Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Meet India’s top innovators under 35

Here are the profiles of the eight people who made it to the MIT Technology Review's India edition of the Innovators Under 35 list this year

Mint and MIT Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teamed up on 1 October 2015 to identify Indian citizens under the age of 35 working on innovations that promise to shape the coming decades. The goal was to recognize the development of new technology or the creative application of existing technologies to solve problems. The eight winners, who made it to the India edition of the Innovators Under 35 list this year, will automatically become finalists for the global MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 list. Here are their profiles.

NIDHI AGRAWAL

Nidhi Agarwal. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Nidhi Agarwal. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 32

Technical area: Nanotechnology and materials

Current position: Manager, research and development, Pluss Advanced Technologies Pvt. Ltd

Agrawal remembers going into a room full of venture capitalists back in 2012. She was there to convince them that something as intricate and as niche as phase change materials (PCMs) could have a wide range of industrial applications at an affordable price.

PCMs are materials primarily made up of fatty acids and fatty acid esters that can store or release energy as per external requirements. They do so by changing phase from liquid to solid when releasing energy and solid to liquid when absorbing energy.

The investors in the room pored over every detail of the research work she had done with her team in the last two years. A researcher and innovator, she donned an entrepreneur’s hat because she wanted to find a way for her research work to create an actual impact on the industry.

Agrawal, who has been working with Gurgaon-based Pluss Advanced Technologies Pvt. Ltd since 2010, was successful in convincing investors. The company was able to raise funds from Tata Capital Innovation Fund.

After she completed her BSc in chemistry and MSc and MPhil in organic chemistry, she worked at the Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Agrawal has developed over 10 commercial PCMs for the first time in India. She also led the development of form stable PCMs, which are based on organic materials added with polymers. Form stable PCMs surpass conventional PCMs when it comes to storing energy as they do not leak even if the material’s encapsulation is broken. This unique property enables its usage in applications which otherwise would not have been possible.

“The work we do is research-intensive and takes time, unlike other start-ups, which start generating returns early on," said Agrawal.

“Initially it was really challenging, but over a period time, we strategized the process. We decided to go for two commercial PCM products per year."

Agrawal has been involved in envisaging, developing and manufacturing the products as well as in marketing. Some applications that have already been rolled out by the company include Lava Lunch Boxes, a microwavable container that ensures that food remains warm for up to four hours, Thermal Jacket and Miracradle, a medical device which helps maintain a newborn’s temperature at 33 degrees Celsius for 72 hours in case of neonatal asphyxia, resulting from deprivation of oxygen to a newborn.

But most notable is her work on developing thermally responsive building materials such as FS-PCM based tiles that can lower the energy requirements (cooling or heating) of buildings substantially. They can help maintain the temperature of the building at between 25-30 degree C.

It is a joint project with US department of energy and India’s department of science and technology. The research is being led by the Centre for Advanced Research in Building Science and Energy, India, and Pluss is a project partner.

“The PCM-based tiles can save up to 20% of energy in a building. We are in the process of validating our product," she said. The result will be demonstrated in Denmark at Clima 2016, a conference on heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems, in May.

UMESH SACHDEV

Umesh Sachdev. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Umesh Sachdev. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 30

Technical area: Software

Current position: Co-founder and chief executive officer of Uniphore Software Systems Pvt. Ltd

Sachdev always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Not just any entrepreneur, but the type who can solve societal problems and create a positive impact.

His Uniphore Software Systems offers a suite of speech authentication and recognition products, which help government authorities and corporate entities reach rural customers by interacting with them in vernacular languages. They also present a powerful proposition for a future in which smart devices and smart machines will rely on speech for interacting with humans rather than on text inputs.

Sachdev’s journey started in early 2007 when after graduation he, along with one of his friends, Ravi Saraogi, went to the incubation centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, seeking to create a location-based mobile anti-theft application. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, co-chairman of the incubation cell, helped them redefine the problem. Inspired by this, the two travelled in rural Tamil Nadu to figure out what people were doing with mobile devices.

“We found that though there was no infrastructure, every household had a mobile phone then. However, because of the lack of English literacy and other digital skills, the people in rural areas were (not) using mobiles to access public services (or) to access Internet. The biggest problem was the unavailability of these services in local languages," said Sachdev.

“It was then that we realized that vernacular speech is the lowest common denominator in human-machine interaction, which can be used to bridge the digital divide."

Over the next 15-16 months, Sachdev and Saraogi tapped academic research available in this area and worked with companies that were already conducting research in the field, and created a speech authentication and speech recognition program capable of interacting with humans in local languages.

In 2008, Sachdev co-founded Uniphore, which primarily offers three products: Akeira, a virtual assistant, amVoice, for voice biometrics, and auMina, for speech analytics.

“Our virtual assistant product Akeira, like Siri, can talk on phone, IVR (interactive voice response) and computer. But unlike Siri, it can speak in 14 Indian languages and 30 global languages," he says.

The company has been working with microfinance institutions, banks and primary healthcare centres, among others.

A part of Akeira deals with recognizing and authenticating speech in different languages as well as interacting with humans, while another part communicates with the systems at the back-end like banks’ core software solutions and enterprise resource solutions for healthcare institutions.

The company has been working with five banks, including three public sector banks, to roll out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Jan-Dhan Yojana. Akeira talks to rural customers in local languages on behalf of these banks, understands, recognizes and authenticates what they want to do, converts it into instructions and communicates with banks’ software to get the job done.

Piyush Agrawal

Piyush Agarwal. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Piyush Agarwal. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 30

Technical area: Software

Current position: Founder and chief executive, superprofs.com

When Agrawal dropped out of Stanford University, where he was pursuing a Master of Science (MS) degree in electrical engineering and a PhD programme, in 2010, he wanted to start his own venture. He had no idea about the challenges ahead.

Agrawal, who completed his Bachelor of Technology and Master of Technology programmes from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, wanted to create an affordable solution for colleges that would let students access all lectures later at their convenience, similar to what he had seen abroad.

Passionate and impulsive, he decided to leave the course and returned to India in 2010, two years after he started it. “I had to make a choice between starting then and there or waiting for another five years to create something," he says.

Once back in India, he reached out to the IITs and Indian Institutes of Management, who liked the idea but weren’t willing to spend money on it. “It wasn’t a big pain point for them," says Agrawal, who hails from Bhopal. “I tried for five-six months, but it wasn’t fruitful."

“I was disheartened. By that time, my family wanted me to start looking for a job, rather than spending more time and effort on it."

Agrawal then tried looking up coaching centres for competitive exams, and started calling them randomly. He happened to call a coaching centre in Delhi which was almost going to finalize a deal with another company for video-conferencing equipment to connect its centres in Agra and Mathura in order to let students there access quality education from lecturers based in Delhi.

Agrawal was able to sell the idea of a cloud-based, real-time, high-definition video-streaming solution that he could deliver at a fraction of the market cost.

He travelled to Delhi immediately to seal the contract and got an advance payment of 1 lakh. Agrawal, along with Sujeet Kumar, a friend from college, had been working on this technology for some time, and was thus able to deliver it within a few months.

Agrawal then formed Auruf Network Pvt. Ltd in 2010. With his solution, he reached out to more coaching centres across India and created a profitable business.

“In 2013, we thought of scaling it up in a way that could create a bigger impact on students, so we started changing our business model," Agrawal said. During the next 12-18 months, while the company continued to work with coaching centres, providing scalable, cloud-based solution to deliver lectures in real time across all other centres in near HD quality at Internet bandwidths of as low as 100 kbps, it also started partnering with professors at coaching centres and created a platform for them to reach students.

In January 2014, the company launched the platform superprofs.com. Over the next one year, it built that business and subsequently closed its other business segment that dealt with coaching centres.

“We realized that there are crores of students who take competitive exams of civil services, SSC (Staff Selection Commission), CA (charted accountancy), CS (company secretary), CMA (certified management accountant ), banking and GATE (graduate aptitude test in engineering). And a majority of these students belong to small towns, villages and remote parts of the country which do not have good quality institutions to train the student," Agrawal says. “It has been a big pain point for Indian students, and we are trying to address this."

That business has now completely transformed into a consumer-facing platform for students appearing for competitive exams. The vision of this venture is to bring India’s best lecturers together on one platform and turn them into super professors who could teach millions of students across India.

Superprofs.com has over 200,000 registered students who can watch lectures from more than 200 of the best professors from across the country on their mobile devices even on low-speed Internet connections. The monthly fee for these courses ranges from about 900 to 5,000.

SHIVANI GUPTA

Shivani Gupta. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Shivani Gupta. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 29

Technical area: Biotechnology and Medicine

Current position: Research scholar at the Department of Biological Sciences, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad campus

Flu, cough, cold, viral fever—these may seem to be the most common infectious diseases, but according to Shivani Gupta, they really aren’t. “Urinary tract infection (UTI) is the most common infection that troubles people. There are 10 lakh people that report a UTI at a hospital, clinic or healthcare centre each day," says Gupta. In addition to this, she says, 50-60% of people in India suffer from UTI once in their lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, more than 150 million UTI cases occur globally every year, leading to 7 million doctor visits.

Gupta always had interest in biotechnology, graduated with a degree in the subject, went on to do an MSc in it and finally enrolled as a PhD student at BITS Pilani. As part of the genomics lab, she was a member of the research team headed by Professor Suman Kapoor. In 2010, the Defence Research and Development Organisation called for research proposals in the field of infectious diseases. Gupta and her team decided to submit a proposal on UTI.

As Gupta explains, the existing problem for UTI patients is that from the time that they report a problem to a doctor to the time when they get prescribed the correct medicine, it takes two days—since the prescribed test for UTI takes two days to determine the exact bacteria that’s causing the infection. However, sometimes the patient is in too much pain and the doctor has no option but to use symptoms and clinical experience to prescribe medicines. Gupta and her team have created a solution by which the test results can be determined in just four hours.

The technology comprises a device and a kit. The patient’s urine sample is collected and put in a bottle with a growth medium (a solid or gas that supports growth of microorganisms) that is a part of the kit. This bottle is then fitted with a dropper and incubated for four hours. The kit contains two strips that are coated with seven antibiotics each. After the incubation process, the contents of the bottle are put on the strip. Four drops on each of the seven segments on the two strips containing different antibiotics. The strips are then placed on the device, which has optical sensors to detect the bacteria causing the infection.

In 2015 the team received a grant from the department of biotechnology of 50 lakh to develop its industrial design, and the product is expected to be market-ready by the end of this year.

The cost structure is broken into two parts. The device, which is a one-time purchase for hospitals and clinics, costs 50,000. The kit, which consists of the growth medium and strips, costs around 350. The team has applied for two patents and have also filed an application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (an international patent law treaty), which will allow sale of the product globally.

VIGNESH SUBRAHMANIAM

Vignesh Subramaniam. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Vignesh Subramaniam. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 29

Technical area: Software

Current position: Lead scientist at GE Global Research

As a child, Subrahmaniam had an unusual combination of interests. He was interested in mathematics as well as music. While he was fond of reading books, he liked forecasting the weather and playing the veena. He grew up to become of one the youngest and finest statisticians and data scientists in the country.

Twelve years ago, when he had to decide the course of his career, his mother encouraged him to take up the field which he so passionately adored. “My mother has always believed that to really become successful, you need to do what you are passionate about," says Subrahmaniam.

So, at that time, when people usually opted to study for a medical or engineering degree, he went to the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

After completing his studies in 2008, he joined the global research team at the US-based products and services firm General Electric Co., where he had interned in 2005. His forte is statistical modelling for weather forecasting to solve industrial problems.

In the early stages of his career, he developed mathematical models and algorithms that added significant value to diverse industrial applications. He worked with two more researchers to develop a new machine-learning algorithm which analysed historical weather data in the Indian subcontinent to identify regions that have similar rainfall patterns. His research led to the discovery of a new monsoon region called the Homogenous Indian Monsoon Region, which later improved monsoon forecasting over large areas of northern and eastern India. His work was published in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society (2009).

In 2010, Subrahmaniam invented an automated mixture analysis algorithm for identifying unknown substances based on its Raman spectra. This method was later granted a patent. “It was used by GE’s Homeland Protection business to identify unknown mixtures such as narcotics or drugs correctly," says Subrahmaniam.

Though identification of mixtures from spectral data is a well-studied topic, Subrahmaniam developed the first ever method based on partial correlation to generate probabilities on all the identified mixture components. His work on this was published in the Journal of Applied Spectroscopy in 2010.

Over the last seven years, Subrahmaniam has been involved in creating a software system consists of self-learning algorithms, which analyse historical weather patterns at a location and predict the most repeatable patterns. It compares that information with the requirements for its clients, such as setting up a wind farm at that location, to come up with the best model to do so. The method has been adopted by GE’s wind business for setting up wind turbines.

Subrahmaniam has been involved in industry applications related to wind farming, power grids, transport and aviation.

“Over a period of time, the system that we have created has demonstrated verifiable results," he says.

Subrahmaniam is now experimenting with deep learning, a new field in machine learning, which uses artificial neural networks to learn levels of representation and abstraction that make sense of data such as images, sound, and text, in a way the human brain learns and understands it.

“We are using new analytical models and deep learning for analysing historical weather data to increase the accuracy of our predictions," he says. “We are also looking to use this model to expand our horizons and solve problems across various industries."

RICHA BAJPAI

Richa Bajpai. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Richa Bajpai. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 28

Technical area: Software

Current position: Co-founder and director, NextGen PMS Pvt. Ltd

Bajpai and Abhisek Humbad founded Nextgen together, but they were never classmates in school or college; nor were they former colleagues, as it typically the case for most start-up co-founders. While Bajpai was doing her electrical engineering from Rajasthan University, Humbad was pursuing the same course at BITS Pilani. The two met at a business plan competition where they decided to walk together on the path of entrepreneurship.

At 21, the two decided to pitch to the NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, a unit of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB), the idea of a start-up that could determine the impact of businesses on the environment and society.

The same year, Bajpai went on to pursue a course in women’s entrepreneurship at IIMB, while Humbad took up a full-time management programme at the institute.

“The idea was further refined to be able to quantify the problem, increase information and measure the impact of funds deployed by corporates," says Bajpai.

The company has developed a cloud and mobile based corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability management platform, “p3", which helps companies track, monitor, evaluate and report on their CSR and sustainability performance.

The company solves three main problems: flow of information (about projects that need funds), proper utilization of funds and measuring impact. The company works with over 100 organizations that deploy funds for development work and with over 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social groups. It manages more than $150 million of CSR/development capital annually and its work has impacted over 60 million people.

Using an example to explain the way the technology works, if there is a certain amount of money that a corporate entity is looking to deploy, the technology helps to find out the sector that needs the funds—vaccination of children in a particular district may need more attention than mid-day meals schools, for instance.

After the funds are deployed, the technology is used by the NGO to track the number of children vaccinated and number of medicines supplied, among other things, and finally, the impact is measured in terms of reduced hospital visits, increased attendance at schools and so on.

The company raised funds from individual investors network Mumbai Angels (the round was led by Phanindra Sama, co-founder of bus ticketing company redBus) and a group of angel investors based in Silicon Valley and India in 2015.

Bajpai and Humbad were also part of the Forbes India 30-under-30 List in 2014 and were recently among the 25 Cool Indians of Vogue India, in the Tech Crew category.

ROOPAM SHARMA

Roopam Sharma. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Roopam Sharma. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 20

Technical area: Computers and electronics hardware

Current position: Researcher, Manav Rachna Incubation and Innovation Centre

While studying computer engineering at Manav Rachna University, Sharma wanted to develop a game for those who are colour-blind. “People with colour blindness can’t distinguish between shades of pink and red. The idea was to create a game like ‘the endless runner’," says Sharma, referring to a popular genre of gaming.

As he was researching colour blindness, he realised that there hadn’t been any innovation done on improving the literacy of blind people. With this idea in mind, in February last year he decided to survey and interview around 60 blind people in Delhi and the national capital region about the problems that they face.

After completing his survey over 15 days, Sharma realized that the visually impaired suffer from three major problems. First, the inability to read any text that is not in Braille; second, navigation through the environment and surroundings; and third, accessibility to smartphones. According to Sharma, only 8% of the total number of the visually impaired in India can read Braille.

Sharma, as part of his work at the Manav Rachna Incubation and Innovation Centre, decided to address these three problems by creating Manovue, a device that the user wears like a glove. (Mano means hand in Spanish and vue means vision in French; the combination denotes the objective of creating vision through the hand.)

The index finger of the glove has a camera that captures images of the printed text. The technology extracts the text and converts it as a voice message that makes reading easy. The glove also helps in navigation. “It detects obstacles in the way of the user and creates vibrating signals in the direction of the obstacle. The lower part of the palm receives the signals that could be from the left or right direction. In case of the centre, both left and right sides vibrate," adds Sharma. The glove is connected to a mobile app as well.

The app has voice-based maps and gives audio directions to the user. In addition to this, the app works like a personal assistant and talks to the user. It can send text messages, dial numbers and send alerts, among other things, when instructed by the user. In case of a situation where the user is unable of find the glove, the request is made on the app and a beeping sound from the glove makes it easier for the user to detect the location.

Manovue is in its last stage of testing, which has been performed on over 250 users in partnership with the Blind Association of Delhi and Faridabad. The device costs 4,000. “We want the device to be used by the low-income users, hence we have created a subsidy model where such users pay 500 and the balance is paid by our partners who are willing to fund users," says Sharma. The aim is to reach 50,000 people by the end of this year. A patent application has been filed for the device.

ARIJIT BISWAS

Arijit Biswas. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Arijit Biswas. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Age: 28

Technical area: Software

Current position: Research scientist at Xerox Research Centre India, Xerox Corp.

A few years from now, the CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) may not just be the alphanumeric codes that exist today. They will become more complicated as innovators like Biswas try to make computers and robots more intelligent.

Passionate about artificial intelligence, Biswas studied electronics and telecommunication engineering at Jadavpur University and went on to do a PhD in computer vision and machine learning from the University of Maryland. He has been conducting seminal technology research in computer vision and multimedia analytics with direct applications in the education and healthcare domains.

Since joining Xerox Research Centre India about 18 months ago, Biswas’s work has led to 14 patents and four research publications in international peer-reviewed conferences with several more in the pipeline. Biswas has created machine learning applications for education and healthcare sectors. He also created an electronic field guide called Leafsnap that can automatically identify a plant species by clicking a picture.

“I believe videos will be the next generation of textbooks, which will solve barriers of language (and) access to good quality teachers, among other things," says Biswas.

The biggest challenge in video learning is not having access to an index of contents. Using an example, Biswas says that parts of a human body can be explained by a video, but there is no way students can directly jump to the chapter on the brain or small intestine. A student would have to randomly keep clicking on the streaming line, move back and forth to arrive on the main chapter of interest. There is no index that gives a time-wise break-up of the contents of the video, just like there are page numbers for chapters in the index of textbooks.

Biswas has developed a technique called MMToC (Multimodal Table of Content). The technology helps to index videos and this is being tested in the beta phase. In addition to the index, the technology allows external links to be added to provide additional information. Using the human body example again, Biswas says that if the student is learning about the brain, the video will have links to external sources (Wikipedia and Facebook, among others) that can provide additional information on the brain to the student.

Currently, indices and links have already been created for around 5,000 videos and the plan is to do it for 20,000 more videos. These capabilities are part of Xerox Tutorspace Personalized Learning Platform, an e-learning platform that Xerox Research Centre India is building and is being piloted at several colleges and universities in India and the US.

Biswas has used machine learning solutions for the healthcare sector, especially for those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Devices similar to Google Glass are worn by the patients, and the technology helps to identify objects, actions and external surroundings of the user. It takes note of an action or object used and sends a reminder to the patient in three to four minutes. These glasses cost $1,000 and are in the initial phase of testing. Biswas hopes that at least 50% of dementia patients in India can use the technology by end of 2018.

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