From zeal to appeal: inspiring stories of 20 Indian innovators

17th Jun 2015
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India needs much more creative thinking and effective innovation to solve its numerous problems and tap global opportunity; indeed, the problems faced by entrepreneurs in India are often much greater than in mature economies.

Indian Iinnovators

The 210-page book ‘Indian Innovators: 20 Brilliant Thinkers Who Are Changing India’ by Akshat Agrawal presents a new facet of India – innovators who refuse to accept defeat and are hell-bent on proving the country’s potential.

The 20 stories cover a wide range of innovation, from nanotechnology and augmented reality to road construction materials and sanitary pad machines. Each chapter ends with advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, and an appendix provides resources on the patenting process. The book makes for an absorbing read, full of the ups and downs of the founders’ journeys.

Here are my key takeaways on the innovator profiles and messages; see also my reviews of the related books ‘Recasting India’ by Hindol Sengupta, ‘Young Turks’ by Shereen Bhan and Syna Dehnugara, and ‘Arise, Awake’ by Rashmi Bansal.

Anirudh Sharma has created a haptic shoe for the visually impaired. He was a ‘troublemaker’ and tinkerer in childhood, and moved from Delhi to Rajashtan to study at RTU Bikaner. His team of fellow students won competitions at BITS Pilani, and he worked at the Google Summer of Code programme. Sharma had a good mentor at his job with HP Labs in Bangalore, when he hit upon the idea of haptic sensors in shoes to aid the visually impaired. The shoe works with a smartphone app to guide users, and has been tested at the LV Prasad Eye Institute. Sharma has set up his own company, Ducere, to work on commercialising the haptic shoe.

Hemanth Satyanarayana has developed augmented reality-based virtual trial rooms for consumers to try out clothes digitally. He graduated from IIT Madras and SUNY Buffalo, where he worked with a startup on training simulators. He returned to India and worked on laparoscopic simulators as well as gesture-based gaming, and then hit upon his AR idea when he noticed how difficult it was for women to choose and try out saris in stores. He has formed the company Imaginate to develop the TrialAR solution, and has won awards from NASSCOM and MIT.

Mrinmayee Bhushan has developed a nanotechnology-based herbal hair removal cream. She has an MS in microbiology, and worked at the National Toxicology Centre in Pune. She founded the company Mindfarm Nanotech, and has filed patents for her products. Her company won a Technopreneur Promotion Program (TEPP) grant from India’s Department of Science and Technology for her product, called Romantaque.

Shyam Vasudev Rao, a graduate of IISc Bangalore, has developed a preventive eye care device. He worked in Ericsson and Philips, and then set up his own company, Forus Healthcare. The company’s affordable eye screening devices like 3Nethra help tackle preventive blindness in India. India has the highest number of visually impaired people in the world (15 million out of a total 40 million). The company has received investments from Accel Partners and IDG Ventures, and is working on a range of pediatric devices.

Mansukhbhai Prajapati is the inventor of the MittiCool Refrigerator. Born in Gujarat, his marriage was fixed at the age of seven. He worked in tile factories and sweet shops, and at 22 he married the woman he was betrothed to. He entered the clay pottery business, with clay tawas and colourful pots. In the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake, he turned his attention to making cost-effective clay refrigerators, and caught the attention of the Honeybee Network and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN). He is now working on MittiCool cookers, hot cases and non-stick pans, with design inputs from NID.

Nelvin Joseph has developed SPARA, an artificial intelligence-based power saver for computers and electronic devices. He was absorbed in books and computers right from his school days, and become more interested in games than coursework during his college days in Kerala. He hit upon the idea of remote device management, and started a company called Artin Dynamics. Incubated at Technopark, the startup received funding from a Middle East investor, and aims at reducing electricity wastage which can be as high as three per cent of the total operating costs for some companies.

Nitin Joshi is working on non-intravenous chemotherapy solutions. He has a PhD in biomedical engineering from IIT Bombay and is now at Harvard. He worked on nano-particles capable of delivering drugs for different kinds of diseases such as cancer, which accounts for eight million deaths each year. India is home to three million cancer patients, which includes a large proportion of rural women.

Prateek Bumb and Aniruddha Sharma have developed technology for removal of carbon dioxide from emissions of industrial plants such as power, cement, steel and bottling. They met at IIT Kharagpur and won a prize at the IIT Bombay Ideas business plan competition. With mentorship and seed capital, they formed Carbon Clean Solutions and now have clients in the US and Europe as well.

Priyanka Sharma has developed an ultra low-cost immuno-sensor biochip for detecting environmental pollutants. She grew up in Punjab and was moved by the sight of farmers working with dangerous pesticides. She decided to develop an inexpensive, portable device for quick detection of pesticide levels in soil. She has published papers on the topic, filed for patents, and won awards from Agilent, CII and DST.

Sachidanand Swami founded the company Invoxel to develop interactive touch surfaces, which can include tables and walls and not just tablet devices. He graduated from IIT Delhi and worked on a project at University of Denmark. He worked on surface solutions for sectors like real estate and automtive, and has filed five patents.

Sriram Kannan has developed location tracking solutions which work independently of GPS. He graduated from IISc and worked at TI in Japan. He stumbled upon the need for mobile tracking solutions due to the unpredictable times of train stops at night in Whitefield near Bangalore, when he would have to pick up his visiting father. He developed his solution called Verayu based on cell clustering technology, raised venture funding, and markets the LaaS (location as a service) offering to clients such as fleet management firms.

Abhijeet Joshi has developed implantable biosensors for diabetes monitoring. He studied at University of Mumbai and NIPER, and finished his PhD in biomedical engineering from IIT Bombay. The company Intellectual Ventures helped him with the patenting process. Joshi hopes to tackle the diabetes problem in India; India is the diabetes capital of the planet with 55 million patients out of 250 million worldwide (11 per cent of India’s urban population is diabetic).

Ganesh and Pragyanandesh are the founders of VORWIS (Virtual Object in Real World, Interaction and Sharing), an imaging platform based on VRD (Virtual Retina Display). They met at IIT and became active in the electronics club. They won college festival awards for projects like digital diaries and smart meter monitoring. They were later inspired by Pranav Mistry’s work on SixthSense gesture interfaces, and are now working with VRD vendors on their project.

Ahmed Khan is the founder of KK Plastic Waste Management, which develops road construction materials using plastic waste. He grew up in Mandya, near Bangalore, and worked in the plastics industry. Realising that plastic did have advantages as a packing material but also challenges in recycling practices, he developed a mix of bitumen and molten plastic waste which could be used in road construction. The solution has proven to be long-lasting and durable, but government officials drag their feet on its widespread adoption for a number of reasons. He is also working on a mix of wood shavings and plastic waste as furniture material, after a number of tests. “Take failure as an opportunity to make a new, more intelligent start,” advises Khan.

Pratik Mahapatra, Anurag Kyal, Snehasis Patra and Subham Debnath have formed Team Papyrus Efficiencia, a company developing environment-friendly paper. Graduates of KIIT (Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology), the students hit upon the idea during a project to manage the weeds on Chilika Lake. The weed’s high cellulose content made it good for B2B and B2C paper products. The team’s products have won a range of awards and they were invited to join the Stanford Global Innovation Programme as well.

Shantanu Pathak, Swapnil Kokade, Vaibhav Tidke, Shital Somani, Shital Munde and Aditya Kulkarni formed a people-centred technology collective called Science for Society. It has developed tools such as the CareMother testing kit and platform for pregnancy care. India has the world’s highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths – 150 mothers die every day. Shantanu Pathak was from Lokmanya Tilak College of Engineering in Navi Mumbai, and his colleagues scattered around the world after graduation. They re-grouped to develop CareMother, which is now being used by a number of hospitals and NGOs. Other offerings include CareChild, an m-health solution to prevent early childhood deaths (India unfortunately has the world’s largest number of deaths of children below five years of age).

Chinmay Deodhar has developed a dual-purpose laparoscopic surgery instrument. He studied engineering design and automotive engineering at IIT Madras, and his entrepreneurial flair showed when he developed and sold a GRE vocabulary app called QuickWord for Rs. 1.5 lakh to the coaching class Dilip Oak’s Academy. A stint on precision robotics at PARI in Pune led him to the idea of combining a grasper and scissors for surgery, and he make a trip to Germany to find customers in the town Tuttlingen, which makes 50 per cent of the world’s surgical instruments. He then found a product partner in California-based Intuitive Surgical, thanks to Stanford leads. Deodhar is now working on birth asphyxia solutions, and has sponsored a fund at IIT Madras to support innovators in their roller coaster journey. “It is important to experience rejection because without it, success would never seem as sweet,” says Deodhar.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, sometimes referred to as ‘The Menstrual Man,’ has developed a low-cost sanitary pad making machine. He was born in a village near Coimbatore, and worked on welding and grill designs. After marriage, he discovered through his wife the problems that women in India face with regard to menstruation – just two per cent of menstruating women in rural India use sanitary napkins, and they face many social taboos and stigmas. Over a number of years, he experimented on a range of cotton fibre solutions, despite facing strong social disapproval from his own family. Eventually he won the IIT Madras award for Best Social Innovation of the Year, and started Jayashree Industries to make the machines which are now sold in other developing countries as well.

Deepak Ravindran is the founder of Innoz, which offers offline Internet on mobile phones. During his LBSCE college days in Kerala he stumbled upon the idea of SMS-based queries of the Internet. His project was mentioned in a local newspaper, and he was supported by Technopark Incubator and IIM Ahmedabad iAccelerator. The product was branded SMS Gyaan via an Airtel partnership, and also marketed to other operators. Innoz received funding from Infosys CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan and Mahesh Murthy’s Seed Fund, and services millions of queries a month. Innoz also helped set up Startup Village in Kochi. Ironically, Innoz is now the largest recruiter for the college from where its founders did not graduate. Storytelling has been a useful marketing tool for the startup. “Consider yourself a storyteller,” advises Ravindran.

Ankit Mehta, Vipul Joshi, Ashish Bhat, Amardeep Singh and Rahul Singh are the co-founders of IdeaForge, which makes the Netra UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). They met at IIT Bombay and took part in the robotics competition Yantriki. They represented India at Robocon 2005 in Beijing. Ankit worked at a consulting firm for six months, saved enough money, and quit to form IdeaForge with the help of IIT Bombay’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (see YourStory profile of SINE here). They worked on products like a mechanical charger, and then developed drones for DRDO. Netra received publicity in the movie ‘3 Idiots,’ and then was used for crowd management in Ahmedabad and Mumbai as well as rescue operations in the Uttarakhand floods (where it located 190 trapped survivors).

Advice for aspiring innovators

Each chapter ends with a paragraph or page of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs; here are some samplings of the success tips (see also my reviews of the books ‘Make Your Mark’ by Jocelyn Glei and ‘Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder’ by Jim Clifton and Sangeeta Bharadwaj Badal).

Prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally for the innovation journey. Expose yourself to a diverse range of fields to get as many different perspectives as possible. College is a great time for experimentation when the risk of loss is low. If you are nervous about financial stability, work part-time on your innovation till it matures. But if you are talented and motivated you will anyway be able to get a job later, so it may be better to pursue your innovation fulltime.

Be prepared for the uncertainties of the innovation journey, including harsh realities and unexpected surprises. Learn how to manage your material wants and focus on your creative pursuit. Learn how to treat failures as a learning experience and not a cause for disappointment. Learn about your own strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to change your product and focus based on the journey. Get feedback from others about your ideas to overcome your biases, but stay away from the naysayers and doubters who will offer nothing but negativity.

Be patient during the potentially long wait for market acceptance even after your product is ready; success sometimes comes after the very last minute. At the same, enjoy the process and journey of your innovation as well, and celebrate the small wins. Test your product early enough with customers, don’t keep it in stealth mode for too long, and never compromise on quality. Develop a convincing story to pitch your product to customers and investors. Understand your customers, and build a team with complementary skills.

If you want to do serious academic research, choose your host institution and guide carefully. Spend a lot of time and energy understanding the patenting process; hire a good patent lawyer or find good resources at technology institutes. Do thorough market research to understand the scope and power of your patent. For innovators pitching to Indian companies, the irony is that many of them will accept your product only if it first receives approval from Western companies.

As for social entrepreneurs, aim for simplicity in what you do. Help others make money and you will make money yourself too. When you are on the right track, people will help you and do good. And finally, take your chances and leap into your destiny!

About the author of the book: Akshat Agarwal holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-Delhi and an MBA from the University of Oklahoma. During his IIT days, he was engaged in the design and fabrication of an artificial knee joint for above-the-knee amputees. Akshat is currently a Director at Alpha Beta Classes, a startup that aims to improve access to quality education in India.

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