Bangalore: Moving a model bogie over a table-top railway track at the John F. Welch Technology Centre, or JFWTC, to explain how his fault detection device “trainblazer” can prevent rail mishaps in India, is Vasuki Prasad—a passionate engineer, a persuasive salesman, and as is learnt later, an aspiring entrepreneur, all at once.
A final year student of Manipal Institute of Technology, Prasad and his four classmates have made a “micro train characterizer”, a sensor-based device that can detect hot-axle wheel conditions, derailing and dragging among other things, to participate in the General Electric (GE) Edison Challenge. Fielding questions from the judges, like a seasoned salesman, Vasuki, who has job offers from Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and Schneider Electric India Pvt. Ltd in hand, later confides he needs the prize money to seed his business.
Trainblazers: The winning team from the Manipal Institute of Technology at the GE Edison Challenge in Bangalore held on 6 Nov. Jagadeesh NV / Mint
Fastrack Developers, as the entity is called, is indeed fast. “We will pair with GE to ensure that this product is installed in Indian railway stations,” he says, stressing that it’s not an academic exercise and his team has taken “customer feedback and industry inputs” from the Konkan and Southern Railways.
Vasuki’s team is the winner among 17 pre-finalists at Edison Challenge, a competition that the technology centre has started to get science and engineering students to think out-of-the-box for real world problems.
JFWTC posed challenges in its core interest areas—self-cooling engines, locomotives, home energy solutions and early detection for disease management. At least 350 teams from 100 colleges registered for the Rs5,00,000 first prize, Rs2,00,000 second prize, and two Rs1,00,000 third prizes.
“This is very encouraging for us and we know it will get better and better,” says Guillemore Wille, managing director of JFWTC, who thinks this is a “unique opportunity” for his centre to engage with universities. Companies that have set up their research and development centres and face difficulties in spotting talent have started graduating from local college fest participation, to organizing national level competitions.
“Competitions, at all levels, have a way of motivating students to think and do interesting things,” says P. Anandan, managing director of Microsoft Research India.
Public recognition by a prestigious lab or an industry brand can be catalytic in a career, he says. At its annual research symposium, Tech Vista, MSR India gives away three poster prizes of Rs100,000, Rs75,000 and Rs50,000 to PhD students, which is besides the five fellowships, each comprising $20,000 (Rs9.56 lakh), a laptop and $5,000 as overseas travel grant.
November will see two more competitions—from Schneider Electric and Cisco Systems Inc. Schneider is seeking innovative solutions from students in energy—low-cost electrification of rural areas, energy use optimization, and web-wireless technologies to measure, monitor and control energy. The prize money for three categories are Rs1,00,000, Rs75,000 and Rs50,000.
Cisco, which launched a Global Talent Acceleration Programme, or GTAP, in India in October to fill the ever increasing need for skilled people, is starting Cisco Networking Skills Competition.
Winning participants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and, Bhutan will participate in the Indian leg of the contest, whose winners would get an opportunity to compete in the Asia Pacific level competition called ‘NetRiders’. Winner will go on a study tour of the Silicon Valley in January 2009.
There’s a gap between potential and the actual ability to achieve among students and young engineers, says John Livingston, programme director, GTAP, who says these initiatives can help address them.
Each company has a strategic agenda and builds its program to suit its requirement, says Rahul Arya, marketing director of Cadence Design Systems, India, which conducted its fourth edition of a national design challenge in October. “But some synergy will emerge out of this,” says Arya.
International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, director S. Sadagopan says that as more companies join the journey, they should ensure that the reach is not confined to “premier institutes in cities like Bangalore or Mumbai or to the colleges that the human resource guys went to”.
There’s a tendency to view such competitions “through (prize) money”, but the focus should be on how challenging it is, says Sadagopan. “Often things get done in a hurry when students have exams so it’ll be great if they are planned a year head which give students time to prepare,” he notes.
But a handful of companies trying to engage a few hundreds thousand minds through competitive events— isn’t that a drop in the ocean? “Yes, it is,” says Arya, “but like each vote, each drop counts.”