EmTech 2017: Innovators under 35
Meet the 10 winners of the Mint-MIT Technology Review competition for innovators below the age of 35 from across India in different cutting-edge domains
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Meet the 10 winners of the Mint-MIT Technology Review competition for innovators below the age of 35 from across India in different cutting-edge domains. The winners were selected after a rigorous judging process. The innovators were felicitated on 9 and 10 March at EmTech 2017, the second edition of the emerging technology conference organized in Delhi by Mint and MIT Technology Review.
Organization: Indus OS
Designation: Co-founder and chief product officer
Innovation: A multilingual operating system available on over 50 mobile devices
Education: BTech in mechanical engineering from IIT Bombay
Akash Dongre—along with co-founders Rakesh Deshmukh and Sudhir Bangarambandi—has always believed that “Indian problems require indigenous solutions”. No wonder their eponymous innovation, touted as the “world’s first regional operating system”, is blazing a trail in the Indian smartphone ecosystem. “In our short journey, beginning in 2015, we have already partnered with five domestic smartphone brands (Micromax, Intex, Karbonn, Celkon and Swipe) and built a user base of more than six million, which is consistently growing at a rate of 500,000 OS activations per month,” says Dongre. Indus OS, which is available in 12 Indian regional languages, boasts innovative features such as Indus Swipe (translation from English to a regional language and vice versa with just a swipe), Indus Keyboard (with built-in word and matra (a unit of metrical quantity in Indian languages) prediction) and Indus Reader (which can convert an English text into audio in eight regional languages). Besides, there’s a marketplace called App Bazaar, where over 50,000 apps are available in local languages.
Dongre recalls one of his foreign trips when his lack of understanding of the local language made him feel handicapped: “Everything around me was in a language I did not understand.”
Dongre also realized how digitally less connected the Indian heartland is and how alien English is to a lot of Indians. “After spending some more time to understand the Indian digital landscape and brainstorming with my team, we decided to start building an ecosystem for Indian consumers.” The team built Indus OS on three core pillars: simplicity, innovation and localization. “At the heart of our story lies the desire to equip anyone who is using a smartphone with a holistic ecosystem of their choice,” says Dongre.
Indus OS, which introduced Indus OS 2.0 in July 2016, will introduce Indus OS 3.0 in 2017. “In 2017, we intend to continue to work with the Government of India and app developers alike to build a smartphone ecosystem of choice for the emerging markets population,” Dongre says.
Organization: Pluss Advanced Technologies
Designation: Vice-president, corporate planning and strategy
Innovation: A packaging box for vaccine transportation that uses phase change materials and a unique design for precise temperature control
Education: BTech in polymer science and technology from IIT Roorkee; certificate in entrepreneurship, management and global leadership from London School of Economics and Political Science
An optimist by nature, Ankit Jhanwar was not put off by the disinterest displayed by some packaging companies in developing a temperature-controlled shipping solution using phase change materials (PCMs)—a domain in which his company, Pluss Advanced Technologies, had been working since 2005. Such a temperature-controlled solution could prove very useful in cutting down the 30% wastage of vaccines in the existing cold chain system in the country. So what Pluss did was develop a complete shipping solution using its own proprietary PCMs, which could not only provide better temperature control but also address the challenging Indian ambient conditions of 40°C. “A range of products were planned to address the gaps at each leg of the supply chain right from manufacturer to the depot to the distributor to chemist and finally to the patient,” says Jhanwar.
The shipping solution that he developed was branded Celsure—which uses the PCM technology to provide precise temperature control. “It is the only shipping solution which provides temperature control for more than 72 hours even at ambient temperature of 40°C,” he says. Thanks to this innovation, all the current pharmaceutical shipments which happen by air can now be done by road using Celsure—something that can lead to huge savings in freight cost, thereby making it possible to lower the prices of medicines.
According to Jhanwar, Celsure also addresses the unique challenge of shipping from a hot environment (say, India) to a cold environment (like Europe) or vice versa. What’s more, the solution has brought in simplicity in the packaging, removing human errors. Jhanwar says that it’s available in sizes as small as one vial to as large as 10,000 vials and can provide temperature control for as low as 2 hours to as high as 120 hours. Pluss has a goal of reducing medicine wastage due to ineffective cold chain to as low as 0.1% in the next three-five years. The firm is constantly working on scaling up and commercializing the innovation. Celsure was launched in April 2016 with only one variant; eight more variants have been added within a year. Logistics firms such as Blue Dart and DHL have adopted Celsure as one of their preferred modes of shipping temperature-sensitive pharma products. Successful trials have also been run with various pharmaceutical firms. Besides commercializing it in India, Pluss plans to go global with the launch in Singapore and the Middle East in 2018 and in the US and Europe in 2019. “We are also keen on tie-ups with the government, World Health Organization (WHO), Unicef and other related organizations for last-mile delivery of vaccines. Customized products are being planned to address the last mile challenges,” says Jhanwar.
Organization: General Electric Global Research
Designation: Lead engineer
Innovation: Flow analytics for multi-phase flow metering in oil and gas industry
Education: BE (Hons.) in electronics and instrumentation from BITS-Pilani; MS in electrical engineering from Arizona State University, US
Anusha Rammohan believes that the intersection of the digital and physical worlds is the ideal space for disruptive innovations. And that’s exactly what attracted her to the esoteric domain of flow analytics for multi-phase flow metering in the oil and gas industry.
As the lead engineer at GE Global Research’s John F Welch Technology Center in Bengaluru, Anusha got the opportunity to combine physical sensors with advanced analytics to develop a solution capable of radically transforming the processes of the entire industry.
“As the global energy demand continues to increase, there is an urgent need in the oil and gas industry to be more efficient with resources, people and investments to reduce the cost of producing oil while doing so safely with reduced environmental impact,” says Rammohan. Her innovation addresses this need by combining sensor and device data in the field using intelligent analytics to provide accurate and reliable information in real time about oil production. For instance, she says, timely information about well and field level production of oil, water and gas allows operators to make critical decisions related to optimizing pumps, allocating resources and energy to each well, shutting down or stimulating wells, and preventing leakage and blockage of pipes, etc. By transforming data into actionable insights, her analytics solution enables increased oil recovery, reduced human intervention and improved resource planning.
Not merely restricting her innovation to a single industry, the next stop for Anusha is to extend it to applications in industries such as aviation, power and transportation. The applications include performance optimization of assets, health monitoring of safety-critical components and their increased reliability and reduced downtime—all of which can significantly improve productivity and bring down costs.
Rammohan has been granted patents related to her work in image mapping, sensor positioning and flow measurement; she has filed for more. She dreams of a world powered by analytics and technologies such as artificial intelligence—one in which “autonomous decision making” would greatly reduce the ambiguity, uncertainty and human subjectivity that are currently proving to be bottlenecks in all industries.
Organization: Tesseract Imaging
Innovation: Virtual reality (VR) camera to create and share high resolution VR/holographic content; holographic augmented reality headset
Education: MTech in computer science from IIT Delhi; MS in media arts and sciences from MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts, US
Kshitij Marwah says virtual reality and augmented reality (VR and AR) are the new mediums for human beings to tell their stories in a much more “experiential and immersive manner”. It marks a natural progression, as he says: “From the spoken word to the written word, from photos to videos—we have always found new ways and tools to tell our stories.”
The power of his belief in VR and AR, backed by the rigour of his technical education (never mind that he dropped out of his PhD at MIT Media Lab), led Marwah to his innovations: Quark VR camera and the Holoboard AR viewing headset. Says he, “The Quark VR camera will democratize mixed reality content creation and the Holoboard AR headset will allow for its viewing in a truly immersive and unique manner.”
Marwah has a simple way of explaining his innovation. “Imagine the next time when you are watching a cricket match in your house. Rather than sitting in front of your television, with our Quark camera streaming the match live in VR and the Holoboard headset, you can feel as if you are sitting right in the stadium but in the comfort of your couch,” he says.
His current company, Tesseract Imaging (in Norse mythology, Tesseract is said to be a cosmic cube of immense power; in geometry, the tesseract is a four-dimensional hypercube), was spun out of MIT Media Lab’s India arm, a unit that Marwah had co-founded to promote and spread inter-disciplinary learning among students in India. He is credited with growing the Lab initiative from a platform of 50 students to 500 students selected from hundreds of thousands of applicants across the country. He headed the India arm of the Lab from 2012 to 2015.
Marwah believes that the innovations coming out of Tesseract will revolutionize “the way we capture, consume and see content and media”. On the anvil are plans to begin shipping the Quark VR cameras in mid-2017 and Holoboard AR headsets by the end of the year. “With our technology, we believe we can make sure that our society can capture, share and consume their daily experiences and share stories across generations with an experience that is immersive and powerful.”
Organization: Embryyo Technologies Pvt. Ltd
Designation: Founder and CEO
Innovation: Sensor and mobile app-based drug adherence monitoring system for tuberculosis
Education: Dual degree in mechanical engineering from IIT Bombay
Nishant Kumar, the founder and chief exec of Embryyo Technologies, a medical technology and research start-up incubated at Pune’s Venture Centre, was troubled by the way tuberculosis (TB) treatment was left midway by a large number of patients in India. There wasn’t an effective way of ensuring patients stayed the course. “This was because the TB medication involves a drug regimen of about 6 months where the patient is required to take a total of about 400 pills,” he says. There are several reasons why treatment is left incomplete, including side effects, forgetfulness, poor counselling and duration of the regimen.
The enormity of the problem—as many as 2.5 million people in India were affected by TB in 2015 as per a World Health Organization report—inspired Kumar to do something about it. He visited the local district level hospitals and direct observation treatment (DOT) centres to interact with the clinicians, healthcare workers and patients, which helped him in “collecting more insights” and further strengthened his resolve to address this problem.
He says that it demanded an easy-to-use, affordable solution which could fit seamlessly in an already established public health infrastructure in the country.
The result was BoxRx, an electronic medical event monitoring system that has currently been piloted for drug adherence monitoring in TB patients. According to Kumar, most people with TB are cured by a strictly followed, six-month drug regimen but any interruption to it can cause drug resistance.
That is where the innovation behind BoxRx comes in handy. The solution comprises a specially designed electronic pill box which carries the TB blister pack as prescribed by the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP). A tearable paper with conductive ink tracks printed corresponding to each pill is placed beneath the blister pack before closing the box. Whenever a pill is removed from the blister pack, the conductive track gets broken and this activity is logged and transmitted from an in-built Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) circuit to a central server in the form of an SMS. The server processes the information in the SMS and updates the mobile application of the doctor/health worker assigned to that particular patient.
To scale up the innovation, Kumar plans to work very closely with the national and international organizations that are leading the TB control programmes. Also on the cards is large-scale manufacturing and on-field implementation of the innovation so that it reaches the maximum number of patients.
Kumar envisions a society that is centred on harmonious and sustainable co-existence. “I believe that good health is the primary signature of prosperity for an individual, a family, a nation and the world at large,” he says.
Designation: Creative leader
Organization: Samsung Electronics
Innovation: A button-type device that connects to toys and a mobile app to enable intuitive interactions for kids
Education: BTech in electrical engineering from IIT Kanpur; MS from Seoul National University; MBA from Harvard Business School
Whenever Pankaj Agarwal saw his son Anant play alone with his toy blocks, a question often nagged him: “Why does he have to play alone? Is there something I can do to make play-at-home social and interactive for him?” He was also inspired to change the status quo when he looked at the many expensive toys gathering dust around his house. Agarwal thought of the millions of middle-class homes that just couldn’t afford all those high-tech toys with pricey tags.
So he added a simple and interactive, yet relatively inexpensive, tag of his own: TagPlus. The innovation comprises a button-type smart tag, a smart app (for phones/tablets), and, above all, content created and shared in the cloud by kids as young as 7-year-olds. A key benefit of TagPlus is that it can increase the repeat play value of toys.
An important feature of the innovation, says Agarwal, is that there is no set-up required. “No device pairing, no logins, no passwords!” When kids buy toys that have this smart tag, they can start playing on the TagPlus platform immediately after unwrapping it. Kids can “click”, “long press”, “shake” and “bump” their smart tags and the smart app will respond accordingly. A “click” on the smart tag activates the TagPlus app on a nearby digital device to show toy-related content. A “long press” action will bring on a social media interface where kids can easily upload their creations and also see the creations of other kids playing with the same toy. “Think of this as a ‘mini Facebook for kids’,” says Agarwal. A “shake” action on the smart tag will help kids find and connect with children playing with an identical toy who could be anywhere in the world. Also, when kids “bump” two tags from two different toys, the connected app shows multiple ways in which the toys can be combined to create something entirely new. Agarwal and his other TagPlus team members at Samsung believe that this patent-pending technology platform has the potential to make kids’ playing experiences more serendipitous, socially engaging and creative “by seamlessly bridging their virtual and physical play environments”.
Agarwal and his colleagues did multiple pilot tests of TagPlus in South Korea and they are also in discussion with many toy makers to adopt the platform. “The response has been very positive,” he says.
Agarwal plans to continue his innovative work in the creative domain and believes that “members of our society should be educated and imbibe a culture of creativity”.
Organization: TCS Research and Innovation, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd
Innovation: Auditory sensing for micro unmanned aerial vehicles
Education: PhD in computer science and engineering from the University of New South Wales, Sydney; postdoctoral fellowship from the Swedish Institute of Computer Science, Stockholm
Prasant Misra has been focusing his research efforts around building “spatially intelligent systems”. His current work pertains to the auditory sensing technology for micro unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAVs, more popularly known as drones). It’s like “growing the ears” for intelligent things, as he puts it. “It is part of a grand vision to equip this category of flying robots with a sensory gamut that is on par with humans,” he says. This will not only enable such “things” to derive better spatial intelligence, but also drive cognition to a better level of autonomy by combining auditory sensing with vision.
There are, however, fundamental challenges in developing such robust auditory capabilities, especially in capturing the spatial dimensions of a sound scene and analysing its acoustic signature. “The signal-to-interference-plus-noise ratio is extremely low due to the presence of (near-field) wideband acoustic interference (i.e., self-noise) from the MUAVs’ spinning rotors and motors, which is both strong and non-stationary,” he explains. Theoretically speaking, building an acoustic array with a large number of acoustic elements can overcome such high levels of noise, but the space, payload and energy limitations of an MUAV come in the way of meeting such exhaustive system requirements and computational needs.
Misra is now investigating both lightweight acoustic sensing system design, and low-power (but efficient) computation paradigms to overcome this challenge. The initial results, he says, are quite promising.
The impact of the work Misra is doing is far-reaching. It will not only force us to rethink the current model of aerial sensing (which is primarily vision dominated), but will also open up newer applications and usage scenarios for the betterment of society.
It is now quite common to talk of aerial drones, especially tiny ones with multiple rotors that can hover mid-air, in applications ranging from e-commerce deliveries and inspection of industrial machinery to wildlife monitoring and search-and-rescue operations.
Nevertheless, their sensing technology is predominately vision-centric. “While the advantages are clearly obvious in visual inspection and monitoring applications, on the flip side, they become unusable in camera-obstructed or low-light conditions, or in scenarios that offer non-visual clues such as those based on sound. In fact, these conditions are a norm in high-stress environments (dense canopy or fog, structures on fire, underground mines, etc.),” he says.
Misra is working towards taking the MUAV technology from its existing level to “cognitive autonomous systems”. He believes that as spatial intelligence and cognitive technology mature, the lines between machines and humans would blur, enabling both to live together in the same society as companions. In the future, cognitive aerial drones will take up roles such as aerial cars and taxis, pick up and escort agents, search and rescue bots, and ears and eyes for the disabled. In short: anything you want them to be.
Designation: Founder and director
Organization: Evobi Automations Pvt. Ltd (Bibox Labs)
Innovation: A toolkit-based approach to learning so that kids can learn through experiments by making things like a robotic toy or a fire alarm
Education: BE in computer science from Visvesvaraya Technological University, Karnataka; MBA in international business from Edith Cowan University, Australia
When it comes to innovation and creativity, Sandeep Senan is as excited as the young kids he wants to empower with the innovative tools at his disposal. His innovation, Bibox (short for Brain-in-a-box), is like an “electronic brain which can be instructed by a kid using a graphical software, which can run on a tablet or smartphone or PC or even with cards”, he says. Senan is of the view that the realm of innovation must be extended to children rather than remain mostly confined to the adult world. There’s a need for a huge change in the way children are taught and allowed to be creative, he feels.
“The task of making adults creative is a humongous task, but if we think about kids, they are naturally curious and thus it’s easy to instill an innovative thinking process in them,” says Senan. So when he discovered that there was a lack of tools and curricula designed for instilling the habit of innovation in kids, he decided to do something about it.
“The innovation Bibox was originated out of that need to give kids the tools to change the world and thus the confidence to keep innovating and make it a habit so that when they become adults, they can go out and make large-scale impact because the thinking is ingrained into their minds,” he says.
Bibox doesn’t have a definite shape or size but is basically a set of tools—processors, switches, sensors, battery and software, among others—using which children in different age groups can try their hand at innovation. This “brain”, says Senan, can be connected to a variety of accessories, including toys, lights and TV sets, and children can come up with stuff like walking robotic dogs, automatic TV and even connected health products using the Internet of Things.
“Because Bibox responds to kids’ logic in the physical world, they can see what the logic means and correct themselves when required—making the learning experience truly experiential,” he says. Besides providing them such toolkits, Senan’s organization also provides them some structured mentoring to enable them to use their creative freedom and confidence to innovate more and more in any field they choose to be in. “We are just getting the process started a little early,” he says. Through Bibox Labs, he has enrolled more than 25,000 students in over 100 schools in India.
To take his innovative ways to a much larger base of students, Senan and his team are digitizing the process of mentoring the kids to be innovators. Once this is in place, he says, any student anywhere in the world would be able to go through the same process that Bibox Labs follows in its affiliate schools. They also plan to partner with private firms, non-governmental organizations and various government bodies to scale up the programme.
Designation: Young scientist
Organization: Centre for Biodesign and Diagnostic, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, department of biotechnology
Innovation: Transdermal patch against neurotoxin poisoning
Education: Master of pharmacy from West Bengal University of Technology; PhD in pharmacy from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra
Soldiers fighting in hostile territories often have to shield themselves against harmful or poisonous gases and chemical substances. One often hears of deadly strikes such as the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system (1995), the nerve gas attack in Syria (2013) or the recent attack in Iraq by Islamic State militants in which they set fire to a sulphur mine, spreading sulphur dioxide plumes.
Subham Banerjee’s innovation concerns protecting people against neurotoxic poisoning resulting from such attacks. “The exposure of humans to neurotoxins is a major risk factor in severe mortality in chemical or biological warfare situations, as neurotoxins are one of the most potent toxins,” he says. His innovation, a transdermal patch that can provide protection against neurotoxin poisoning, comprises an inert adhesive matrix system with active pharmaceutical ingredients. The patch can be applied to intact or even burnt or blistered skin. It works by releasing a combination drug (eserine and pralidoxime chloride) through the skin in what is called a “controlled or sustained release” mechanism.
According to Banerjee, the new patch has “an excellent safety profile”, can be “self-administered”, and has positive environmental as well as economic impact. “Apart from conventional dosage forms, no novel sustained release prophylactic transdermal patches are currently available in the market,” he says. Which is why this innovation has huge socio-economic benefits and the potential to achieve product dominance in the market.
In order to sustain this project and take it to the next level of successful commercialization, however, Banerjee says that some studies have to be carried out. For one, process parameters have to be optimized to scale up the capability of manufacturing these patches in bulk quantities. Also, a preclinical toxicity study in rodents needs to be done, followed by a full-fledged pilot for the bioavailability study in human subjects as per the guidelines of the Drug Controller General of India.
Banerjee believes that this innovation has the potential to make an “extra value-addition” to the existing measures for biological warfare protection available with India’s Armed Forces.
Designation: Co-founder, director and CEO
Organization: PathShodh Healthcare Pvt. Ltd
Innovation: A single device that can diagnose multiple parameters related to diabetes management
Education: MTech in microelectronics and VLSI design and MSc in electronic science from Kurukshetra University; PhD from Centre for Nano Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science Bangalore
At age 14, when Vinay Kumar was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, his doctor told him he would have to take insulin injections. The look of disappointment on his face prompted the physician to lie that it was only for 10 days that injections were needed. Later on, when Kumar realized that he was stuck with the needle for a lifetime, he became determined to put the hurt and discomfort behind and do something about it. Over the years, diabetes took a bigger and bigger toll on his body, with episodes of hypoglycemia (abnormally low level of sugar in the blood) and even fainting—but all this only strengthened his resolve.
In addition to struggling with a debilitating condition like millions in the world do, Kumar constantly thought about how a diabetic can manage his condition better and, at the same time, persisted with his studies. “These two aspects of my life merged when I decided to pursue a PhD at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc Bangalore),” he says. Besides working on novel ways to diagnose diseases and acquiring multiple patents, he also co-founded (along with Navakanta Bhat and Gautam Sharma) PathShodh Healthcare Pvt. Ltd, a start-up incubated at IISc that is focused on medical device research and development.
Kumar’s innovation is a hand-held point-of-care device which, as a single unit, can measure eight different parameters related to diabetes management and early detection of its complications. “With a tiny drop of finger-pricked blood samples, patients can test HbA1c (which gives 90 days blood glucose control profile), glycated albumin (which gives 15 days blood glucose control profile) and instant blood glucose as well,” he says. The device can detect very early damage in the kidney by measuring the microalbuminuria, creatinine and ACR (albumin to creatinine ratio) in the urine samples. Apart from these, he adds, it can measure the haemoglobin level for anaemia and chronic kidney disease. “The device can measure serum albumin, an important blood marker for kidney and liver. So the single device can take care of full diabetes glycaemic management and early detection of complications such as diabetic nephropathy,” explains Kumar.
The road ahead for PathShodh is well-defined. “The device is ready and regress clinical validation for most of the tests has been completed on real patient samples in collaboration with major pathology labs and hospitals in Bangalore. We also have the manufacturing line setup at IISc to manufacture the disposable test strips for these different tests,” says Kumar. The commercial launch of the device can happen any time now. That would certainly move the needle in a positive direction for PathShodh’s mission of making healthcare diagnostics affordable and available to all.