Chennai: Almost all days of the week Narayanan Lakshmanan is at his office, a two-storeyed building just across the road from his home in Tambaram, 30km from Chennai.
This is where he comes up with creations such as a chair that will show the occupant’s height, weight and blood pressure, a remote-controlled firecracker trigger and an automated garland maker.
While these products may sound like tacky contraptions that are peddled on teleshopping networks, Lakshmanan’s seriousness about innovation cannot be doubted. His recent creation—a non-invasive pacer that keeps the heart of a patient beating temporarily without much pain—has won innovation awards from India’s department of science and technology and the US aerospace firm Lockheed-Martin Corp.
Seeking funds: Cardiac surgeon Janardhana Reddy the brain behind the dual-screen computer, and a colleague use the machine to discuss a patient’s medical status at Vijaya Hospital in Chennai. Ganesh / Mint
At the end of the year, his company Silicon Labs Pvt. Ltd will take his five-year-old creation—a laptop with a screen on both sides—commercial. The computer with back-to-back screens displaying the same content was the brainchild of Lakshmanan’s friend Janardhana Reddy, a cardiac surgeon. Reddy visualized the dual-screen laptop as a tool to help doctors discuss their diagnosis with patients.
But five years after the first prototype was created and the patent was applied for, the product is yet to ring in sales or profits.
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“It has been delayed for too long and I am really afraid that with technology moving at such high speed, in another three or four years the whole laptop technology itself may not be there,” says Narayanan, who runs Silicon Labs with nearly 25 employees to assemble medical devices such as a pulse oximeter—a device to assess a patient’s need for supplemental oxygen.
Lakshmanan and Reddy’s trials are common for innovators in the computer hardware field in India who find it difficult to plug into a funding lifeline either from the government or the angel investors. The economic downturn saw early-stage investment plummet to $564 million (around Rs2,620 crore) in 2009 from $890 million in 2008, according to Chennai-based Venture Intelligence, a research group that focuses on private equity and mergers.
And while the government’s department of science and technology has incubation programmes with a corpus of around Rs2,000 crore this year to offer as seed capital for path-breaking research, Silicon Labs has not been able to qualify for those grants. Lakshmanan says that while the government is comfortable supporting academia and institutions, it is extremely sceptical about individuals applying for such funds.
“I don’t know what is preventing the government from supporting such ventures. I think it is the myopia, the short sightedness. It is the inability to see the power of ideas,” says Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, (IIM-A) and founder of the Honey Bee Network that support grass-roots-level innovation.
Gupta, who invited Narayanan and Reddy to an innovation workshop at IIM-A four years ago after reading about their patent application for the dual-screen laptop, owns one of the machines. He uses it for some presentations in his office and voluntarily promotes the product by using it in industry conferences.
“The problem is that the ecosystem we have in this country is not empathetic towards innovation,” Gupta says. “People should have sleepless nights to see that this product goes to the world market and we should take pride to see something like that happen.”
While funding remains a hurdle and most of it continues to come from Reddy and Lakshmanan’s pockets, the delay in getting the innovation patented poses another roadblock.
The delays most likely stem from the patent office being understaffed after losing a quarter of its examiners in recent years as private companies, looking to strengthen their intellectual property capabilities, attract them with promises of a better work environment and higher salaries.
Usually, patents that are followed up closely can be granted within three years but can take as much as six years.
“The patent is probably taking longer because they may have found some competing technologies,” says Harkesh Kumar Mittal, head of the government’s National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board. “The process of getting a government grant is very competitive and naturally, the best ideas that have potential will get it first.”
The 25 dual screen laptop prototypes that the company has made so far have been circulated to prospective customers in India and overseas over the last five years. A US distributor who has one of the sample versions has been pushing Lakshmanan to modify the prototype so that the screens can switch between showing content that’s identical as well as different. The existing version displays the same content on both screens.
Lakshmanan was unable to meet the customer’s deadline on several occasions due to financial year-end pressures as well as a shortage of staff. Only in early April did he manage to meet the distributor’s demand for a prototype of the variant.
Currently, separate dual screens are largely used with desktops used by the financial community that has to deal with multiple data feeds related to the markets. Bloomberg terminals, for instance, typically have a four-screen display.
Reddy, a cardiac surgeon at Vijaya Hospital in Chennai, expects the back-to-back screen to become a key source of communication with patients and as a teaching tool for medical interns. More simply, he sees it as a tool to enhance conversation in a world devoid of eye contact.
“It brings down the communication time by 50%,” says Reddy, who uses one of the prototypes in his hospital to communicate with patients about their heart problems as well as to assist colleagues in diagnosing problems and discussing operative procedures. “If the screen was only on one side, then the whole structure of the room would have to change.”
There are design hurdles that Silicon Labs has to overcome. With two screens riding on the laptop, the battery runs down quickly, besides which the dual-screen laptop ends up being a bulkier, oversized accessory.
“If you are an early stage company, things will always go wrong and almost never happen on plan,” says Saurabh Srivastava of Indian Angel Network, a group of affluent individuals that funds start-ups. “If you are a smart guy then you will find a way to overcome the problem or change the plan. So we focus on people and on products that have a potentially large market. I don’t know how much this dual-screen laptop will sell for, but it is probably going to be a niche market.”
Lakshmanan has planned a trip to Taiwan to source components to assemble at least 100 dual-screened laptops that will first be sold via the Internet at about Rs60,000 a piece to interested customers such as healthcare professionals.
In another part of Tambaram, Lakshmanan is converting a property to house an assembly set-up with the capacity to make around 200 laptops every month. He is also in talks with a few information technology companies that sell custom-made laptops, to market the product and provide after-sales service.
Marketing will be the key differentiator, says technology research firm Gartner Inc.’s Diptarup Chakraborti.
“If I say India doesn’t stand a chance in the area of hardware innovation, I would be making a sweeping statement, but it is bordering on that,” says Chakraborti. “Even if it is an innovative product in computer hardware, many of them falter because of a lack of marketing support.”