On Saturday January 9th, 2010, IIT Bombay Alumni Association’s Pune chapter organized its annual Innovations conference. It was held at the Devang Mehta auditorium in Persistent Systems campus, and needless to say it was extremely well organized; starting with the registration, every detail was covered and numerous networking opportunities were provided.
The event was kickstarted with a keynote by Sanjay Nayak, CEO of Tejas Networks, which is a Bangalore based optical networking startup. Tejas, which has been around for the last 5 years or so, is profitable and has revenues close to $150m. That is quite an impressive feat from an Indian high-tech startup, selling products from India worldwide. It is also a shining example to the naysayers who keep on saying that Indian product companies cannot sell products in the US. I hope that more people follow Tejas’ lead and venture into the space. Sanjay mentioned that India itself is a great market for petrochemical and telecom markets, and if you design products that satisfy the needs of these markets, you will have the advantage of selling close to home in the markets you know; something that your gadzillion dollar competitor does not. That said, it is imperative that the products you build are international class; in other words, you must implement internationally standard processes and techniques to make this happen. One thing that is lacking in India is government support – by making a policy that Indian Govt agencies/companies must buy from Indian product companies if the product quality is on par, the government will give a significant boost to innovation in the high-tech space. Instead of innovating for MNCs, people will start innovating for their own companies.
After Tejas, 12 companies presented their innovations in six minute slots. I will only mention the ones that I felt were the best and the worst of the lot. Bilcare with its non-clonable security system for identification tags is possibly the most far reaching invention that was presented. The implications are enormous – in India, where every type of ID and license is duplicated, if you can have a fool-proof way of identifying something or someone, the impact would be felt across the spectrum. Think of the UIDI, Ration Card, Driving License, Passport – everything will be authentic and no one will get away with duplicate or illegal IDs. The next step here is probably to marry this to RFID or some other wireless standard so the data can be scanned remotely.
Then, there was ANEESH, which is a way of generating energy from ocean waves at a low cost, and in fact DNA did a front page feature on this technology. This technology can change the power delivery mechanics in the coastal areas; in fact it is entirely possible that each village/town on the coast can start generating its own power by tethering to an ANEESH array some 200m in the sea. However, it is difficult to see how ANEESH can deliver power required for larger inhabitations or factories unless a single system starts generating over multiple megawatts. The distribution econmonics are not likely to work otherwise.
There were a couple of good innovations in the area of automobile engineering; one was an electrically controlled supercharger that would provide the needed torque at low speeds as opposed to a turbocharged engine, and the other was a newly designed rotary internal combustion engine. Both are undergoing trials with auto majors so the jury is still out. I am not a mechanical engineer and it has been really long since I studied the IC engine cycle, but I felt that these techniques must certainly have been looked at elsewhere in the world. They certainly did not feel like brand new, but I could be wrong.
Moving onto the others, there was a simple mechanical device for collecting waste matter from stationary trains. It is attached to the trap and prevents waste matter from being ejected while the train is stationary. I felt that there was nothing groundbreaking about this one as the western countries have already solved this problem – why not just use what has worked very well all over the developed world? Another innovation that I didn’t feel great about was the DFMPro from Geometric. Again, I don’t think there is anything innovative in this one. Companies have been doing injection moulding and using CAD tools to test the designs for manufacturability for a long time. Geometric might have added a feature or two to make it easier to use, but this certainly did not seem like anything new. The last presentation was by Shreehari Marathe who talked about a way of creating rains by burning tyres and salt. This felt like weird science and as the innovator himself admitted, he hasn’t been able to perform controlled testing as there is too much variability in atomospheric conditions. I think this innovation really did not deserve to be here, for it is simply too early and needs a lot of testing before it is presented to an audience. People have tried cloud seeding many times in the past with mixed results. Plus, the idea of burning tires is environmentally unsound due to presence of possibly toxic and hazardous chemicals.
The presentations were followed by a sumptuous lunch with lots of opportunities to network. The arrangements were top class and nothing to complain about. After lunch, three successful entreprenuers were supposed to share their experiences. I really liked Mangesh Kale’s presentation as I thought that he had really done the whole thing from scratch. I think it will do wonders to entrepreneurs in the audience to hear people like Mangesh speak about how they went about building their business. The last presentation(s) was done by two Nirman Fellows, both engineers, one from IITB and the other from UDCT. Nirman is a fellowship program started by Dr. Abhay Bang, encuraging young people to work in villages for some specific period. I have a world of respect of Dr. Bang, but I have no idea what this session was doing in the Innovations conference; Nirman is no a successful venture vis a vis PARI. The presentations were confusing, used marketing terms. I wonder if the presenter was under the influence of Dilbert and Dogbert. The angle of social entrepreneurship was mentioned by the emcee earlier, but never did I see a single slide about making money in this presentation. I believe that the organizers would do well to focus on innovations in the future and cut out such sessions. The Q&A session that followed was very entertaining. Dr. Kane asked tough pointed questions posed by the audience and himself. I believe that defending a solution in front of a crowd takes guts and requires clear thinking. It may bring out strong and weak points of the solution that were not previously on the radar.
All in all, this was an excellent conference and I am looking forward to attending the next one. PuneTech will do a detailed review on all the innovations as well as a report on the conference, so stay tuned.