Interview: Akshat Agarwal, Author of “Indian Innovators”, Stories of Innovation in India

Author Akshat Agarwal interview, author interviews, Indian Innovators, Innovation in India, SliceofRealLifeLight needs a medium to be seen. Sound needs a medium to be heard. Thoughts need a medium to be expressed. Likewise some stories of innovation, excellence, perseverance and determination need a medium to get read by hundreds of thousands. The book “Indian Innovators” by Akshat Agarwal has brought to light some stories of inspiration for the aspiring entrepreneurs. A mechanical engineering graduate from IIT Delhi and an MBA from the US, Akshat Agarwal heads Alpha Beta Classes, an innovative startup in online and offline education, as a director. Being a firm believer in the life-transforming power of innovation, Akshat traces the journey of 20 dynamic individuals and narrates the stories of how their cutting-edge products have made a big difference to millions of lives in his debut nonfiction “Indian Innovators” launched by Jaico Publishing House. SliceofRealLife catches up with Author Akshat Agarwal to share with you what motivated him to curate the stories of innovation from across India, and his views on environment for innovation in rural India. Here are excerpts from the interview of Akshat Agarwal:

Congratulations! How are you feeling as a published author in the world of literature? 

It definitely feels great to be a part of the literary world. I am an avid reader myself, and crossing the line to become an author is almost an achievement for me. I have been writing for long (via blogs, magazines etc.) but this is my first book and I must say that writing a book is a long and arduous journey. I did not know that it was going to be such a laborious process or else I may have given up, as they say, ignorance is bliss.

All in all, it’s been a long but rewarding journey! It wasn’t planned to be so but feels great being a first time author and yet selling like a hot cake and receiving so much love from the readers!

Who or what motivated you to hold a pen and debut as author?  

I have been writing for long. This particular idea made its debut when I was myself at IIT-Delhi for my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. During the course of my education at IIT, I embarked on an ambitious project to design an artificial knee for above the knee amputees. Working hard for a semester, I presented the knee at the IIT Delhi Open House, which is an annual exhibition of innovation that occurs in IIT. My project was judged to be the best that year and received awards and accolades but it could not reach the market for the lack of subsequent support and guidance.

Much later I went to US for higher studies and experienced first hand the kind of incentives and support available for innovation there. It pained me to see that people who were failed by India could flourish so well in the United States. I realized that the society and media in India does little to glorify and encourage innovation. Therefore, after returning from the US, I embarked on this journey to discover the most innovative people in the country and write about them to bring light to saw there for innovation opened my eyes to the fact that there must be a lot of innovation in India that would be killed for the lack of visibility and support.

I could observe that one of the reasons that US could do much better on innovation front is that there is fairness in the system and that media plays a very proactive role in bringing out the success stories which serve as a positive role model for the next generation of innovators. Unfortunately, the media in our country is always pre-occupied with trivial issues and thus the next generation is deprived of the motivating role models and there is little change in the society which continues to place little incentive on innovation, in fact anything that is unconventional.

(This book is a much needed effort to bring limelight and win respect for the people behind great innovative products coming out of India. It is a fact that they face much greater challenges than their western counterparts, not just in terms of the lack of infrastructural support but also in terms of the lack of social support. This book celebrates indomitable spirit of the young Indian innovators who are hell-bent on changing the status quo of innovation in the country and create a place for it on the innovation map of the world.

How challenging was it to curate the stories of innovation from across India? 

It was very difficult to find the right kind of people to be writing about. I was specifically looking for innovators who did all of their work in India, created products which were completely unique and could be scaled to appeal a global audience. All three things together seemed like a rare combination. I ran through several technology magazines, investor-startup events, innovation forums etc. Finally, I figured out 30-40 brilliant individuals who had created products that had the potential to change the human life across the planet for good.

Reaching out to them was even more difficult as their contact information was mot usually available easily in the public domain. I contacted them through organizations that had been associated with, sometimes through network of friends, sometimes I actually travelled to find them and interview them at their place!

I was very clear that I just don’t want to quiz them about their product but also about their background, their motivation to do what they did and the problems they faced in the process and how they overcame them. It was fabulous to hear their experiences and the effort was well worth the wisdom their journey provided me with and I wanted to share it with the readers to motivate them to innovate or to do anything else in their lives that they are really passionate about!

It is such an irony that these gems have been discovered by the western media and our own countrymen are still unaware of them and their work. In fact, Mansukhbhai (who has built an eco-friendly refrigerator which runs without electricity) has had BBC and Discovery doing a documentary each on him, Dr. Shyam Vasudev Rao (who has built a preventive eye care device called 3-Nethra to prevent blindness) has been invited by Hillary Clinton to start operations in the US and assured full US government support for the same, Arunachalam Muruganantham (who made a machine fabricate low cost sanitary pad for the menstrual hygiene of rural women) delivers lectures in top business and technology schools across the world and yet many of the readers in India would be hearing their names for the first time!

A villager in Tamil Nadu invented a low-cost sanitary pad making machine to save rural women from bearing brunt of menstruation. How supportive is Indian society and economy for such innovations in rural areas? 

His story is the perfect case of the hypocrisy that exists in the Indian society. During the hit-an-trial phase of his experimentation, he requested his wife to use and give him the feedback on the pads that he made. But his wife was uncomfortable discussing menstrual issues with her husband. His sister stopped speaking to him when he asked her for help on the subject! He then turned to the female students studying at a nearby medical college, assuming that they being future doctors should be frank enough. But he was in for a surprise as he saw one day that one of the girls filled the feedback forms for the rest of them so they actually never used the pads but were faking the trial process! Meanwhile, he faced severe repercussions at home. His wife left him, suspecting that he was having an affair with some young medical college student!

For the lack of support, Muruganantham resorted to trying the pads on himself! The class 5 drop out, who was a welder by profession before he embarked on this journey, engineered a remarkable way to make this happen. He designed a bladder and fitted it between his legs, connected the same with a pump held in his hand. He filled the bladder with the goat blood, put on his sanitary pads and went about his usual work pumping some blood out from the bladder onto the pads every few hours!

The fellow villagers did not take to this kindly. Some thought he had gone mad and others thought he was performing some kind of black magic! As a result he was banished from his own village!

But this failed to discourage him. Buoyed up by the determination to win the trust of his loved ones, he moved to Chennai and came in contact with IIT-Madras where he gave final shape to his machine which soon started churning out pads of the quality that matched the best MNCs, yet at the fraction of the price charged by them.

He now sells the machine strictly to the women self-help groups in rural areas, educating them about the necessity of the menstrual hygiene and creating livelihood for them. Of course, those who detested him during his difficult days came back flocking when he became successful.

He is poster-boy for rural innovation, entrepreneurship and women empowerment and now lectures around the world on the same and learnt English on his own for the same!

We, as a country are passing through a transition phase. We want the change to happen and yet we resist it when it happens! Innovation is imperative in a rapidly growing economy as more and more suppliers come into the demand-supply arbitrage, they would to differentiate their offerings via innovation. Thus eventually we will find the right compromise between our traditional wisdom of treading a tested path versus the urge to explore the unchartered territory. Our problems are unique and we can’t depend on US or Europe to be solving them for us, we need to find solutions from within our human resources and surely that process has already begun and gathering pace. We will see more of such rural and urban innovations changing the lives of the masses and ushering up into an era of social change which is more than just economic betterment.

Recently startup ecosystem has geared up in India because of fund from angel investors. How easy or difficult is it for first-time inventors to fund their projects to reach the next level? 

Even though the professional investors are growing by the day, both in terms of their numbers as well as the number of deals and the deal size, I still see a lot of me-too start-ups or the western copycat ideas. It is difficult for any start-up, let alone the ones which are completely innovative and thus have no comparables (to demonstrate feasibility), to get funded. Yet big-ticket funding is imperative to scale the idea, reach the masses and develop a market for the product. I think that’s where the role of media would come into play. Like in the west, our media would need to find and talk about such innovative start-ups so that they get the visibility that they would otherwise not be able to afford via advertising etc. This would give them an opportunity to connect more easily with the investor community and the eventual end user.

Recently, a global survey enlisted only Delhi IIT and Bangalore IISc among the world’s top 200 educational institutes for higher studies. What do think why other Indian institutes and universities are lagging behind? 

Well, I am myself an IIT Delhi graduate and have also studied abroad and thus consider myself in a good position to answer this question. First of all, I consider ranking as just a number. Most of the ranking agencies go by a set of criteria in such a way that their home institutions get an unfair advantage over others. Yet, at the same time I am not defending the Indian universities!

One of the key criteria in rankings is the innovation output of a university. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, our universities fall short on this criterion. Often, people think that it’s the lack of funding available which is a major inhibitor for innovation in the country. But based on my experience with the people whom I have interviewed for the book and my own experience during the artificial knee project that I did at IIT Delhi, the bigger problem is fairness in the system and the lack of platforms where people can present their work and connect with people to whom their work may be of interest/value. Thus, if we wish to boost the rankings of our universities, we need to create a positive environment to encourage innovation. We need to modify the curriculum to make to more current, encourage students to think creatively and apply their knowledge to solve real world problems and have a stronger industry-academia relationship.

You are currently the director of an innovation startup in education, Alpha Beta Classes. Would you like to give a brief about this venture? 

At Alpha Beta Classes, we are working hard to create technology enabled aids to help students prepare well for engineering and medical entrance exams. We are innovating with the online and offline test preparation in order to improve the learning outcomes of the students associated with us.

Many innovations die while nipped in buds due to lack of approval, support and exposure in India. Do you agree? If yes, what are possible solutions to prevent it, according to you? 

I definitely have seen and continue to see many college projects which can have great market prospects being abandoned because of either the lack of right guidance or support or due to parental/societal pressure to take up a secured employment via college campus placements.

In my opinion, we must teach our young generation to be confided and to think for themselves and I think the innovation and entrepreneurship cells that that have been set up in colleges across the country are doing a good job at it.

Especially, for the engineering curriculum, some courses on finance and economics should be included and the students should be encouraged to be entrepreneurs. In fact many universities/colleges (including IITs and IIMs) either already or plan to have business incubators and have the placement support extended to the failed start-ups after few years of graduation. There are even plans to allow student entrepreneurs to take a year-long break to give their ideas wings! Such initiatives would definitely give fillip to student creativity resulting in a surge of innovative technology companies in the country.

India is a land of art and craft. Many rural craftsmen make their ends meet somehow. What can be done, you think, to save and promote the dying rural handcrafts of India? Is there any startup ecosystem for them?   

 Rural handicraft has been witnessing a revival already; thanks to the e-commerce revolution that has happened. Much like the advanced economies, India needs to convert its handicraft into fashionable souvenirs for the tourists. There are a couple of startups which are trying to address this space and I am sure in the near future we may have rural artisans receiving the due acknowledgement, support and economic prosperity via such moves.

What is your next book about? (If you have already planned)    

I have enough material lined up to write a trilogy on contemporary Indian innovation! I do also wish to eventually write about people who graduated from the elite institutions in the country and took up unconventional professions and created a niche for themselves and became wildly successful. Thus proving that you need not make the conventional career choices to be rich and successful because when the roads diverge in the woods the one who take the road less travelled by make all the difference to their lives! thanks author Akshat Agarwal for the opportunity to interview him and wishes him all the best for his next venture! 

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