Cry Eureka!

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Oct 19 2010, 04:37am hrs
Left parties in Keralawith a history of plying hammers on tractors, boycotting harvestor-machines and even setting computers on fireare now rebranding themselves as a technology angel. The LDF-run state government has kicked off a string of countryside competitions for innovations to ease daily life in varied ways.

It was only last fortnight that the state got into the final phase of a contest for developing remote-run coconut tree climbing machines. But the most universally useful in the proposed series of daily-life enhancers could be the cool jacket contest. The Kerala government has invited design proposals from across the world for a jacket that will keep those working in high temperatures cool. This product, if fully successful, could be a health solace to workers spending long hours in the sun. Like the road-roller assistant levelling tar on Delhi roads, the farm hand in a UP wheat field, the slogger in Tamil Nadus lignite mines or the construction worker in the Gulfs hot sands.

There are only two specifications. One, the jacket should bring down the temperature by at least 10 degree celsius. Two, it should work without recharging for at least 8 hours. In the first phase, an expert panel will shortlist the 10 most viable proposals, then give them a Rs 1 lakh incentive to start working on the design. In the final phase, after evaluation, three winners will get Rs 10 lakh each from the state government as seed money towards commercialising the product patent. There is no prize money, as such, involved in this contest.

Only one-third of the world works in cool temperatures. Since most of the developing nations belong to hot climates, all innovations tend to be skewed towards warming the cold climes. Our worldwide contest will be to develop a product that can cater to this huge market, says T Balakrishan, additional chief secretary, Kerala government. Should the cool jacket work with dry ice Or special fabrics With solar or rechargable batteries to ensure refrigeration No, the state government is not giving any pointers. Its all open to creativity, says Balakrishan. Any institution or individual anywhere could enter the contest and demonstrate any mix of brilliant ideas and market pragmatism.

For the state, this will set the stage for a badly-needed technopreneurship spirit. A TV reality show on innovation evaluation, possibly with technological hand-holding from Indias premier research institutes and with commercial sponsorship, is also planned. Once the code of conduct enforced by local bodies election in Kerala fades out, this proposal is likely to get more limelight.

The LDF government is also toying with the idea of running the innovation contest two times a year, says M Abdul Majeed, director, Kerala Industry.

What if the political gaddi changes in the Assembly elections six months down the lane A detailed proposal to institutionalise the innovation contest, as well as the patenting and technology-mentoring programme, is on. Once a fully-fledged contest directorate is set up, it is unlikely to topple for narrow political reasons.

Perhaps the Lefts hostility to tractors and harvesting machines was justifiable at a time when the state enjoyed a surplus of agricultural labour, says a senior CPI(M) party functionary. But things are different now. When educated unemployment and the lack of farm hands are more worrisome, there is a hunger for technological innovations.

Neither the ruling party nor the officials claim that the innovation contest is going like a song. After all, the contest for a remote-operated coconut harvesting machine bombed to some extent. While the organisers received more than 450 entries, only 8 people developed presentable coconut plucking equipment and most machines fought shy of scaling a 20-feet coconut tree. Yet, one cant argue with the need for such a device. The average Indian family uses 30 coconuts a month, according to Coconut Development Board. In Kerala, the water in the nut is packaged and sold, and its coir fibre is used to make mattings and geotextiles. But because there is an at least 15% shortage of skilled coconut tree climbers in the state, its coconut business has been clamouring for a remote-operated coconut harvesting machine.

If there is a worthwhile machine to harvest coconuts, it could find an export market too, says PP Ahmedkutty, chairman, Miracle Group, who is engaged in the coconut business. Coconut-producing countries like Philippines now use trained monkeys to harvest coconut trees, but a spate of animal rights activism could put an end to that option. And state industry officials are not disheartened by the quality of response they received for the coconut harvester contest. Some of those short-listed are useful prototypes that can be upgraded to a better product with expert help from premier science institutes like ISRO and IITs, says a senior official.

After a recently concluded national symposium, BioDesign India, young brains in Technopark have been buzzing with exotic ideas like victimless meat (grown in the lab), DNA origami and micro-organisms producing the scent of the first rains splashing on soil. A senior official hastens to add, The state government may not be able to carry off quixotic ideas of that genre, but we are game to conduct a worldwide contest for new need-based ideas in the coming months. One major drawback of the contests so far has been that they lured in only the amateurs. Techies and the diaspora are yet to take up this challenge.

Still, the campaign for increasing technopreneurship orientation is in tune with the shifts in Indias labour market, says G Vijayaraghavan, founder and former CEO, Technopark. One, contests are good to energise and stimulate youth. Two, this would promote public awareness for the need to patent inventions that specifically address the vacuum in the market, he adds. For Kerala, a fever of innovation could deliver a valuable opening into the manufacturing sector. Stuck with a sinking agrarian base and dependence on expat remittances, the little state sorely needs this Eureka nudge.