Young innovators - The New Indian Express

Young innovators

Published: 16th June 2012 11:16 PM

Last Updated: 16th June 2012 11:16 PM

Imagine a world where electricity bills are no longer a concern, cancer is treated non-invasively, communities come together on one platform, and cellphones play antakshari. Well, you don’t have to imagine too hard, for the future is already here. And part of it is being made in India as desi whizkids are inventing and innovating to improving the world we live in, earning global recognition in the process.

Nitin Joshi is one of these young ideators. While the world continues to cure cancer with invasive chemotherapy, he has devised a method to administer two anti-cancer drugs non-invasively. “I have developed dual nanostructures to deliver a combination of two anti-cancer drugs — paclitaxel and curcumin — found in turmeric, to lung cancer patients, overcoming the limitations of conventional chemotherapy. The drug can be administered directly through either an inhaler or intravenously. Usually such drugs are administered to the patient once they reach a detectable stage,” he says. Joshi started his PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, in 2008 and got his work patented last year. “According to the Food and Drug Administration guidelines, my drug has to undergo testing which could take three more years. This means that the drug will take another five to 10 years to hit the market,” says the 28-year-old.  His work has been listed in MIT’s prestigious Technology Review 35 (TR 35 2012).

A trained classical singer from Uttaranchal, Joshi completed his bachelors in technology from Kumaon Engineering College, Uttaranchal, and came to Mumbai for his masters and Ph.D. He says his work will have a huge impact on cancer patients. “There are increasing numbers of lung cancer patients who undergo either surgery or chemotherapy and have to then suffer from its side-effects. But my invention has no side-effects since the nanostructures are made from lipids which are part of our body and act as nutrition,” he says. In normal chemotherapy which costs `5,000, Joshi says the patient is given multiple doses of injections. “These doses are released into the bloodstream, but a huge amount gets wasted and the toxins released by the drugs even affect healthy tissues. If there is localised delivery instead, like aerosol, it has minimal chances of destroying adjoining healthy tissues since the drugs concentrate themselves mostly around the tumour,” he adds.

Joshi will save lives; but VSK Murthy Balijepalli, a 26-year-old research scholar from IIT-Bombay, wants to save power. He has invented a Smart Grid for electricity parameter forecasting and improving the performance of existing forecasting tools. “The smart grid technology will enable small-scale (distributed) storage and power generation, especially of renewable resources. The main goal of the smart grid is to empower the end-consumer for active participation in the power-supply chain,” he says. He says the electricity distribution network in India is inefficient, with losses exceeding 32 per cent in 2010, compared to the world average of less than 15 per cent. Murthy says, “Losses in India are mainly due to theft which is non-technical, and can be reduced only when there is active end-consumer participation along with upgrading of the infrastructure.”

No demand-response programmes are in place now. Balejapelli says that, if promoted, the transmission constraints can be managed to supply power in a timely manner. “One of the most important technical tools among my inventions provides forecasting for electricity parameters — electricity price, grid frequency and loads either in wholesale or retail market,” he says.

Then there are those spreading the light of knowledge. Kasargod-based Unni Koroth, Abdulla Hisham and their team struggled for three years to kick start Foradian Technologies. But today they are a profitable company and are gearing up to launch an online university. Their company first came into the limelight when they made the Rupee Foradian font available to all. They then went on to develop Fedena, a school management web product. Fedena is so user-friendly that it is now being used in 40,000 schools, including 15,000 government-run schools in Kerala, and in South America and Africa. “The education sector today suffers from two problems, first, optimised customisation for free use and addictive usage features. The very scalable software can manage systems and processes in a school, college or training centre, tracking students, teachers, employees and courses,” says Koroth. The company offers free downloads of the basic school management system but charges for customisation and large-scale implementation.

Started as a small-town venture, Foradian’s founding members were childhood friends who went to the same engineering college.  “We are now establishing a marketplace for Fedena which will feature plug-ins and e-learning content. We are also coming up with a new learning management system which is planned to revolutionise the online learning market. We plan to bring all the textbooks and classrooms around the world to this platform. This product is code-named Honeybadger and its beta version will be released in two months,” explains Koroth.

Among the 20 Indian innovators listed in MIT’s Technology Review, Venkatesan Oosur Vinayagam was listed as the social innovator of the year. His innovation will not only have people singing but also dancing to its tunes. Named Mobile Antakshri, Venkatesan’s innovation is the first ever-multilingual speech recognition technology-enabled mobile music service that is based on the classic Indian musical game of Antakshari. In this game, two or more players or teams sing songs, which start with last consonant letter of the song sung by the previous player or team. When a team sings a correct song they earn points. Venkatesan describes its origination, “It was indeed a challenge to create a mobile version on a classic Indian cultural singing game. But my team has successfully overcome the challenges by adding right usability and technology elements.” Mobile Antakshri can be played either against artificial intelligence or with friends.

Venkatesan starting working on developing this mobile value added service in 2009. Along with his friend and business partner Rajamohan, an investment of `10 lakh was made to start Hexolabs Interactive. The company started with their superhit formula — Mobile Antakshri. “The idea behind this innovation was to work on the lesser recognized area of speech based interface.” Venkatesan explains that such an interface is critical to reach out the masses. “In India, voice based applications in local languages offer better user experience to rural users as more than 30 per cent of them are illiterate,” says Venkatesan, the chief technical and executive offer, Hexolabs Interface. Almost 1.1 lakh users have accessed the application within the first three months of its launch.  

Venkatesan and his team have also developed a voice-blogging platform called Mambo Talk.  He says, “It is an interesting rural voice communication product and is used by considerable number of mobile subscribers in Kenya, Pakistan and India. Several celebrities and politicians in Kenya use Mambo Talk to connect to their followers over a simple voice call. MamboTalk could be of great use in agriculture, governmental schemes, and emergencies.”

Another innovator to have made a mark in modern design is Somnath Ray. The 35-year-old, Delhi-based architect was asked by the Ratna Nidhi Charitable Trust, Mumbai, to redesign a tricycle for the physically challenged. The task was to design a commercially viable tricycle which could be used as a mobile shop. “Closely based on my research work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on electric auto-rickshaws as a viable para-transit mode of mobility in Indian cities, I designed a new more stable, safer, easier to power and convenient tricycle,” he says. The tricycle was specifically designed around a secure load carrying with it display unit functionality. “For the physically disabled running a business on their tricycle, it is very difficult to keep a track of their belongings, but this invention would change all that,” says Ray. He re-organized the traditional design of two-rear wheels and the solitary front wheel layout as it was highly unstable and prone to severe accidents.

Ray explains, “The two-sided power train was developed from existing off-the-shelf bicycle parts and powering was enabled through a pumping action which reduced stress on the arm of the user. The steering system was devised from easily and widely available scooter clutch cables for a tight turning radius. The unit for commerce was designed to compress into a minimal volume when the vehicle is in motion and unfold to create more surface area for visibility and display. The braking system was redesigned to be more powerful with two front wheels providing the stopping power instead of just one.” The overall pricing of the vehicle, says Ray, was to be kept under `8,000. “The second prototype is in its pilot testing phase and the next stage will include an electric motor,” says Ray.

Others are doing more than just dreaming of a cleaner, greener planet. At 23, Vivek Sahadevan Nair, has already established a company. He says it all started with a simple question. “Like every other boy I was also fascinated with automobiles. But the question that irked me was how to reduce this pollution and convert it into something useful.” So Nair started working on a method to convert pollutants into battery chargers. “At that time, we were not allowed to use the college laboratory for such elaborate experiments, so I had to come up with my own laboratory,” recalls Nair. He then approached a local rice mill to use its machinery to prepare a catalyst needed for the experiment.

He says, “We spoke well and impressed everybody and so were given charge of the mill for a couple of days. This was the first step in preparing carbon nanotubes and nanofibres.” Nair is now pursuing a twin PhD in material science from Nanyang Technical University, Singapore. “We have collaborated with a Gujarat-based industry called Carbon Edge Industry Limited. It is a small industry but since our requirements include shutting furnaces for a day or two, this is the perfect set-up,” he says. Together with his team, Nair is also working on designing equipment that converts exhaust emissions into carbon nanotubes. His team has another innovation to its credit: mixing these nanotubes with rubber. “When the two elements are mixed together, rubber becomes a highly durable material and can be used for everything, from windowpanes to beds and even parts of aircraft,” he says.

A serial innovator, Nair is currently in the process of making measurable electronic battery that can be worn by sportspersons and powered by sunlight. “It’s a cloth-based battery which is completely flexible, rechargeable and has high capacity lithium aqueous battery. These can be combined with a flexible solar cell device to power these batteries. So the entire material will look like a jacket or a cloth which can be worn and used to power devices such as cell phones,” explains Nair.

Hemanth Satyanarayana is to the virtual world what Nair is to the real. With over eight years of experience in developing high technology virtual and augmented reality platforms in the US and India, Hyderabad-based Satyanarayana, 29, developed Trialar, a digital interactive platform that helps shoppers try out clothes and accessories virtually. “Its integrated analytics platform helps retailers understand customer preferences and the digital catalogue and analytics engine helps shoppers customise and compare apparels and accessories,” explains Satyanarayana, who co-founded Imaginate Software Labs with Pavan Kosaraju in 2011.

Without dropping names, Satyanarayana says, “A couple of retailers in Hyderabad and one in Bangalore are using Trialar as a pilot. Our target audience is the upscale Indian market of ethnic wear and we plan to target shoppers in Mumbai and Delhi when we install our product in these cities sometime between July and August this year. Our product will be affordable since the cost of the hardware is around `1 lakh, ” says Satyanarayana. 

Another worshipper at the altar of innovation is 27-year-old Shirish Goyal, Director and Chief Technology Architect, LinkSmart Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore. He has developed a technology for insider threat protection called smartDNA. It is an automated tamper detection technology which can be used for originality verification, confidentiality attestation, anti-counterfeiting, and concealed loss detection. Goyal says, “We started working on this idea in 2010 for solving problems related to pilferage during currency transit for a large financial organisation and filed a patent for it the same year.” The smartDNA technology is delivered in the form of labels and purpose-built scanners.  For instance, in logistics operations, once the smartDNA label is applied on a shipment, the scanner can prove whether shipment has been opened during transit. It can detect concealed loss and prove that claimed loss has indeed happened during transit for insurance claim investigation. Goyal’s technology can also be used to measure tampering of electricity meters. His team now wants to empower existing technologies like RFID, Barcodes and Holograms with features of smartDNA technology.

Priyanka Sharma is the only girl to feature in the TR35 2012 list, her research getting her in the list of the top 30 innovators under the DST-Lockheed Martin India Innovation Growth Programme 2012. Priyanka, 28, currently a research scholar at Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh, has innovated a low-cost plastic biochip electrochemical sensor capable of identifying environmental pollutants and working as a clinical diagnostic. “Our innovation relates to the design and development of a novel, inexpensive, paradigm shift plastic biochip electrochemical sensor to be used for immunosensing applications. In particular, the plastic biochip electrochemical sensor would enable for the first time the use of highly electro-active electrochemical gold substrate to be used commercially at just `5,” she says.

Due to severe toxicity of pesticides, even at trace levels, it is essential to monitor these levels of pesticides in the environment and foodstuffs. Priyanka points that over 98 per cent of sprayed pesticides reach a destination other than their target species, including non-target species, air, water and soil. “Because of their severe toxicity, even at trace levels, it is essential to monitor the levels of pesticides in the environment,” she says.

Sharma explains that her innovation is targeted at environment testing laboratories, point of care diagnosis, health care centres, hospitals, research centres, educational institutes and industries. “A mass awareness for the monitoring of these pesticides from food, water, milk is required to have a healthy and sustainable life,” she says.

Just as awareness about environment is necessary, knowledge of community is equally important. When three friends Vikas Malpani, Sumit Jain and Lalit Mangal faced the common problem — in metros and apartment societies — of hardly knowing their neighbours, they were compelled to come up with the solution to bring owners, buyers and association committee members together to address common problems and find solutions. After much thought, they finally launched CommonFloor in 2007. The technology has been invented by the three engineers from their company maxHeap Technologies Pvt. Ltd.

Vikas Malpani, co-founder and head, Marketing and Communities, maxHeap technologies Pvt. Ltd., says, ”From searching for an apartment to facilitating interactions within an apartment community on the ‘common floor’ platform and connecting one to relevant service providers, the portal is dedicated to meeting all aspects of consumers’ needs around their home.” The CommonFloor team today connects over a million apartment or house buyers and users. Currently present in 120 cities, CommonFloor has over 35,000 communities listed with it, constituting more than 25 lakh homes.

“If one is looking to rent or buy apartments, CommonFloor helps identify the right apartment, interact with dealers as well as owners and collect relevant information. On the other hand, CommonFloor also helps apartment owners connect with buyers,  tenants or agents and for agents and builders, it helps in providing relevant and accurate information about properties to prospective buyers or tenants,” explains Sumit Jain, chief executive officer, maxHeap Technologies Pvt. Ltd.

Ideas can change the world, they say. But inventions and innovations do, as these young Indians are showing.

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