Just a few years ago, the tech entrepreneurship scenario that prevailed in India’s leading technical and research institutes could easily be described in one word—stifling. Especially at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), where some of the startups by students did cutting-edge research across diverse industry segments—wireless technology, cloud computing, consumer electronics—and even came up with conclusive offerings. Yet, these promising student outfits soon faced the harsh market realities in terms of severe lack of financial resources in order to take their innovation from the lab to the market. Worse, the industry had an unexplained mental block on accepting a domestic company delivering a quality product. The net result: the starry dreams soon fizzled out.
That was then. Of late, winds of change are blowing across IITs in Chennai, Delhi, Kharagpur, Mumbai, Roorkee and Banaras Hindu University (BHU). With their next ‘big idea’, tech entrepreneurship among the student community seems to be hot these days, as evidenced by a unique initiative undertaken by Ericsson in partnership with IIT Delhi.
Recently, the Swedish telecom equipment maker presented its Ericsson Innovation Awards to two innovative projects: Guardian from IIT Delhi and Smart Earphone from IIT Roorkee. Good news is that the winning teams will be supported by Ericsson India financially to the extent of R10 lakh each towards incubating their projects at any IIT approved technology business incubators.
“Ericsson has a strong history of innovation and these awards represent our endeavour to foster the spirit of innovation amongst students. The winning projects score high in terms of parameters like innovativeness, commercial feasibility, scalability and will be supported by Ericsson through the incubation period,” said Chris Houghton, head of India Region, Ericsson. “Just like Silicon Valley, India is starting to reap the benefits of concentrated pools of creativity, in which the physical proximity of a wide range of ideas helps individuals sharpen their own thinking,” he stressed (see interview).
IITs have always been known for their engineering courses; the major focus now is on research, development and innovation. A look at some of the brains at work: Guardian is a complete stand-alone personalised human security device which can use any type of communication system such as Internet, SMS, or near field communication (NFC) to alert your loved ones when in a distress situation. It also uses multiple cellular phone towers to transmit data and triangulate a victim’s position.
“The registration for Ericsson Awards started long ago and the product was at conceptual stage back then and it was called Guardian. Now it is called SAFER,” said Paras Batra, co-founder of Leaf Innovation. SAFER is a wearable safety jewellery by Leaf Innovation—a startup by 5 students from IIT Delhi and Delhi Technological University.
“SAFER is in form of a pendant right now. With double click, it sends an alert with the precise location to our control room and from there it is further broadcast to the user’s friends, family and nearby SAFER users so all of them can come and live track the victim via the SAFER mobile application. The system works on both the Internet and SMS. It is now available on www.leafwearables.com for consumers to buy. “The crime rates are on an all-time high especially against women, thus SAFER is the need of the hour. I believe it can find applications in almost any situation where you feel unsafe. You do not think you are 100% safe? Use it. It is as simple as that,” he said.
Smart Earphone, developed by IIT Roorkee students, is a new wearable device for everyone that can amplify and attenuate selective sounds. The user can decide whom/what he/she wants to selectively hear and at what volume. The device will be integrated to smartphone via an app. All the audio signal processing will be done by the app only. Then, there is a Web-application to provide real time traffic updates to users using post son social networks such as Facebook, Twitter etc. Each of these updates shall have information such as date, time, location of traffic jam, and cause of the same.
There is iDitya Solar Assistant, a complete do-it-yourself solar power system that a user can buy off the shelf and install it completely on his own. The idea is to develop a mobile app based on the Google Android platform that will make the installation process extremely intuitive and simple. Students from IIT (BHU) have created an advanced breath analyser helmet, which works on Bluetooth encryption technology and was designed keeping in mind increased incidents of drunk driving and bike thefts. The most useful feature of this helmet is that it lets bikers start their vehicles only after analysing the alcohol content of their breath.
The student innovations are impressive, but a key question arises: Do we have it in ourselves to come up with the next big tech start-ups, the kind of which emerge from the Silicon Valley? Paras Batra of Leaf Innovation, said, “I think there is a long way to go still and the journey has just started. I still see a majority of students living miles away from innovation at IIT Delhi. We (students) have it in us to come up with the next big tech start up but the institutes still need to support a lot. Some students want to innovate but they are forced to study the regular theory because if they don’t then they will score low marks and will have to bear the consequences in future. Till the time the culture is to survive at our premier institutes, no innovation will happen. But then there are times when competitions like Ericsson Awards come and motivate you to swim against the flow. One should thrive not survive in the most well equipped institutes for innovation.”
According to Batra, at IIT Delhi the focus is only on one thing and that is on getting good grades. “In my batch, I do not know a single person who has spent more than 50% of time in college in Labs. India needs innovation but people at IIT need better grades. There is a huge conflict of interest here. I won’t deny the fact that research and innovation does not happen at IIT Delhi but that is done by very few people. There is an immediate need for some changes in the education system at our premier institutes because a majority of the nation’s tax money is right now being spent in making average engineers and not entrepreneurs,” he concluded.