A partnership featuring Tata Trusts is betting big on innovative entrepreneurship. Cynthia Rodrigues tracks its impact on issues ranging from the quality of life of over a million Indians who use Braille to DNA testing

Did you know that the Braille aids that are currently available are so expensive that they cater to less than 10 percent of the population that needs it? But Brailleme could change that. This innovative low-cost smart assistant allows device access in the Braille script at one-tenth the cost and could potentially improve the quality of life of over a million Braille-literate students and professionals in India.

This is just one of the success stories that emerged out of the first cycle of the India Innovation Growth Programme (IIGP) last year.

Run by the tripartite association between global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin, the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology, and the Tata Trusts, IIGP is based on the premise that entrepreneurship stemming from scientific and technological innovation has the potential to tackle key socio-economic issues and bring about disruptive change in the life of the masses.

With IIGP 2.0 now underway, Manoj Kumar, head, Entrepreneurship and Innovations, Tata Trusts, says, “The innovations that we would like to incubate should be ideas that are affordable, accessible and acceptable by the community, in the areas of healthcare, agriculture, water, education, energy, etc. The programme will handhold and incubate promising innovations; investments will also be made into the top innovations.”

Partner ecosystem

IIGP was initiated by Lockheed Martin in 2007. In 2009, the Department of Science and Technology joined hands with them. At that time, the selected innovations complemented Lockheed Martin’s focus on the industrial sector.

In 2017, the Tata Trusts was invited to collaborate in this with a focus on innovations that have strong societal impact; it is currently committed to partner in this programme for three years.

IIGP’s first cycle generated over 350 commercial agreements and more than $900 million of economic activity, with over 400 start-up companies scaling up in global markets

Tata Trusts — through its Foundation for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship — incubates selected ventures and provide them resources, mentoring and other support, including infrastructure, networking, market access, business development, commercialisation strategies and seed capital. Exposure to the Trusts’ partner ecosystem allows the awardees to experiment with ideas, validate hypotheses and conduct pilots.

Giving wings

Last year, the collaborators introduced a new category. While the existing Open Innovation Challenge catered to the technology community at large, the new University Challenge was meant to provide a platform to student innovators who are strongly inclined towards social entrepreneurship. This challenge was open to participation in the industrial and social tracks.

It received a total of 1,590 applications. Nine university teams and 10 Open Innovation Challenge teams were selected for their innovations in the areas of medicine, healthcare, water, agriculture and aeronautics, among others.

Other partners

The other partners lending support to IIGP 2.0 include the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Tata Trusts’ presence has also brought in partners such as the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay and the Tata Center for Technology and Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Each university team was awarded a cash prize of 10 lakh while each open innovation team was awarded 25 lakh. The awardees were given 12-24 months to develop their innovation.

IIGP winners with Indian Ambassador to the US-Navtej Sarna (centre) at the Indian embassy in Washington, DC

Lessons from America

In Washington DC:

IIGP winners were taken on a tour around Lockheed’s Global Vision Center, where they presented their innovations to Lockheed’s senior management team.

They were also hosted by the Indian ambassador to the US at the Indian embassy.

In Massachusetts:

They viewed demonstrations of the most recent batch of Delta V startups, funded and mentored by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The winners also attended virtual sessions with Bill Aulet, managing director of the Center, who gave them detailed feedback and guidance on the projects. They were then connected to experts who could mentor them further.

They visited Harvard i-Lab, a Harvard University initiative to provide an entrepreneurial environment, where students can work on developing and marketing their ideas.

They visited Greentown Labs, the largest Cleantech incubator and accelerator in the US.

A key part of the trip was the visit to the MIT-Tata Center annual symposium, which featured well-known personalities from the IT world. Awardees were able to interact with MIT-Tata Center funded companies that were using technology to solve community problems as well as MIT professors and students to discuss solutions to problems, or ways to improve their innovations.

The funding was just one element of the support. The nine University Challenge winners attended a Design Thinking workshop conducted by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, where they gleaned insights into product design, development and entrepreneurship.

The top Open Innovation Challenge teams were taken on a week’s boot camp to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, where they were mentored by experts. They also benefited from sessions on topics like negotiation skills, business model canvas, market research, financial modeling and financing, profit economics, cash flow and costing, and pricing. The other elements included opportunities for networking and mentoring at reputed institutions.

Last year, the top 10 awardees of the Open Innovation Challenge were even flown to America for a global exposure visit. Following the visit, they were connected to incubators of their choice, selected from a list provided by the Department of Science and Technology.

As a result of the favourable ecosystem, IIGP’s first cycle generated over 350 commercial agreements, and more than $900 million in economic activity, with over 400 start-up companies scaling up in global markets.

Five of the Open Innovation Challenge 2017 winners have begun to market their products in India and overseas; two others have conducted field trials, while three have successfully created a proof-of-concept and product validation.

Growing span

In the wake of the opportunities received by the awardees last year, Tata Trusts has received 2,000 applications — across the two categories of University Challenge and Open Innovation Challenge — for the 2018 selection process currently underway.

Aathira Jayaraj, program manager, Institutions and Entrepreneurship, says, “The India Innovation Growth Programme 2.0 has been a powerful platform to get extremely talented and young innovators to build developmental solutions to India’s socio-economic problems. We have been able to create a comprehensive and effective design with the addition of boot camps and exposure visits to provide entrepreneurs with all the resources they need.”

IIGP 2.0 has funding of $2 million for social and industrial innovations, and this year’s innovations will also be supported through the three phases of ideation, innovation and acceleration.

“We imagine an India, where entrepreneurs and innovators can access the resources they need to create high quality, commercially viable, accessible and affordable solutions for socio-economic problems,” says Mr Kumar. “Through this collaboration, we are further trying to reinforce our commitment to promoting socially relevant innovation and entrepreneurship to enhance the quality of life for underserved communities.”

Real-world impact

Five teams from the Open Innovation Challenge 2017 have started marketing products

Who: FIB-SOL Life Technologies

What: An ultra-lightweight, biodegradable and water-soluble nanofibre carrier material for biofertilisers

How it helps: The nanofibre carrier material can hold 1,000 times higher payload of microbes, thereby reducing the weight of the biofertiliser formulation by 1,000 times and cutting down logistics cost. It will help farmers gain superior agro-inputs and help biofertiliser

Who: Taraltec Solutions

What: Taraltec Reactor

How it helps: This environmentally safe and low-maintenance borewell handpump reactor is aimed at eliminating waterborne diseases in areas where people cannot afford to pay for good water or medical aid.

Who: Azooka Life Sciences

What: Tinto Rang

How it helps: DNA and RNA kits are expensive,and almost all available nucleic acid stains are mutagenic, carcinogenic, toxic and biohazardous.Tinto Rang is the only food grade safe DNA and RNA stains for biohazard-free genomics and diagnostics.It is safer and a cost-effective alternative with applications that can potentially reduce the cost of disease diagnostics.

Who: Innovision

What: Brailleme

How it helps: The low-cost smart Braille assistant offers digital accessibility to the visually impaired. The aids that are currently available are expensive, and therefore, cater to less than 10 percent of the needy population. Brailleme, which allows device access in the Braille script at one-tenth the cost, could improve the quality of life of over a million Braille-literate students and professionals in India.

Who: Module Innovations

What: USense

How it helps: Current diagnostic methods for urinary tract infection (UTI) are costly, time-consuming and require a well-equipped lab and trained manpower. USense is a low cost, rapid point-of-care diagnosis of bacteria that causes UTI; it can be deployed without a lab, trained manpower or electricity and the data is easy to interpret.