30 Under 30 2024

I regret not doing philanthropy earlier: Kris Gopalakrishnan

Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan on why he chose to focus his philanthropic giving on brain research despite the chance that it may not yield the desired solutions, and the virtues of slow, patient capital

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Feb 7, 2024 01:23:29 PM IST
Updated: Feb 12, 2024 01:12:04 PM IST

I regret not doing philanthropy earlier: Kris GopalakrishnanKris Gopalakrishnan, Co-founders, Infosys Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

Senapathy “Kris” Gopalakrishnan is spending hundreds of crores to study the human brain. He has earmarked Rs750 crore towards research over the next decade, through the Centre for Brain Research at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Centre for Computational Brain Research at IIT-Madras. The latter is undertaking cellular-level image mapping of the brain, which is the first of its kind in the world.

Currently, India spends less than 1 percent of its GDP [gross domestic product] on research. If this has to be taken up to 3 percent, about half of it must come from private sources, including philanthropy, Gopalakrishnan believes. “India can and must do world-class research, must contribute to solving problems facing not just the country but also the world. When India contributes to the solution, since we are a lower-cost economy, we can create the solution at a lower cost. So, the entire world benefits from that,” he says. According to him, investment in research is essential for India to become a developed “IP-led economy”.

In an interview over Zoom with Forbes India, the Infosys co-founders speaks about why he decided to make a philanthropic bet of this scale in an area that’s niche and underfunded, whether he considers it ‘high risk’, since the impact of this philanthropy is not immediate, and will take many years for fruition, and why he believes the first generation of IT entrepreneurs in India have shown the way for others. Edited excerpts:

Q. Why did you decide to focus on brain research for your philanthropy?
The focus of the philanthropy is to support world-class research in India. I strongly believe that India can and must do world-class research, must contribute to solving problems facing not just the country but also the world. When India contributes to the solution, since we are a lower-cost economy, we can create the solution at a lower cost. So, the entire world benefits from that. Our talent is as good as talent anywhere else. The learning for me is that we have to set very clear direction, focus, goals, mission-mode. Then, we are able to deliver. The ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] is a good example of that. When they are given a mission, they are able to deliver on that.

I’ve chosen the brain, neurodegenerative diseases with ageing, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and helping find solutions, cure or even slow down or reverse etc. There are two labs I support—the Centre for Brain Research at the Indian Institute of Science, where they are doing a longitudinal study. The second is IIT-Madras, which is creating a digital human brain atlas, a first-of-a-kind in the world. There are other smaller programmes I support, but mainly these are the two things.  

We also need to give the people working there the confidence that this is a long-term initiative for them. They do not have to worry about where their salary will come the next year. It’s a commitment for the next five to 10 years. Over time, as the research starts maturing, when there are results to show, I also believe we will be able to create products, technologies and startups from these research efforts.

I regret not doing philanthropy earlier: Kris Gopalakrishnan

Q. When you decided to invest hundreds of crores of rupees into brain research, which is a long-term bet, did the thought that this is a very high-risk investment cross your head?
This is from our family office, which has two sets of activities. One set is to grow the wealth. We have investments to protect and grow the capital. The second set of activity is philanthropy. On the philanthropic side, because I am supporting long-term research, I, of course, have goals, but none of them are short-term. It is possible that the results may take longer, or not happen. To date, there is no definitive cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Suddenly it’ll be wrong for me to say I will find a solution. The entire world has tried it and they have not found a solution. I am hopeful that we will help find a solution, and add to the knowledge of these conditions and bring some unique value proposition here, because diversity of cultures and ideas, hopefully, will bring different perspectives and accelerate our movement towards the solution.

For example, India has knowledge about traditional medicine. There’s a school of thought that says turmeric or Brahmi may help [combat neurodegenerative diseases]. Now, we have to prove or disprove that. When we do the longitudinal study, we look at the food habits, we look at if there’s a difference between literate and illiterate, if there’s a difference between people who speak one language versus those that speak multiple languages, are their brains different. For people who are living in urban areas, the assumption is their stress levels are more. But we have found that people in rural areas are equally stressed, and there is no difference in stress levels. Another initial observation—we have to study this further—is that women develop neurodegenerative conditions faster than men in rural areas. We need to now understand why.

These are areas where we can uniquely contribute to the understanding of these conditions.

Also read: Why Kris Gopalakrishnan is spending hundreds of crores to study the human brain

Q. Are philanthropists in India willing to consider the virtues of slow, patient capital?

My focus is limited to research, where you cannot predict where you will get results or when success will happen. So, you need patient capital. You need patience. My endeavour has been to talk to other family offices as well as industry because India needs to invest more in research. We invest about 0.7 percent of GDP in research. We have to go to 3 percent, out of which the industry has to contribute 50 percent. I have been evangelising that, talking to people about allocations from both their R&D and CSR [corporate social responsibility] budgets into research. I tell them why it’s needed and how they can do it. It’s part of transitioning to become a developed economy, an IP [intellectual property]-led economy.

I regret not doing philanthropy earlier: Kris Gopalakrishnan
Q. What is your view of the contribution of tech entrepreneurs to the philanthropic ecosystem?
I don’t know whether I want to characterise this as tech. The IT services industry is the first generation of startups who have succeeded and created a large industry, some $230 billion industry. They are the people who are now giving back. I see Wipro, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, HCL in the first generation, Cognizant, Mindtree in the second generation, Happiest Minds in the third generation, where I would also put Flipkart and the other startups that came after 2008.

It’s primarily these first generation of entrepreneurs, who have made enough money and who want to give back. I’m happy that they are setting an example and giving back. We need more of these successful founders to give back to society in whatever they feel passionate about. In fact, I tell even a 25-year-old person or student to make giving back a habit. You don’t have money to give back, but you have time. If it’s a 25-year-old professional, I say, mentor and guide another professional. If you’re a startup founder or SME CEO, mentor a young startup. Everybody can give back, and that has to become a part of your life, your habit. And when you have money, you can give back.

Q. Given the example that has been set by first-generation entrepreneurs, do you see a lot of younger startup founders getting into philanthropy much earlier in their lives?
I do, and if I may, I will use the example of Nithin and Nikhil Kamath of Zerodha. They have already committed a certain percentage of their wealth to philanthropy, they are public about it and are setting an example for others to follow. And I’m happy that it [philanthropy] is happening earlier and earlier. That’s one regret I have, that I did not do these things earlier.

Q. Do we need more policies that encourage philanthropic giving?
Philanthropy, I don’t think requires any other encouragement, but we need to encourage investment in research, especially by industry. There used to be some tax incentive, it was revoked. I feel the government should probably reconsider, because more investment into research is something we need as a country and whatever we can do to incentivise that, we should do. We also want more investments in startups. There are some roadblocks, especially, this whole area of angel tax. The government has looked at it various times, but it still remains an irritation. So, we have to look at investment in startups, investment in research. These are areas where the government can step in and help.

(This story appears in the 09 February, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated