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Innovations for Indian sensibilities

Ajit Narayanan, identified as one of the top innovators by the MIT's Technology Review India, shares his vision for his brain child — Invention Labs.

Dismantled circuit boards, codes running on the monitors and indecipherable combinations of letters scribbled all over the glass panes that separate the chaotic cabins. Welcome to Invention Labs Engineering Products where Ajit Narayanan, founder and managing director, walks into a room full of people bent over their workstations, some glued to their monitors and other taking meticulous notes. He settles into a chair to begin his story about inventing products specifically to suit Indian sensibilities.

A Q&A with an innovator who was named amongst the top innovators under 35 by MIT's Technology Review India.

How did this journey begin?

I wanted to establish a start-up even while I was studying at IIT-M. Everyone from the professors to my classmates knew about this idea of mine. I then went to America to gain some experience and exposure and save some funds for my project. In 2007, I set up Invention Labs, but the idea was not really concrete at that point. I wanted to create inventions for India. It was a grand plan, very idealistic and fuzzy in some sense.

In your speech at IIT's Confluence early this year, you said innovators should look at finding solutions for real problems in the world. Is that how it was from the beginning?

I was looking for real problems from the beginning. Even though there are artificial problems, I wanted to address human problems. It took us a little while to find these issues and it took us a while before people came to us and asked why aren't you doing anything about this issue. Avaz was one such invention where we were asked to do something. Avaz is an assistive device for people with speech disabilities.

In the same speech, you mentioned how important it was to spend time with the people you are trying to find a solution for. How was the experience with creating Avaz?

The story of Avaz (a communication aid for children with speech impairment) actually originated from professors at IIT-M who volunteered at Vidya Sagar (an organisation that works with children with cerebral palsy and special needs). Many prototypes were made to fit the bill but nothing concrete came of it all. That's when we got involved and we were willing lambs going in for the slaughter (laughs).

I started working on it thinking it will all be done in six months but it took us almost 2 years to produce a functioning model that was endorsed by the children of Vidya Sagar. The success of Avaz was when one of the children said: “I don't like this” which was quite a happy moment for me.

What is in store next for Invention Labs?

A couple of nice things have come out of Avaz itself. This device was built for children with cerebral palsy, but teachers working with autistic children also started using this device. Since these children are more comfortable using pictures to communicate, the objective is to now make a language out of pictures.

There are two things here— first, to create a language which is as expressive as English and secondly, to take this map of pictures and translate it into English and other languages. From an engineering and scientific point of view this is very exciting.

What are the current projects?

Some foreign companies have outsourced the design of products to us. While, I believe many Indian inventors in large companies are finding problems for foreign countries, we are trying to be involved in projects that find solutions to Indian problems. Currently, I am working on a project which deals with diabetes. A foreign company approached me to adapt their products to the Indian context.

Is there still a mental block against venturing into the unknown and setting up a start-up? Do parents encourage their children to go down this path?

I don't think there is a mental block against becoming an entrepreneur and starting something on your own. The IT boom has helped and parents relate to persons such as Infosys Narayana Murthy and wonder if their kid can also become someone like him.

But there is a mental block against inventions. It is still not seen as obvious solution to problems.

For instance, take dirty roads. People wonder if more sweepers can be hired or traffic flow can be changed but no one approaches us to invent a device for cleaning roads. People just don't look at such problems as one with an engineering solution.

Did you like the movie 3 Idiots and did you identify with it?

I liked the movie but I didn't identify with any of them since I have always done what I wanted to do. But maybe I identify a bit with Aamir Khan going off and setting up an invention space in a remote place. In some respects, Chennai is cut off from the invention world and I find I am the sole person canvassing for the cause of inventions.

Source: The Hindu

Wednesday , 4   January , 2012