IIT Chennai

Impressive Innovation from Indian Colleges on Show @ IIT Madras Tech & Innovation Fair

Chennai | India

I was a judge at the IIT Madras Tech & Innovation Fair Contest, held as part of Shaastra on Jan 6 2020. It was a valuable and highly inspiring three hours I spent listening to 10 teams pitch. Am providing a snapshot of what each team did, who the winners were and what my overall takeaways are from this really impressive contest. By: Narasimhan Santhanam

There were 10 teams in all in the finals. Almost all teams comprised undergraduate students, which was what made the whole event more inspiring, as you will realize when you read more about what transpired.

The themes of innovation ran all the way from helping the blind to helping the farmers, with one of the innovations actually trying to help someone who is drowning.

The following were the teams and themes.

1. Team Agricopter - Automating Pesticide Spraying through Drones - Agricopter aims to bring in complete automation to the entire pesticide spraying process, and eliminate any human contact with toxic chemicals. The current prototype of the drone carries 10 liters of pesticide and can spray 30 times faster than current manual methods. Further, Agricopter aims to explore ultra-low volume spraying to decrease pesticide usage even further, and NDVI surveying to implement patch spraying only on crops that really need the pesticide

2. Team Blink - Help the Blind Read News & More through Real-time Text to Braille Converter - The project’s vision is to empower and embolden the visually impaired and enable them to achieve their full potential by introducing a portable text-to-Braille interactive device that uses customized deep learning algorithms to convert text into refreshable Braille

3. Team Demeter - An AI-based coconut harvester - An AI based Robotic system developed to climb coconut trees and harvest coconuts autonomously. The machine once set around a tree, climbs the tree with the help of 2 driver wheels powered by a motor and 2 driven wheels

4. Team DIME - Water purification using nanoparticles - Design of a water disinfection system using silver and copper nanoparticle impregnated coconut shell waste carbon

5. Team Electric Infinity - Pest Control through a Castor-oil based Mechanism

6. Team Innovators – Smart Dumpster that tells municipality when to clear garbage - The project is employed to measure the quantity of the garbage in the Dumpster and send a signal to empty the Dumpster when it is full.

7. Team Mecho-Electrons – Automated farming for higher yield - Auto Techno Farming (ATF) is a futuristic agricultural technique. ATF is proposed as a bold solution to overcome issues of inefficient agriculture.

8. Team Mecholic - Joystick steered automobile that replaces the steering wheel - The intention is to solve the difficulties faced while steering an automobile. Currently in the present running automotive vehicles the steering column is occupying more space and more weight and it is more difficult to turn steering during parking with high effort. To overcome these challenges, this effort has come forward with a new technology called steer-by-wire using joystick. In addition to easier steering for all of us, this technology allows physically challenged people who have fault in hands to drive a car successfully.

9. Team Night Fury - Automated Drowning Rescue Kit - "SEGAIN" is an light weight easy to handle effective drowning rescue kit which uses compressed air to launch life jacket that can save people drowning at a distance of 50 meters to 300 meters from the point of Launch. The project uses Deep Learning to feed the video of the coast in real time and uses the algorithm to find people who are drowning before spotted by life guards

10. Team Tesla - Helping physically challenged people operate computers - This device is designed especially for physically challenged people, who cannot use their hands to operate computers and mobile phones. By using this device, it is enough if they just rotate their heads in corresponding direction to control the mouse cursor on the screen. There are also other features that lets them perform other functions which are done using a computer mouse.

The winning teams were:

1. Night Fury - Automated Drowning Rescue Kit that uses compressed air and deep learning (Sri Venkateswara College of Engg)

2.Tesla - Making it feasible for physically challenged people to use computers (Rajalakshmi Engg College)

3. Blink - Text to Braille for the blind & Agricopter - Efficient and safe pesticide spraying (2 teams shared the 3rd spot, both from IIT Madras)

How did we judge the contestants and pick the winners?

Honestly, it was tough.

The four main criteria we used were:

1. Is the innovation solving a well defined problem with a well defined target segment?

2. What could be the current and future market potential for such an innovation?

3. How superior is this innovation compared to the currently available alternatives for satisfying the same need/solving the same problem?

4. What proof of performance does the contestant have for the innovation?

Even after applying the above criteria and after hectic discussions amongst us, all three of us judges were wondering whether some other team did not deserve to win. While we were sure that the teams that won the prizes were really good, we were not so sure that some of the other teams weren't better. Attribute it partly to our limited wisdom (with one of them having perhaps VERY limited wisdom!), but also to the short amount of time and limited support that the judges had to decide on the winners.

That was about what happened. Post the event, I did a bit of thinking and analysis on all that I saw, heard and felt, and the following are my thoughts:

1. Innovation in Indian colleges is inspiring - Even given that the teams who had come all the way to the final represented perhaps some of the most innovative of the Indian college ecosystem (at least south Indian), I think it augurs really well for innovation across colleges. Most of the students who presented were undergraduates. We are talking about students who are just 20 years old or lower, and they had not just conceptualized an interesting technology to solve important problems, they had somehow found time, money and intellectual support to take their ideas all the way to prototypes and business plans, and in some cases, even started first level commercialization. I compared this with what I was doing during my 4 years at IIT Madras, and it was not an altogether pleasing thought - I was completely useless.

2. Need to think how to get a larger portion of the college ecosystem to be innovators - As I mentioned earlier, the teams and the bright students are not representative of the Indian college system as a whole. These guys and girls form a miniscule percentage of the total student population. At the same time, I did not see any big advantage that any of them had over their peers. That is, a small sub-set of students with similar backgrounds and support had somehow become innovators at an early age. How did this happen? What made these students do something far more useful with their time when their counterparts were busy wasting their (and their friends') lives merrily WhatsApping and Facebooking? If we can crack this code, we could have tens of thousands of student innovators across India (Over 15 lakh engineering students graduate across India every year, and there are about 60 lakh engineering students studying across all 4 years, so even 50,000 student innovators is less than 1% of total!)

3. IIT students still have significant advantages over other colleges, but the rest are catching up - That IIT Madras teams will do well in tech contests should hardly come as a surprise, and it was so well highlighted at the event. Of the ten teams in the final, only two were from IIT Madras. However, of the four winning teams, two were from IIT Madras (the two third prizes). That is, IIT Madras students had a 100% strike rate, while non-IIT students had a 25% strike rate. That is a significant difference in strike rate, and to a significant extent, I think it has to do with the IIT Madras support system available for innovation (explaining this will take a blog post in itself). But strike rates aside, the encouraging news is that the first two spots went to non-IITM teams (Venkateswara Engg & Rajalakshmi Engg College teams). Encouraging because India needs innovation from thousands of colleges - 23 IITs will just not suffice.

4. Judging process for these contests need to be more detailed - I think this will need a blog post in itself too, but put shortly - judging innovations is a damn difficult job. And if we are supposed to do this for 10 good innovations within 3 hours, you are pretty much asking the judges to decide more with their hearts than with their minds. While eliminating a couple of contestants was easy because their ideas were very sketchy or they had not done much beyond the drawing board, judging the rest needed a lot more inputs, interactions and deliberations than just three judges sitting and looking at each other and wondering what hit us in the previous 3 hours.

5. We need more of these contests but held at small towns and perhaps even villages - Contests spur people. They spur the youth even more. This is perhaps the tenth innovation contest I am judging in the last 2 years, and I have seen people put in far more efforts and creativity when it comes to getting their ideas to a contest. During my past 10 years consulting for cleantech, I had travelled across India - from metros to very small villages - and I have seen creativity and innovation everywhere. We need Shaastras and Tech Innovation Fairs across hundreds of small towns and perhaps even villages. These need not be fancy. These need not have huge prize money. If the innovative folks of the country are given some recognition for their efforts, I have little doubt that these contests can make a huge difference. As long as they ensure they have judges who are better than guys like me.

IIT Club | Last Updated : 06-Jan-20

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