German software company SAP, which completes 20 years in India this year, is on a big drive to engage with start-ups. On Thursday, its R&D arm, SAP Labs India, will flag off SAP Startup Social, a platform to drive thought leadership in entrepreneurship. A quarterly event, the first of these will be held at its Bengaluru campus in association with TiE Bangalore and Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) of IIM Ahmedabad. In an interview with Chitra Narayanan, SAP Labs India Managing Director Dilip Kumar Khandelwal shares how the larger goal in promoting entrepreneurship is to fuel the spirit of innovation.

This year, SAP has been focusing a lot on entrepreneurship. Why so? What are you doing internally and externally?

SAP Labs wants to be the most innovative workplace. To achieve this, we are promoting a culture of entrepreneurship internally so that we can create ground-up innovations. This means, every employee within SAP Labs has the access to create something new, or upgrade any of the existing products. We are giving employees the space, freedom and platform to create a prototype or improve upon existing products.  

Do employees who come up with ideas work exclusively on them or is it in addition to their regular assignments? When do they have the time?

We have a flexible work culture and don’t clock time. Actually, people are passionate. They really want to spend extra time if they have a groundbreaking idea and I have not come across one person who says, ‘I want to go with this idea, but do not want to do my regular job’. If their idea clicks and becomes big, they can be moved to it full time.

How many products have come out of this platform?

More than 85 ideas are there. Already, seven or eight are being developed into SAP products.   

What do the people who contribute get? Any rewards?

We make sure that the innovators are recognised. We conduct an event and give an award for Best Innovator in front of a crowd of 8,000. The winner gets to study at a school of their choice — ranging from INSEAD, HBS, Stanford.

Additionally, we give out awards called The Spirit of Innovation that celebrate the risk-taking ability. If you provide employees with space and freedom, then you also give them the luxury to fail. You give the task and get out of the way. It’s as simple as that. Apart from this, SAP globally also has an ‘Intrapreneurship’ programme. Teams from anywhere in the world can apply. Once teams are selected, they are given money to build something.

So it’s like a venture fund?

It’s an internal venture fund, I would say.  

Were there any Indian teams?

A lot of teams from India did apply, though they were not selected. It was started just last year. 

And externally, what are you doing to promote entrepreneurship and innovation?

Our SAP HANA cloud platform was built as an open platform with unique in-memory database and application services. Anybody — our customers and partners — can develop new applications in the cloud. Already, 3,200 partners globally work on this platform. In India, more than 300 start-ups work on it. The technology is provided to them. We also help them with a line to the market, helping them with customers.  It’s been two years now. And it continues to grow.

We have also partnered with CIIE and set up a regional accelerator for Gujarat, which we are now scaling to Pune and Jaipur. We will be launching SAP Startup Social, a platform to engage with the start-up ecosystem. This will be a quarterly event.

How has SAP Labs grown in India?

SAP Labs started in India with a very small theme — focusing on local needs. India has different needs and regulations and so the need for localisation of software. The biggest change was in the beginning of 2010 when SAP Labs India was entering a stage where products were getting conceptualised, designed, built for the world here. A lot of accountability came here. Now, we are at a stage where India is one of the most important pillars of SAP R&D. Almost all products in the digital strategy are getting built here. Whether it is the digital core for SAP HANA, or lines of business for workforce management, or customer engagement; it has been the fastest growing lab for SAP in the last two years.