Past life

Gubbi Labs is a research collective started in 2010 by two Bangalore-based scientists who felt their research potential was limited by the agenda of the organizations they worked for. H.S. Sudhira, 32, and K.V. Gururaja, 36, met during a course on environmental management in Dharwad, Karnataka. “We were both avid birders," says Sudhira, who has a PhD, works on urban sprawls, concentrating on the planning issues of urban spaces. Gururaja, who works with the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation and Urban Planning (CiSTUP), Indian Institute of Science, has a PhD on the effect of fragmentation on amphibian communities in the Western Ghats and works extensively with amphibians and their habitats.

Eureka moment

“We always spoke about how we should run our own research collective," says Sudhira. The aim was to create an organization that would produce knowledge, and then create value or monetize it. But there was a catch. “We are trying to produce knowledge. If we were a product company, we could say this is cost of production, this is what I sell at. To go about raising funds for this was a bigger challenge," says Sudhira. The idea of research as something useful for the general public is a new concept that India is yet to absorb, they both say. But as researchers with several ideas that the public could use, they decided to start Gubbi Labs.

They started Gubbi Labs in 2010. Their first project was a mapping exercise for the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, in which forest guards use GPS devices to mark where tigers are most spotted. The next was an advisory and consulting service related to urban planning.

Sudhira, who was already working extensively with urban spaces and had also interned with the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, worked on a project to create a bus-based transportation system in Tumkur, Karnataka.

“This was a project that we worked on with the KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation), in which we chalked out bus routes taking into consideration the busiest times of the day and other such factors," says Sudhira.

The collective invites scientists from other strains as well, and partners with them in limited liability partnerships—each member keeps their day job while working with Gubbi Labs on projects they are keen on.

“To be more precise, Gubbi Labs is not only myself or Dr KVG, but many of us. This implies that we have come together sharing some common interests and understanding. Primarily, all of us believe in ‘freedom’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘innovation’," says Sudhira.

In 2012, Gururaja released a guidebook, Pictorial Guide to Frogs And Toads of the Western Ghats, with the help of grants received from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree). The book was received well by wildlife enthusiasts. In 2013 they launched Frog Find, an Android app that helps to identify frogs and toads based on data from the book.

Gubbi Labs’ most talked about project is the marking out of bicycle-friendly streets in Bangalore. In a pilot project, they marked out streets in Jayanagar that were alternatives to busy main roads and could be used by cyclists for safe riding. “Though roads have been marked out, it’s stuck at an implementation levels," says Sudhira regretfully.

They also take up consulting projects with corporations—this is their key revenue source. “We have also started short-term courses that disseminate our learnings," says Gururaja, talking about a one-day programme on exploring natural history and another one on creating maps. “With Gubbi Labs, we want to realize projects that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day," says Sudhira.

One such project is a book titled An Illustrated Guide to Common Diatoms of Peninsular India by B. Karthick, P.B. Hamilton and J.P. Kociolek. “Taxonomy doesn’t get grants, studies on global warming are more likely to get grants," Sudhira says of the book.

Gururaja says the good thing about their area of work is that profit or no profit, they continue to think. Over time they have realized that they need to ensure they get their share of consultation projects to keep the company going.

As researchers, there were aspects they were not familiar with, like taxes and finances. “It took us a while to get a larger sense of things," says Sudhira. After their first project in Tumkur, in collaboration with the KSRTC, there were requests to replicate it in other towns, but they turned these down as it seemed repetitive.

Plan B

“We don’t think we are that incompetent," says Sudhira, adding, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll make it work." They are scientists who will continue to do research in their respective areas whether or not the collective works.

Secret sauce

Their fields complement each other. “Everything that is affecting ecology is because of the human system and over a period of time this is affected by how human beings function," says Sudhira, explaining that the absolute diversity in their expertise makes the organization work.

Previous Cool Ideas issues: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012

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