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BW Businessworld

Story of “Rapid Innovation In The Face Of Uncertainty In A Volatile World”

The authors of The Ventilator Project, Srikant Sastri, Co-Founder, Crayon data; Chairman, IIM Calcutta Innovation Park; Chairman, 13G Advisory Network; Author, The Ventilator Project; and Prof Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, Dept. of Biological Sciences & Bioengineering; Professor-in-Charge, Innovation & Incubation, IIT Kanpur; Co-Author, The Ventilator Project speak with Dr Annurag Batra, Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, BW Businessworld & Exchange4Media

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Dr Batra: These are times that demand innovation, action, and a pledge to make the future better. How has the last year been for you both professionally and personally?
Prof Bandyopadhyay: From March 2020, on the academic front I had nothing much do, and The Ventilator Project was taking shape. From September 2020, I started writing the book and teaching courses online. I never taught online, but through this I decided to create a YouTube channel and make my videos public. There are still some challenges, for example, my experimental work has taken a hit and we still need to figure out how to conduct exams. Once that is done, we will see a huge change in education.

Srikant Sastri: Personally, I played it safe and did not take any risks. Professionally, a lot of unnecessary travelling time has gotten saved. All my work – mentoring, teaching, and advising has become more productive. This also gave me time to write The Ventilator Project.

Dr Batra: When pandemic started, there was a shortage of ventilators, and IIT Kanpur came up with a new one in only 90 days. How did the idea come about and how did the stake holders come together?
Srikant Sastri: The situation in March 2020 was very similar to current state [April 2021]. The uncertainty and panic is still here. However, we did not know what the virus was back then. At that point, two young people, Harshit Rathore and Nikhil Kurele, responding to the Prime Minister’s call ro start-ups, suggested we make an ICU ventilator. We jumped in immediately to help them. We knew MNCs would take 18 to 24 months to make this, so, we had to work fast. We had to get the best experts together from manufacturing, supply chain, design, policy regulation, everything. We had the greatest minds at work and had it not been for changes in the regulatory landscapes we would have finished the project in 60 days.

Dr Batra: How did the design, itself, happen so fast?
Prof Bandyopadhyay: When I got the call from this start-up, Nocca Robotics, they pitched the idea of a ventilator despite being a primarily robotics company. At that time there was demand for ICU ventilators, and this company rose to the challenge. In 48 hours they had developed a prototype using components for drones and aquarium pump, which came complete with an application and electronic circuit. They pitched it to a global team that was helping countries around world deal with the pandemic. The next morning I called Srikant. 

Dr Batra: Give us a sense of how sceptics can help with the thought process behind such an innovation?
Srikant Sastri: We had to make this product affordable and that meant using domestic goods, which most doctors in India are taught not to trust. The two pronged approach was, first, we had to build a reliable product that cut no corners and was affordable. Second, we had to ensure that the experts and influencers trust the product and helped in its distribution and use.

Dr Batra: Is there a play-book that can be constructed from this experience you had with The Ventilator Project, that can be applied to other problem areas?
Srikant Sastri: We did not realise that a play-book had emerged, until we started writing, The play book here is to have rapid innovation in the face of uncertainty in a volatile world. This can be extended to any challenge. When you bring a small set of determined people, with complimentary set of skills, in a safe environment you can literally make magic happen and solve any problems that we face.

Dr Batra: How can we ensure that innovation happens in every sector? What kind play book can we offer these entrepreneurs? 
Prof Bandyopadhyay: I used to think money was the biggest problem. Now I know that money is the least of the problem. Innovators need to come up solutions to problems worth solving and there needs to be a mechanism to support that. There are very few original ideas emerging from the Indian ecosystem. The playbook would be to go from early prototype to the end product. To do this, eye for design and service is required. If you can get a good task force together, this can happen.

Dr Batra: So many incubators are coming out, but too little Is coming out of them. Can you comment on that?
Srikant Sastri: At this time there are over 150 tech incubators that are active  and supported by the Department of Science and Technology. There 52 bio incubators that are supported by BIRAC, Department of Biotechnology. In my view, these bio incubators have been India’s best kept secrets. The government had great foresight in knowing that the private sector will not come forward to fund health tech innovation because the gestation period is too long, along with clinical trials and other factors. Therefore, they provided the funds for the first 3 years of a start-up. The problem is that of the funded start-ups, only few are really talented. These start-ups need a different kind of support to become global players. There is not capital available on this stage. 

Dr Batra: Small town talent is taking centre stage. Why that is being said? And, why is it important to our conversation?
Prof Bandyopadhyay: The small town kids are facing challenges on a daily basis, so they know the problems that need to be solved. Some might not have, either, the technical knowledge, or, the academic depth. However, identification of the problems is half the game. Therefore, we are seeing increasingly more good thinkers and innovators that are coming from tier 2 and tier 3 cities. If we can get these pioneers to innovate in their own towns, then, that can help the country in the long run.

Srikant Sastri: Thanks to 4G and role models like Flipkart, people no longer think that their career options are limited to UPSC, engineering, law, etc. Entrepreneurship is of huge interest in these cities.
Dr Batra: If we look at the biggest issues in India right now, they are: 1. Air quality, 2. Mental Well-Being, and 3. Shortage of Healthcare provisions. How do we solve these problems?

Prof Bandyopadhyay: There are two issues that need to be tackled simultaneously. First, Innovation, and, second, is policy. In our country, primary healthcare and secondary healthcare does not exist. Therefore, when you are sick you have no choice but to go to the big hospitals. Other than technological innovation, process innovation is required. One way of doing that is ushering in tele-medication. Air quality is a policy problem. 

One particular innovation that is needed today is for oxygen. We are working very hard to get oxygen concentrator ready, maybe if we get funding for it the way we did with the ventilator project, we can get it running in 20 to 25 days.

Dr Batra: As we move into 2021, what are the trends that are becoming big? The things we are not seeing?
Srikant Sastri: The world is going to become more uncertain. With these uncertainties, we need innovation at speed. The other point is getting innovation and policy to play together. The government infrastructure is not geared to change policy so quickly, that needs to change. We need state governments to create an enabling framework for innovators.

Prof Bandyopadhyay: Solutions should be policy driven. Today, our farmers, are not answerable to anyone and so, they have not changed the way irrigation is done in the last 100 years. There are technological solutions for these things but they have to be government driven.