At just 23 years, Hyderabad-based Neelakanta Bhanu Prakash has several feathers in his cap. A math wiz, Prakash came under the spotlight in 2020 after he won the gold at Mind Sports Olympiad, the top international competition for games of mental skills and mind sports held in London annually. He also has four world and 40 Limca Records to his name, which have rightly earned him the moniker ‘world’s fastest human calculator’, a title also held by math genius Shakuntala Devi. When not busy winning competitions, Prakash is eliminating math phobia through his ed-tech startup Bhanzu, which got him to the prestigious ‘Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list 2022’.
Ahead of National Mathematics Day, celebrated on the birth anniversary of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan on December 22 every year, FE sat down with Prakash to know his journey, his startup and, most importantly, to know a thing or two on how to overcome math phobia. Edited excerpts:
Many call you a math prodigy. Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far?
Firstly, I do not agree with the term ‘math prodigy’ as nobody can be born with such genius. Math, being an analytical subject, requires channelled understanding, and you can hone your skills with determination and constant practice.
I met with a major accident when I was five and was bedridden for an entire year. Since it involved a head injury, the doctors advised my parents to let me solve puzzles, do mental calculations, etc, to stimulate my cognitive abilities. My parents kept encouraging me to continue with this, and that is how I developed an interest in numbers. It did not stop there, and I started looking at the world through numbers as it was no longer just a subject. I enjoyed doing math and speed math calculations. Since math was introduced to me as a mental sport and not as a subject, it was never restricted to textbooks for me.
My parents felt my interest in this subject and took me to various competitions. I kept participating in speed math calculation competitions, which took me to where I am right now, including earning the title of the ‘fastest human calculator’ at age 17.
Why does math instill fear in students? What can one do to overcome that?
The primary problem lies with how we are taught the subject in schools and colleges. A mathematical topic is generally taught by first giving the definition and then introducing the formula, followed by solving a few questions using the formula, and the rest are assigned as homework. Instead, a real-world problem should be presented. On day one, one can begin learning trigonometry by discussing ‘how to measure the height of a building without a measuring tape’. We should present the problem first, followed by the solution path.
Not just that, I believe that channeling a student’s need for math will always help them grow. Just take the case of languages. We do not fear when we use languages to communicate but fear math and numbers. It is because a language is introduced to us to serve the purpose of communication, whereas math is always seen as a subject to study and score well.
The way to go is to first encourage students to ask ‘why’. Why does a particular mathematical concept exist? Why should she learn a particular topic, etc? Knowing and comprehending the thoughts that mathematicians had behind the concepts and theories can help demystify the subject. Also, by
normalising the use of numbers and humanising arithmetic, the fear of math can be overcome.
Are there problems with the Indian education system, too, which accentuate such fear? What changes are needed there?
Yes, in schools, math is taught as a subject in which they must memorise formulae, solve problems and score marks. Our education system does not allow us to dig deep to understand the context of the questions, and the focus largely remains on getting the answer. The result—students may get answers fast, but if you ask them where the concept can be applied in real life, they will most likely be clueless.
There is a lot of rote learning, and the way to solve this problem is three-step. First, we can look at a real-world math problem. Then we can exaggerate it to cause genuine discomfort while solving it with traditional methods. Finally, we can introduce a mathematical concept, which is how students will remember forever.
There is also a need to revamp how we perceive education in general. The emphasis on marks needs to come down. Education should not remain limited to textbooks or a tool to pass exams but should be seen as something to live a rational life.
Can you tell us about the journey of your startup Bhanzu? How is it different from other ed-tech startups?
I have had the opportunity to teach students from various countries and have realised there is a global math phobia. This gave me a purpose to embark on a journey to eradicate this phobia, and since India is witnessing a startup boom, I decided to solve the problem through a startup.
Hence Bhanzu was launched in 2019.
At Bhanzu, we aim at humanising math learning and to make students fall in love with the subject. We do not want our students to just solve the questions. Instead, we want them to understand the process and to be able to see its relevance in real-life also.
Our curriculum focuses on instilling confidence in students by making them faster and better at calculations, preparing them to ace the school curriculum, and applying mathematics in the real world.
How has the business grown over the years, and how has been the response?
We ended FY22 with revenue of `3.5 crore as we had just begun ramping up, and I expect us to grow at least four to five times this year. Bhanzu has successfully begun catering to students in India, and the response has been phenomenal, prompting us to expand our live math classes to southeast Asia and the middleeast.
We recently raised $15 million in Series A, led by global investment firm Eight Roads Ventures. The majority of our funds will be used to significantly increase hiring for highly specialised tech and product teams, who will contribute to expanding learning curves for students and making math learning highly engaging and interactive.
From collaborating with various state governments and conducting math workshops during the pandemic to raising funds to eradicate global math phobia, Bhanzu aims to change the way students perceive math for a better world.