Business

Indian entrepreneurs winning global awards for breakthrough innovations

On February 17, Santosh Ostwal, the son of a farmer, took to the stage at Nokia’s ‘Call Innovators Challenge’ in Barcelona. He was showcasing his

Nano Ganesh, a modem, which coupled with a mobile phone, is connected to the starter mechanism of the ubiquitous water pump, making the long march of the farmers to their water pumps in remote locations unnecessary.

At first, the 42-year-old , whose current turnover stands at a modest Rs 2 crore, got cold feet before a global audience . There were 1,000 competitors from the world over, but while the footage of his invention was playing, video director Doug Wallen had something to say: “An Indian man has made this? Amazing!” The phrase still rings in Ostwal’s ears. “It gave me a lot of pleasure and helped build my confidence enormously,” says Ostwal, who amid standing ovation, bagged the first prize at the awards night. “I’m now going in for a Rs 100-crore investment, and expect revenues worth Rs 350 crore this fiscal.”

It’s not just handmade paper and ethnic ballpoints that are earning India’s innovator-entrepreneurs accolades abroad. Some of the largest and most recognised multinationals are looking at hitherto unknown talent from the subcontinent, and taking them global. “India has traditionally been strong at process or business model innovation, but now we see a lot more coming forward from the product innovation side,” says Porus Munshi, partner consultant at Erehwon Consulting.

Suddenly, the landscape seems to be changing as dozens of homegrown incubators across the country’s many technology institutes are churning out international talent. Tech schools across the country are waking up from Fabian fatalism to can-do optimism. “Earlier , more companies from India were doing product innovation but now, individuals are coming to the fore,” says Munshi.

“The convergence of the mobile and internet, the emergence of the Indian mobile sector as the world’s second largest market and the increased focus on emerging markets for future growth are all creating opportunities for these developers to deliver innovation and shape the future of the mobile sector,” says Kenny Mathers, Head of Developer Relations Forum Nokia-APAC. In the ’emerging markets’ category, the Nano Ganesh application from India won the grand prize, and in the ‘eco challenge’ category, another Indian Green Phone application was the runner up.

At 29, the Hyderabad-based Kranthi Vistakula dreams big. He can afford to, after being in the top five of the Intel-Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge last year. “The exposure helped me enormously and whenever we approach investors nowadays, they know the kind of due diligence that has gone into my technology,” says the CEO of Dhama Apparels, a company that makes air-conditioned jackets, helmets and neck scarves using its patented ‘ClimaCon’ technology . The Government of India has pumped in Rs 45 lakh into his company , as he enters the final stages of negotiations with five potential investors from abroad.

In the same competition, G Rajmohan, a PhD student of National Institute of Immunology (NII), along with his fellow student CK Anish, stole a march over Vistakula, bagging the second prize. The innovation – an artificial skin for burn treatment. “We wanted to develop a low-cost alternative for the treatment, something that could be used successfully in the rural milieu also,” says Rajmohan, with an eye now to set up his own company that will focus on targeted drug delivery in cancer.

Berkeley is the perfect setting for any marriage between business and technology. The university, over the years, has spawned some amazing talent, among them Andrew Grove (co-founder, Intel) and Dean Witter (co-founder, Morgan Stanley). “We are proud that Rajmohan and Anish were awarded second place for their wound-treating membrane technology. It is inspiring to see the approaches that entrepreneurship teams took to solve worldwide challenges,” says Dr. Praveen Vishakantaiah, President, Intel India. “Intel believes a strong education drives innovation that fuels our economy, and this is strong evidence that higher education has a major role to play in expanding possibilities.”

Janak Seth, who runs Century Pharmaceuticals in Vadodara is also on medicine’s recognition row. A few years back, he designed a molecule that forces cancerous and asthmatic cells to commit suicide. That won Seth the Lockheed Martin gold medal and paved the way for discussions with a couple of American companies. “This is a completely new molecule with no parallel in the world,” says Seth.

In Bangalore, Devesh Agarwal, CEO of Infomart India, has a technology called ‘Power over Ethernet’ (PoE), a system which transmits electrical power, along with data, to remote devices over cable in an Ethernet network. The company’s annual revenues currently stand at $0.5 million, all of which comes from offshore. Infomart is credited with developing the world’s first high-power PoE endpoint solution to address the emerging high power needs of video surveillance and wireless access points, where it would otherwise be inconvenient and expensive to supply power.

A Lockheed Martin awardee, Agarwal was pleasantly surprised in 2007 when “one of the largest companies in the PoE space came to us and wanted to buy the product to add to their brand portfolio.” Agarwal plunged headlong into the offer. “The quality norms and processes that the company insisted on increased our understanding manifold For instance, when we saw their packaging, we felt it was marginally more expensive but there was zero transit damage and the product reached the customer more attractively,” he says. He switched to similar packaging for his own brand “because the last step in manufacturing (packaging) is the first step in buying.”

Recently, Gopi Kumar Bulusu, CEO of the Chennai-based Sankhya Technologies, was overjoyed when he received an email from Gary Smith, a former Gartner man who now runs a consultancy and comes up with ‘Wall Charts’ , the Bible for picking systems design solutions the world over. The mail stated that Smith planned to put Bulusu’s technology on his chart for circa 2009. After all, the 39-year-old has designed a product called Teraptor that allows the design of new embedded systems devices at an architectural level, reducing the workforce on embedded design and bringing down the time to market. “Once the Wall Chart is up, we would be established across the embedded systems community worldwide ,” says Bulusu, whose $0.5 million company has just started getting some traction from the Technology Development Board.

Fire In The Belly

Even as they win contracts and awards abroad, many Indian techies rue the fact that it’s so much harder to find recognition in India, where an entrepreneurial ecosystem seems to lacking. Take the case of the 50-year-old T Raghavendra Rao, director of Sustainable Technologies & Environmental Projects. His Polycrack process converts plastic and organic waste into petroleum fuels.

A Lockheed Martin gold medallist, Rao’s process was nominated for the coveted Tech Awards last year. He didn’t win the first prize but his technology sashayed the global ramp where he won plaudits. His specialty catalyst , which converts waste into fuels and comes in the form of cartridges, has been picked up by the top bio-fuel companies the world over – from Vulcanes Gmbh of Germany which is setting up plants in Europe, to others in the US, Far East and Middle East. “We started setting up plants in India only recently,” says Rao. “Indians are not leaders but mere followers. Nobody is willing to take the risk, or invest unless the idea has proven its worth elsewhere.”

Though international recognition is picking up pace, largely thanks to a more global and virtual world, homegrown companies tend to be lackadaisical. “There’s a lack of confidence from Indian industries when it comes to new ideas, though government bodies, like the Department of Science, Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research often back these technologies,” says Nirankar Saxena, a director at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), who regularly scouts for new enterprise and innovation.

The benefit of the doubt, nevertheless, may be given to India for its ’emerging’ status. Even in America, the land of free enterprise, state initiatives have been fueling innovations for quite a while now. Just as the roots of e-mail can be traced back to the US Department of Defense’s ARPANET programme and the Global Positioning System was a gift to the world by the US Air Force. The Pentagon has been at the forefront of incubating some very high-payoff research, until time reduces them to mass freeware. But India’s strength is its indomitable slumdog entrepreneurs.

The Secret Is Out: The DRDO Drive

If the pentagon stakes claim for a warren of innovations entering the civilian domain, the homegrown Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) refuses to be left behind. In association with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the DRDO has launched what it calls the Accelerated Technology Assessment and Commercialisation (ATAC) programme.

Simply put, DRDO has approached FICCI with a list of 200-odd indigenous technologies for commercialisation . “Under the programme, Ficci has further undertaken the fast-track and main track initiatives, the former being a capsule of 10 technologies for immediate commercialisation,” says Nirankar Saxena, director at FICCI.

The tech on display is as diverse as electrochromic windows that provide protection from the scorching heat bringing down energy consumption by 30-40 % to RO-based mobile water purification systems. Also on the block is the Depa cream, which today our Forces use in border areas. A multi-insect repellant, the cream is effective against blood-sucking insects, mosquitoes, flies and bugs.

FICCI is already a partner of the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas that promotes new technology and enterprise. With the DRDO opening up its technology for civilian use, a swathe of companies—Jyothy Laboratories, L&T, Zee Technologies, to name a few—have shown interest.

MEET THE INNOVATORS

Innovator: Santosh Ostwal

Innovation:

Nano Ganesh—a modem coupled with a mobile phone, connected to the starter mechanism of the water pump. Farmer does not physically need to go to water pumps, often miles away from his location, and can switch on/off the pumpset using his mobile phone.

Recognition: First prize at Nokia’s ‘Call Innovators Challenge’ , Barcelona.

Innovator: T Raghavendra Rao

Innovation:

Polycrack process—converts plastic and organic waste into petroleum fuels.

Recognition: Lockheed Martin Innovation Award; The Tech Awards nominee.

Innovator: Kranthi Vistakula

Innovation:

ClimaGear— air-conditioned jackets, helmets and neck scarves using its patented ‘ClimaCon’ technology that works on the thermoelectric principle.

Recognition: Among the top five at the Intel-Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge.

Innovator: Devesh Agarwal

Innovation:

‘Power over Ethernet’ (PoE)—describes a system which transmits electrical power, along with data, to remote devices over cable in an Ethernet network. So Agarwal’s company Infomart is credited with developing the world’s first high-power PoE endpoint solution to address the emerging high power needs of video surveillance and wireless access points, where it would otherwise be inconvenient and expensive to supply power.

Recognition: Lockheed Martin Innovation Award.

Innovator: Gopi Kumar Bulusu

Innovation:

Teraptor—allows the design of new embedded systems devices at an architectural level, reducing the workforce on embedded design and bringing down the time to market.

Recognition: Gary Smith Wall Chart

Innovator: Janak Seth

Innovation:

Apoptopic Proteins— he designed a molecule that goes into cancerous and asthmatic cells, forcing them to commit suicide. He claims it is a completely new molecule with no parallel the world over.

Recognition: Lockheed Martin Innovation Award

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