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Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 Year of Unknown Innovators Part 2

My name is Ajit, and I am a founder of Invention Labs. I started Invention Labs in June 2007 with three of my friends from college. We felt that the culture of institutionalized Invention, which has contributed so much to the power of countries like the US and Japan, is lacking in India today. We started Invention Labs with the intention of creating innovative products for an Indian market, by building a team of highly talented engineers and business people with a strong India focus.

The concept for Invention Labs has been in my head for many, many years now. As a child, my thinking was shaped by a keen interest in science and mathematics, and a love for science fiction. My father was a scientist, and both my parents encouraged me to experiment at home. My childhood toys included various chemistry sets, a microscope and an electronics kit.

I think it was from science fiction books, movies and TV serials that I developed the dream of becoming an inventor. I had an excellent education in school, where my teachers encouraged and appreciated my interest in science. I briefly considered a career in mathematics, but I decided in favor of Electrical Engineering when into IIT Madras in 1998. In IIT Madras, I found a very warm and conducive atmosphere to fully explore my interest in creating things. I also had a very close circle of friends who were all keen about starting up their own companies. Those were the days when people like Sabeer Bhatia became famous for making a lot of money through entrepreneurship. Many of those friends today have their own companies, or are with leading venture capitalists, or are on the verge of starting up themselves.

I got a job in the US directly after my education in IIT Madras, but while waiting for my visa, I worked under Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala as a project officer. I teamed up with L Kannan, another IIT Madras alumnus and inventor, who had just begun work on a rural ATM. We were a great team, combining my knowledge of electronics with his knowledge of mechanical engineering. The rural ATM we began in 2003 is now being developed by Kannan's company Vortex, and is undergoing pilots in various places around the country. Kannan was also developing a novel spinning machine with TePP funding, and that was the first I heard of Government support for innovation.

When I went to the US, I was very clear that I would return in three years to start up. As it happened, I spent four years there, learning the realities of Engineering. I was very fortunate to have a good manager in the US, who took pains to guide me into becoming a mature engineer. I was also fortunate that the division of the company that I joined in the US had just begun work on a new product. In four years, I experienced first-hand what goes into taking a product from an idea to the market.

I kept my eyes open in the US for a strong team to start up with. Eventually, I found my partners through old IIT contacts. One friend was a batch-mate of mine who went on to do his MBA and was working in Dubai for KPMG. He went on to head the products marketing team at Invention Labs. Another friend was my junior, who was excellent at organizing things and getting things done, and was working for a leading financial company in the US. He is now the CEO of Invention Labs. A third friend is the best mechanical engineer I know, and he shares the responsibilities of engineering new products at Invention Labs with me.

One day, one of my professors in IIT Madras came to us with a request to help an organization called Vidyasagar to develop some innovative teaching aids. Vidyasagar is a school for spastic children. Many spastic children are quadriplegic, that is, they have no control over their limbs below the neck. Many of them are also unable to talk, and more than half of them have visual impairments. These children find communicating with their teachers and caregivers very challenging. Vidyasagar wanted to know if we could find a way of augmenting their communication skills through technology.

This was a project that excited us immediately, because it had a social impact, involved the latest technology, and contributed tremendously to the economic productivity of spastic people. However, this was not a product that could appeal immediately to a venture capitalist or a private equity shop, because we knew the returns would take a few years to materialize. We contacted TePP for funding, and are pleased to know that they are considering our application favorably. We hope to complete the product in early 2009, and after field trials at Vidyasagar, it will begin sales in mid 2009. The product has been code-named 'KAVI'.

I am determined that KAVI will not be the only product of Invention Labs. India needs Inventors, and Inventors need an environment where they can see their inventions being turned into useful and marketable products. I have dreamt of Invention Labs as being a company that provides that environment. I am lucky to have a team that is well-rounded in its ability to bring out products and take them to market, but as for me, I will always be an engineer first and an entrepreneur second. The thrill that I get from conceptualizing an idea, fleshing it out, constructing prototypes, and finally making it work, is unparalleled. If I am able to get this thrill again and again, and if I am able to see this same thrill in my colleagues at Invention Labs, I think our company will prosper -- and so will our nation.

All of us moved back to Chennai, got in touch with our alma mater, IIT Madras, and took the plunge. We had a few projects to start off with, that some of our contacts had generously offered us. So we were profitable from day 1! The cushion of money that these projects brought us gave us the time to pursue our own product ideas. We kept on the lookout for products that would be highly relevant in India, highly oriented toward technology, and which would make us rich soon.

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