An IIT-B professor who built the heart of the MRI and now helps techies start up

By Sabiha Ghiasi|20th Apr 2015
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Going where innovation and practical research took him, Prof Atrey has spent equal years in India, Germany and the UK before returning home again. He fondly speaks of his most fruitful years in the UK where he was part of the team that incepted a groundbreaking healthcare technology.

“I worked on the technology inside an MRI machine,” Prof Atrey recalls. “The machine is fitted with a magnet that is maintained at -269oC. It is called a superconducting magnet. Large quantities of current can only be sent through wires at such a low temperature. When the patient is inside the machine, a high magnetic field is needed, which is developed when current passes through the current carrying body. All of this is only possible at a very low temperature,” he says, breaking down the science behind the crux of this technology.

Prof-Atrey

Today, he has carved a niche for himself as a specialist in cryogenic engineering, a field that involves working with temperatures below -150oC.

From a humble beginning to the city of dreams

A native of Nagpur, he recalls Mumbai as a distant dream. During the third year of his four-year mechanical engineering major at VNIT, Nagpur, he made the 15-hour train journey to Pune for an internship. His short stint at Telco (now Tata Motors) made him realize what he didn’t want to do.

That is why, at 23, he enrolled as a PhD student at IIT-Bombay (IIT-B). “At that time, a BTech was good enough. PhD candidates were either sponsored personnel or faculty from engineering colleges. So, not only was I one of the few scholarship students but I was also the youngest,” he says with a smile and attributes the five-year experience to a personality evolution.

When the real world beckoned

Research was always a priority for Prof Atrey. After a fulfilling job in a consultancy and R&D company in Pune, he moved to Germany to pursue a post-doctoral scholarship. He was still there in 1995 when the Government of India’s Department of Atomic Energy contacted him. There, he worked on a challenging project on the strategic application of cryogenics in atomic energy.

Five years later, craving the next challenge, he accepted an offer from the pioneers and innovators in the field of cryogenics.

“In 2000, I joined Oxford Instruments Superconductivity in the UK. I was one of the 10 or 12 PhDs from across the world in the technology development group that focused on R&D. Our job was to think up new innovative technology, have it patented, build a prototype and move on to the next version.” Evidently, he considers it one of the most fulfilling and exciting jobs of his career.

“I worked on the MRI machine here,” he proudly recalls a phase of pure satisfaction at work.

As a speaker and promoter of the new technology, Prof Atrey was invited to many corners of the world. By then, he was constantly travelling and had registered nine patents. There was pressure on him to give up his Indian citizenship and embrace a British passport, something he fundamentally didn’t want for him and his family. He seriously began to consider moving back home once again.

A new chapter at IIT

In 2004, he was invited to IIT-B to deliver a talk on this “world’s first” technology. A professor from his PhD days asked him to consider teaching and researching at IIT-B.

“After my corporate experience, it was clear that I would not be happy with my research confined to theory,” he elucidates. “I had numerous scientist friends with great potential and fantastic technology whose work was unfortunately trapped within labs. Their research only found a place in white papers. But my devices and technologies had to reach the users.”

Could this happen through an IIT?

“I filled out an application and within three months, I had an appointment letter,” Prof Atrey recounts this unheard of appointment without the customary rounds of interviews. “By the end of 2005, I had moved back to India and began working as an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at IIT-B.”

It was a challenging period for his teenage daughter and for the family to adjust to the nuances of the country. “But I adjusted like a fish to water at work,” beams the professor. In 2010, IIT-B awarded him the Dr. PK Patwardhan Technology Development and Transfer Award. His primary reason to return, which was the development of technology from scratch in a lab (not merely publish papers) and see it converted into a tangible device, was ultimately fulfilled.

Marrying science with business acumen

In 2012, he was appointed Professor-in-Charge at Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), IIT-B’s incubation cell for technology-based innovations that have business potential. “Though SINE was established in 2005, I had not entered the building until I was appointed in this position,” he muses. “My experience of the industry pulled me to the cause of developing new technologies and converting them into devices that would easily be usable. I saw huge potential in the initiative,” Prof Atrey says. “I understood the importance of guided mentorship here.”

Entrepreneurial education for techies

About two years ago, Bharat Desai, an alumnus of IIT-B, donated $1 million for a degree program in entrepreneurship. “IIT-B then began a minor in entrepreneurship along with the B Tech Engineering degree,” he explains as a co-convener of the program. “Two hundred and seventy eight students registered for this course.” A mixture of projects and theories, this program encourages students to identify real problems that can be turned into business opportunities and be combined with innovative solutions.

“This initiative will result in an increased pipeline to SINE,” says Prof Atrey. “Earlier, students only knew their technology and had no background in intellectual property, marketing, HR and finance-- important aspects for the scalability and success of their work. Technology forms 20-30per cent but the rest is sharp business acumen. This course aims to help in those areas.”

‘Your product can fail in innovative ways in the hands of a user’

Even though various students have a prototype of their ideas ready in a lab, Prof Atrey’s corporate research and worldly experience guides them to the real demands of the market. “The students may not necessarily anticipate how their product could fail or think of its lifecycle. So, handing over the product to a user, who may not understand the science behind it, is the key,” he remarks.

“For example, the MRI machine I worked on was once operated by a Japanese nurse. She couldn’t comprehend the English instructions and operated it by instinct; the machine failed,” he says about the least anticipated failure story. “It was truly a fantastic event for us because we could further improve on the machine.”

Prof Atrey recommends the students at SINE to hand over the prototypes of their devices to users for a short period. Then, the innovators can incorporate the relevant feedback. “While one prototype can be perfected, between five or 10 such products, a few are bound to fail,” the Prof observes, “that is why I always insist on at least three units to see if they all yield different results.”

Ideas to reckon with

ideaForge’s unmanned aerial vehicle is possibly the most famous success story from SINE. Remote-operated, this device was seen in the Aamir Khan starrer, ‘3 Idiots’. It was used to gain insight on Uttrakhand’s mountainous terrain after the 2013 floods and was awarded by DRDO. Today, the device is used for the surveillance of the India-Pakistan borders.

Even though the culture of entrepreneurship may not be as strong in India as it is in the West, Prof Atrey has seen a drastic shift in mindsets since the past decade. “There are easily 120 to 150 startups in Powai alone,” he says. “IIT-B and SINE have helped this ecosystem flourish. We’ve begun calling this area PowaiHills!”

One to keep with the times, Prof Atrey’s lectures are freely available as MOOCS on edX, NPTEL and IITBombayX. He will soon attend the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, where faculty members from across the world meet to learn innovative ways to teach entrepreneurship and commercialize technology. With him, there are no full stops to the process of learning.

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