Silicon Valley Ready to Meet Indian PM Modi

Dow Jones Newswires

The heads of America's largest technology companies will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this weekend to discuss how they might contribute to--and benefit from--the continuing Internet revolution in India.

In a weekend trip to Silicon Valley, Mr. Modi will be meeting with Google Inc. Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook, among others. His summit with the tech titans comes just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping, had his own high-profile meetings with some of America's most powerful executives.

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As millions of Indians are just now discovering the Internet thanks to affordable smartphones, America's biggest tech companies don't want to miss out on a new surge in Internet users like many did in China. Industry insiders say they will use the Modi visit to push for better market access in India as well as clearer regulations on investment and startups.

Mr. Modi will use the trip to try to stir up interest in helping India upgrade its technology infrastructure. He is also using the visit--in a region that is home to many India-born engineers, coders and executives--to highlight and celebrate Indians who help power America's tech industry.

Mr. Modi said on his verified Twitter account that his visit "will focus on startups, innovation & technology and how to further support them in India."

He will take part in a question-and-answer session at Facebook, visit Google and stop by Tesla Motors Inc. He will also attend an event in San Jose, Calif., where more than 30 startups from India and the U.S. will showcase their work.

Google's Mr. Pichai welcomed Mr. Modi--who landed in New York for United Nations meetings Thursday--with a video message outlining the importance of India for technology companies and highlighting Google's efforts to make the Internet more affordable and accessible for the next billion users. "The bond between India and Silicon Valley is strong. India has long been an exporter of talent to tech companies," Mr. Pichai said in the video posted on YouTube. "We hope your visit will energize people in the Valley, excite Indians all across the country and renew and strengthen our partnership."

Many of America's tech giants have announced new products and investment plans aimed at India in the past year. Amazon said it would spend $2 billion to expand its presence in India. Facebook is helping offer free Internet service through its Internet.org platform. Google helps companies design inexpensive phones that use its Android operating system.

Still, U.S. tech leaders might take the opportunity to point out some of the challenges they are facing in India, Asia's third-largest economy after China and Japan.

Google, for example, has been stuck in an antitrust court battle for years in India in which some Indian companies claim Google abused its dominant position as the most-used search engine. Facebook's effort to create new Internet users through Internet.org sparked accusations it was trying to control what services users can access, which detractors said violated net-neutrality principles. Facebook denies that Internet.org violates the principles.

Online retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. and its rivals in India need more clarity on the country's restrictions on foreign investment in retail. India prohibits foreign investment in online retail, which e-commerce companies skirt by running marketplaces that link up buyers and sellers, instead of selling goods directly. The Indian government is currently being sued by brick-and-mortar retailers who allege that the difference is semantic, and that Amazon.com and others should be prohibited from getting the international funds they depend on for expansion.

To be sure, technology executives who follow Mr. Modi generally say he is good for the industry in India. They expect him to follow through on promises to upgrade the country's outdated infrastructure and make it easier to set up shop and expand.

"There's an expectation among the entire Indian community that Modi is looking to build the economy and make India a global force to be reckoned with," said Mohit Lad, chief executive of ThousandEyes, a network-monitoring startup based in Silicon Valley. "I think he's doing a much better job than what we've seen in the past."

Executives--particularly India-born executives--expect Mr. Modi to lower the barriers to investing in and selling stakes in startups and do something about the country's abysmal infrastructure.

India needs the right laws so "investors feel comfortable bringing money in and taking money out," of the country said Dhiraj Rajaram, CEO of data-analytics consulting firm Mu Sigma Inc., which has offices in the India and the U.S.

Ninad Kulkarni, co-founder of the social-enterprise startup BleeTech, which is based in India, said government paperwork too often slows startups, making it difficult to raise the money they need.

"The startup process goes fast," he said. "In one year, if you don't act fast enough then you are dead."

The time Mr. Modi is spending with startups in the U.S. will also send a signal that will help enliven investment in the IT industry and let India's policy makers know it is a core area of focus for the Modi administration.

"There's a fundamental message to India itself," said Naveen Tewari, the chief executive of Indian mobile ad firm InMobi, who will be attending the startup event. "The new world is going to be startups, technology and innovation."