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Interview

Take a long-term view to tap business potential in India, ambassador advises

The possibilities are immense but a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach won’t work, Sanjeev Singla says in interview; finding price ‘sweet spot’ is also key

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

India's Ambassador to Israel Sanjeev Singla, February 2021 (Embassy of India)
India's Ambassador to Israel Sanjeev Singla, February 2021 (Embassy of India)

India’s Ambassador to Israel Sanjeev Singla took up his position in Tel Aviv in October 2019, not long before the coronavirus pandemic started sweeping the world. This is his second post in Israel – his first , as a counsellor at the embassy, was an eight-month stint ending July 2014, at which time he was called back to India to become private secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for five years.

Now, at the helm of the local embassy, he is steering efforts to build on the already close ties between the Asian giant and the so-called Startup Nation. But lockdowns and an inability to hold face-to-face meetings has hindered progress in negotiations for a preferential trade agreement between the countries, and he hasn’t seen his wife, Nandini Singla, a fellow diplomat who is currently India’s High Commissioner to Mauritius, since November because of the pandemic.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ambassador Singla talks about the warm ties between the nations and business collaborations that are expanding, going beyond the traditional fields of water, agriculture and defense.

“We are building a strong foundation for collaborations in interesting areas that are only bound to grow in the coming times,” Singla said at a meeting in the embassy earlier this month, dapper in a gray suit and purple tie. “We see immense potential for cooperation in sectors such as fintech, cybersecurity, telecom and health.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a three-day visit to Israel in 2017, the first by an Indian head of government, to mark the 25-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations. In 1992, when the ties were established, bilateral trade was at about $200 million. Today, it reaches some $5 billion, much of which is in Israeli defense exports.

Since the visit, and that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India in 2018, the two countries have set up a $40 million India-Israel Industrial R&D and Technological Innovation Fund (I4F) focused on collaborations between Indian and Israeli startups in water, agriculture, energy, health and information and communications technology. It has funded over 11 projects involving 22 Israeli and Indian entities and two of those ventures are now in “critical stages of commercialization,” said Singla.

An India-Israel startup accelerator set up by Start-Up Nation Central and India’s iCreate is starting its first cohort of Israeli firms that are interested in working with Indian corporations in the field of electric vehicles, water desalination, laboratory analytical instruments, artificial intelligence and machine learning-based solutions for driver safety and data center management.

These startups are undergoing a six-week virtual acceleration program to help them prepare business plans for the Indian market and get an understanding of the Indian ecosystem. They will participate in group mentoring sessions, workshops and one-to-one interaction with experts, Indian entrepreneurs, government functionaries and business leaders to work on the product-market fit and localize their business models for Indian customers.

Employees of Applied Materials, a nanomanufacturing technology solutions company, play volleyball before a backdrop of glass-structured towers which house several information technology companies at the International Tech Park in Bangalore, India, Friday, Aug. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

The program will conclude with a day of demonstrations when the startups will present their business plans to Indian corporations, investors and other players in a bid to get pilots going or other collaboration opportunities.

“There is a large untapped potential between the two countries,” Singla said. But to reach that potential, Israeli business “must approach the Indian market with a medium- to long-term outlook rather than a quick-exit approach of a venture capitalist.”

“India is a vast, dynamic continent; a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t necessarily work and product strategies have to be tailored,” he said, adding that India is a “price-conscious market” that offers a tremendous opportunity to grow a business once “you judiciously determine a sweet spot for marketing offers.”

The South Asian giant is the world’s fifth-largest economy and the second-most populous country. The nation has developed “a lot of sophistication, especially in engineering goods, in the pharma sector, electronics and design services,” Singla said, and is a manufacturing powerhouse developing everything from iPhones to buses.

In this Aug. 19, 2016 photo, young Indian entrepreneurs and freelancers work at Innov8, a co-working space in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

In 2020, India ranked 48th in the WIPO’s Global Innovation Index, out of 131 ranked, making it into the top 50 economies for the first time. In 2019, the nation came in at 52. Israel ranked 13th in the Global Innovation index for 2020, slipping three spots versus its 2019 placement, when it came in 10th.

As India is also “one of the world’s fastest and largest growing startup hubs,” said Singla, there are “a lot of complementarities that are on offer” with Israel.

Once flights resume and the coronavirus pandemic subsides, dealings between private companies and government entities on both sides will intensify, he predicted.

Israel and India are also working on a limited joint preferred treaty agreement (PTA) – after talks over a free trade agreement between the economies didn’t play out, reportedly because of Indian concerns about its impact on the local industry. These negotiations over easing customs and duties on a list of products traded between the nations have been hindered because of the pandemic, Singla said, as face-to-face meetings are an essential factor in moving forward.

The Indian government is trying to promote Ayurveda, an ancient medical system that utilizes herbs, like the one pictured in this illustrative photo, to achieve holistic health. (iStock by Getty Images)

To further boost ties, the embassy is pushing for Indian citizens to get access to the fast-track expert visas that Israel issues to some foreign workers, mainly technology experts.

“India has a huge reservoir of quality tech experts, including in artificial intelligence and machine learning, that are in short supply in Israel and can help make Israeli companies more competitive,” Singla said. “To that end, it would be beneficial for both the countries that India is included in the special procedure that is in place here for some other countries to fast track such expert visas. We are working with the Israeli authorities on this matter and hope to reach a solution.”

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Netanyahu and Modi have been “in regular touch over phone” to direct their teams to join efforts to tackle the pandemic, Singla said.

India, with a population of 1.366 billion, has reported 11 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 156,705 deaths, according to Statista, which tracks the data. This represents 115 deaths per million people. After a fall in numbers for almost five months, the country saw rising numbers in some states on February 24, showing it was still far from herd immunity. Israel has had 763,756 confirmed cases and 5,660 deaths, accounting for 625 deaths per million people.

“We are living through an unprecedented and unpredictable pandemic situation. And most epidemiologists have already warned us that this pandemic wouldn’t be the last. Therefore, it is critical for countries to collaborate and prepare themselves for such pandemics,” he said.

Indians wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk outside a government hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, Feb.24, 2021. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

“India is uniquely positioned” to address the pandemic, he said: creating personal protection equipment, such as masks and gloves, and diagnostic kits, developing technology to perform spatial analyses and forecasting of the spread of virus; and creating treatments through vaccines and other therapies.

“We are the second largest manufacturer of such personal protection equipment in the world. We have deep supply chains for diagnostic kits – we were doing over a million COVID-19 tests daily until the recent sharp dip in Covid-19 cases in India. And we are the world’s largest producer of vaccines by volume,” supplying millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries.

India and Israel are already collaborating on the development of diagnostic kits for COVID-19, with an Israeli team traveling to India a few months ago for this purpose, Singla said. “We’ll be happy to encourage business-to-business joint ventures for vaccines too.”

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