-Deshpande Center at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
It is widely accepted that Deshpande's influence has been involved in the creation of approximately 100 companies. However, if you talk to Deshpande, aside from the companies he directly created as a startup entrepreneur he takes credit for very little — instead giving the credit to the entrepreneurs. All he admits to is sharing his significant entrepreneurial experience to help others along the path to business success.
In this, he views the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation as a point of great pride. "It is very satisfying to see that the $20 million that we put into MIT and developed this whole process has now become a role model nationally and internationally," Deshpande said.
From an entrepreneurial front, Deshpande believes that what the Deshpande Center and the other centers backed by the Deshpande Foundation are doing is the new model for transforming innovation into viable business — and this is a model that is connected to institutes of higher education, such as MIT. He said this is a valuable lesson he learned when he first started working with MIT in this regard over a decade ago.
"The center of gravity for idea generation had clearly moved back to universities," Deshpande said. "The question in our mind was is there something better that MIT can be doing."
The answer to this question was that the new ideas don't have a lot of impact in the world unless those ideas can have an impact on something in the world outside of an academic setting, so what MIT needed to do better was promote this connection.
"Over the course of time the environment you create for thinkers (in an academic setting) moves farther and farther away from the world," he said. "The center connects the thinkers with the market, connects them with the world."
A crucial element to this is that the center brings in veteran entrepreneurs to work with students. These veteran entrepreneurs are called "catalysts," according to Deshpande. "The catalyst becomes a way to connect them to the real world," he said. He added that this keeps innovation and ideas more connected to the world and the market from the start.
Deshpande's efforts with India have a similar slant, but there the efforts are much more focused on social innovation, though he admitted that the success at MIT gave him the initiative to try something similar in India.
He has a strong belief that developed countries need technological innovation, but what developing countries really need is social innovation and that India is a perfect example of this.
The difference can be clearly illustrated by the MIT Deshpande Center and the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in Karnataka. As Deshpande explains it, at MIT they take great ideas and find the relevance to have an impact, at the India center they begin with relevance and try to find an idea that will have an impact. In social innovation the key is to start from the deep understanding of a problem and then use innovation to figure out how to solve it, he said.
Deshpande said that in India the center is funding about 50 "social interventions" about 25 of which look "pretty promising" to become entities. The approach is exactly the same as working with a startup company — looking for something that makes a difference, fund it to see if it works and if it does start to scale the effort. In addition, the center has about 15,000 students doing 4,000 projects a year.
"It is highly active, people are hoping with lots of ideas," he said. "We have a lot of young energy that wants to make a difference."
The Merrimack Valley Sandbox in Massachusetts and the Pond-Deshpande Center at the University of New Brunswick, actually combine elements of both the MIT center and the India center. They both have the emphasis on helping ideas connect with the world, but they are also focused on social innovation, the reason being is that the centers focus on the local community and its needs.
"The new idea here is to actually co-create the solutions with people that need them," Deshpande said.
As he views it, such an effort is a shake up of the traditional model of entrepreneurism in which the smart and rich build all the companies. "The new idea here is to actually bring all the talent and the energy and the finance in the top of the pyramid to the bottom of the pyramid," Deshpande said.
In the current global economy, Deshpande believes this is actually the way of the future. He said the top of the pyramid economically can no longer ignore the bottom or else they will be "sitting in a bubble" and they will become irrelevant. He added that innovation at the bottom of the economic pyramid will be a cheaper option than innovation at the top looking down.
"What we try to do in the foundation is to really bring the two sides together," he said.
This kind of thinking has not come without notice and it is one of the reasons Deshpande serves as co-chair of a national council to support President Barack Obama's innovation and entrepreneurship strategy.
According to Deshpande, the efforts he is making helping other entrepreneurs is his version of the philanthropy that many successful businessmen and businesswomen get into. He says this is exactly what he and his wife are doing. "From a philanthropy point of view, a lot of people pick a cause -- we picked innovation and entrepreneurship to make a difference," he said. "Also we believe that is the only way the world will get better. We believe someone has to take charge and make something better."
Deshpande says what he is really trying to do is take the execution excellence you find in the profit world and apply it to the nonprofit world. "If you can make nonprofits execute more efficiently I think we can make this a better world," he said. "It is definitely a work in progress, but I am hoping that just like the MIT process has become a national process that the social innovation, once we are able to get the recipe worked out, that it becomes an accepted practice."
The founder of Sycamore Networks and Cascade Communications, Deshpande is also a founding investor in other companies such as Airvana, Cimaron, Webdialogs and Relicore. He is chairman at Tejas Networks and HiveFire, as well as president and chairman of Sparta Group LLC. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, and a doctoral degree in data communications from Queens University in Canada.
The INDIA New England Person of the Year award is an honor bestowed by the newspaper on an individual that has been influential in his or her professional career or philanthropic efforts over the past 12 months. The Person of the Year award was launched in 2012 as an extension of the "50 Most Influential People" list, highlighting one individual who stood out among the rest for his or her significant contributions.