05 Dec 2020 11:17 IST

How innovation is being engineered at tech schools

In 2018, IIT Madras students (from left) Kavan Savla, Shashwat Sahoo, Yash Patil, and Anoubhav Agarwaal, developed Artemis.   -  CFI, IIT Madras

Engineering colleges are in a race to innovate, providing rich learning for students along the way

Tejas Deolasee is a final year student of chemical engineering at IIT Madras. But ask him to introduce himself and the 22-year-old’s voice perks up as he describes himself as the student executive head of the Centre for Innovation (CFI) at IIT Madras. The student-run CFI was started in 2008 as a forum for creative output for the institute’s budding engineers. Twelve years later, it is a place that’s buzzing with ideas round the clock. The centre has helped IIT Madras top the Atal ranking of institutes on innovation achievements (ARIIA), for the second consecutive year. ARIIA, an initiative of the Ministry of Education, grades educational institutions on their ability to foster an ecosystem of high quality research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Apart from three IITs (Madras, Bombay and Delhi), the top ranked institutions included College of Engineering, Pune; Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, Khordha; and SR Engineering College, Telangana. But the ARIIA list apart, education experts agree that innovation is no longer seen as the sole preserve of the IITs. In recent years, several public and private engineering colleges and universities have jumped on the innovation bandwagon. Through the setting up of technical infrastructure, incubation cells, technological transfer and patent cells, and research parks, they aim to ensure that they don’t just churn out graduates with top-notch placement potential but also a few innovators and entrepreneurs who generate jobs.

A unique product

“Our motto is: Walk in with an idea and walk out with a product,” says Deolasee. With clubs dedicated to specialisations such as 3D printing, techno infotainment, physics and astronomy, ibots, formula racing, aeromodelling and social innovation, the students have a lot to choose from. Typically, a student team either submits a project idea that gets accepted by an existing club or latch on to any of the clubs’ ongoing research for some first-hand experience in product development. Once a prototype is developed, the project moves to a pre-incubation for financial support and mentorship. The final phase is when it enters the admin-run research park, which looks at technology transfers, filing for patents and how to roll out a fully developed product into the market.

In the last ten years, nearly a dozen projects incubated at CFI have turned into fully functional market innovations. CFI has also acquired 19 patents in the last six years. Some of the exciting projects in various stages of incubation include developing a low-cost bot that can detect cracks in a railway line, a portable text-to-Braille converter for the visually impaired, a foldable house for disaster-prone areas, mountain climbing gear for the disabled, a gas leak detection technology for chemical engineering industries, a mass rover and more. “While it is difficult to turn all projects into full-fledged start-ups, the experience provides for rich learning,” says Deolasee.

According to Dr W Selvamurthy, President, Amity Science, Technology and Innovation Foundation, an apt environment for innovation needs human resource with the right aptitude, research and development infrastructure, and an ecosystem which fosters experiential learning and problem solving.

More than 200 research projects are ongoing at Amity, across its 11 universities in India and 17 campuses abroad, valued at more than ₹100 crore and funded by public and private foundations, such as ICMR, CMR, CSIR, Bill and Melinda gates foundation. “Amity’s IPR [intellectual property rights] cell has filed for 1,385 patents in recent years,” says Selvamurthy. One of their most successful innovations is a nano silver-based water purification technology that can convert any water sample into potable water. “The product was designed by a multi-disciplinary team at the Amity institute of materials and devices, where a team of budding biologists, engineers, physicists and product designers worked together. If you have to build products and technology, you cannot function in silos,” he explains, emphasising that multi-disciplinary teams are crucial to fostering innovation.

Finding raw material

If large public and private universities are speeding down the innovation lane, smaller and newer private universities aren’t far behind. Shri Venkateshwara University, an autonomous body established by the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 2010, which has three multi-disciplinary campuses — one each in Meerut and Gajraula (UP), and another in Lekhi village (Itanagar), Arunachal Pradesh, is ready to launch its first innovation and entrepreneurship cell in December at the Meerut campus. “The purpose is to build a platform where students from any stream will learn how to take an idea from start to finish,” says Dr Naga Swetha Pasupuleti, Director, international research and collaborations, Venkateshwara group of institutions.

 

 

 

Artemis, a bot that can detect cracks on railway lines.   -  CFI, IIT Madras

 

 

There are several factors driving engineering and science institutions such as Pasupuleti’s to enter the innovation game. Insiders point out that it started with the Make in India, Start-up India and Stand-up India buzzwords uttered by the Prime Minister. “Today our industries are hungry for indigenous technology. It wasn’t so ten years ago,” says Selvamurthy.

Then followed the NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Framework) and ARIIA rankings coupled with accreditation from The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), all of which incentivised innovation on campuses. Yet another push came in the form of the central government’s schemes to fund innovation cells. The Ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) under MHRD and the ASPIRE scheme under Start-up India fund entrepreneurial development through incubators. But the problem is elsewhere.

The third push factor is the central government’s several schemes that fund innovation cells. The Ministry of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) under MHRD offers support for entrepreneurial development through incubators. The ASPIRE scheme under Start up India funds innovation in research. Provided the student-led research project ideas are exemplary, these can fetch anywhere up to ₹1crore per project. For that, institution heads like Pasupuleti will first need to find students who will deliver. And that is often the hardest part.

“Students are mostly swamped by assignments, exams, publications, internships and academic research (and so they cannot) devote their time to innovations. Someone who is onto a successful idea should be exempt from writing an exam or two if he or she is going to be employing 10 others tomorrow. We should realise that students like that have achieved the purpose of the degree if they can see a project from start to finish,” she says, explaining that students are given no more than 10 to 20 hours per semester to work on their innovations.

Educationists like Selvamurthy believe that the NEP 2020, if implemented in letter and spirit, would encourage continuous assessment, problem solving, and experiential learning, thereby removing the thrust from a toxic exam culture. Innovation in research might finally get its due.

India has moved up from the 81st position in 2015 to the 52nd position in 2019 on the Global Innovation Index (GII). With the world’s largest youth population (10-24 years), an age group that’s typically bubbling with creativity, there is tremendous potential. As Selvamurthy says, the innovation culture should start at home and at schools. It is where our raw material is made.

Here are some start-ups that have tasted commercial success.