From fire to the wheel and the lightbulb to the mobile phone, innovation has been mostly egalitarian – which might suggest that most inventors haven’t targeted a social or economic class.
But unwittingly, they did. Many inventions are born from necessity – a need felt by the inventor. Given that the poorest three billion people on the planet rarely have any opportunity to do any inventing, it’s not surprising that most innovation has excluded three billion people from its target audience.
But for over a decade now, the lower rungs of society have been of high interest. The economists call it the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – the three-billion-plus people who live on less than Rs 100 a day. It’s been C K Prahalad’s favorite lecture-circuit subject for years (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid).
In 3 Idiots, you wouldn’t have missed the remote-controlled quadrotor aircraft that picks up live video of its inventor’s suicide on its maiden flight. But generating even more interest from 3i is the scooter-powered flourmill, a cycle-powered horse hair clipper and an exercycle-washing machine. These three came from the government-sponsored, decade-old National Innovation Foundation.
The NIF has 1,40,000 inventions from 545 districts, and has generated 220 patent applications, according to an HT report. Its inventors include Remya Jose, 21, a pretty Keralite (video at http://ld2.in/27 ) who created the exercycle-washer when her mother was ill and her father had cancer. And Mohammed Idris (33), a UP barber and fifth-standard dropout who invented the cycle-powered horse clipper. The interest in rural invention and innovation is probably the most positive fallout of 3i, the movie.
Last week I wrote about five of the 20 young Indian inventors recognised by Technology Review India in its TR35 Awards, the Indian version of MIT’s programme to recognise innovators under 35. Here are more of the 20 youngsters – and their inventions.
Dhananjaya Dendukuri, 32, a PhD from MIT, created a “lab on a chip” to perform low-cost medical diagnostics. Samples of blood or other fluids are loaded onto a microchip, and tested in minutes in a fluorescence-based portable reader. The system is cheap and reliable, and can help make healthcare tests accessible to millions. A venture capitalist who has invested in Dendukuri’s Achira Labs in Bangalore calls it the “democratisation of diagnostics”.
Rikin B Gandhi, 28, is an aeronautical engineer from MIT who founded Digital Green, an NGO incubated at Microsoft Research India. He disseminates agricultural information to farmers using “participatory video”, using camcorders to record experts as well as farmer success stories, and playing them back on DVD players and TVs. The technique has been very effective in converting farmers to better farming tech and practices – and Gandhi has a $800,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to scale the idea.
Sriram Kannan, 34, created a system for accessing medical images on mobile phones – the world’s first tele-ophthalmology iPhone app. He worked with ophthalmologists at Narayana Nethralaya, Bangalore, in understanding the clinical requirements for viewing, diagnosing, and reporting on retinal images. Now undergoing clinical trials in India, Canada, and the US, the app could change the way eye care, cardiology, and dentistry is delivered in remote regions of the world. Kannan works at I2I solutions, Bangalore.
Prajwal V Kumar, 30, created a remote-control system for a power tiller – so that a farmer wouldn’t have to walk behind the tiller in the hot sun. The farmer can now command his tiller from the shade of a tree, or from further afar. Kumar has also invented tree-climbing and harvesting robots, a weeding machine, and an unmanned ground vehicle... and has co-founded Mangalore Robotronics Technologies.
Manoj K Mandelia, 23, created a treatment for waste water which also generates electricity. LOCUS – “localised operation of bio-cells using sewage” – is at present a 10-litre lab prototype which has been tested at IIT Kharagpur (where Mandelia is an MTech student). It’s a microbial fuel cell, integrated with a sewage treatment system, that takes aim at the world’s top issues – clean water and green energy.
Hardik Sanghvi, 31, created an ‘algorithm’ to provide rich content on low bandwidth. With near-zero broadband or 3G use in India, there’s little infrastructure to deliver multimedia and video content; Sanghvi’s super-compression delivers video on even slow connections, making it usable for education, telemedicine, and rural services. His company, Vmukti, offers the product as an affordable service.
Prajwal V Kumar’s remote-control system saves a farmer from walking behind a tiller in the hot sun
Sriram Kannan created the world’s first tele-ophthalmology iPhone app, now undergoing clinical trials
Hardik Sanghvi’s algorithm delivers rich content and video even on low bandwidth
Waste to power
Manoj K Mandelia’s fuel cell treats waste water while generating electricity
Rikin B Gandhi’s “participatory videos” are helping convert farmers to better practices – supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation
Lab on a chip
Dhananjaya Dendukuri’s creation could make cheap, quick and reliable medical tests accessible to millions
The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of gadget site LD2.in and other specialty titles, including Technology Review India (technologyreview.in).