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9 Indians in MIT top innovators' list

Last updated on: November 08, 2004 13:32 IST
It's been a good year for Indians abroad, with Bobby Jindal getting elected to the US Congress and steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal topping the UK rich list and many achievements by Indian scientists on foreign shores.

The year, nine Indians under the age of 35 are among the top 100 in the list of innovators selected by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review magazine.

Be it Srinidhi Varadarajan who built the world's third-fastest supercomputer for $5 million or Smruti Vidwans with her new approach to develop drugs against tuberculosis, the chosen hundred represent a group whose innovative work in technology has a profound impact in today's world.

Another Indian on the list is 28-year-old Vikram Sheel Kumar, chief executive officer, Dimagi who founded the organisation in Boston to develop interactive software that motivates patients to manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and AIDS.

His systems are being used in rural India and South Africa. An alumnus of IIT-Delhi and Columbia University, Kumar was inspired by his neurosurgeon father to blend engineering and medicine.

"Dimagi was formed with the vision to develop appropriate technology to solve practical global health issues around maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and mental disease," Kumar said.

"We also designed a handheld tool to ensure the confidentiality of data when reporting HIV test results by health workers in the field in South Africa. We are currently building a smart-card based patient registration system to integrate the care between various health programs in Zambia where nearly one in five people has HIV/AIDS," he adds.

Thirty-four-year old Chaitali Sengupta, a Systems Architect at Texas Instruments, oversees the architecture of communications chips used in advanced cellular systems now coming to market, has also made her way to this list.

The chips let multimedia cell phones more easily handle Internet access, videoconferencing, and mobile commerce.

An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and Rice University in Houston, Sengupta and her team designed techniques for reducing power consumption and improving performance of 3G mobiles.

"The worldwide effort to bring services like 3G to the market will benefit many aspects of our lives-staying in constant touch with friends and family anywhere in the world, sharing pictures and video clips over the air and video-conferencing while travelling," says Sengupta.

"The recent impressive proliferation of mobile services in India shows that Indians are readily embracing wireless technology, and 3G will only add to the many different ways wireless will enhance and add convenience to our lives," she adds.

The other Indian innovators in the list are Anuj Batra, systems engineer, Texas Instruments, Ramesh Raskar, visiting research scientist in Mitsubishi Electric, Mayank Bulsara, cofounder and chief technology officer, AmberWave Systems, Ravi Kane, assistant professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Ananth Natarajan, chief executive officer, Infinite Biomedical Technologies.

While Batra leads one of the industry's top teams advancing ultra wideband wireless technology, which provides the high transmission speeds needed for streaming-media applications while consuming little power, Ramesh Raskar has built large computer display systems that seamlessly combine images from multiple projectors.

Bulsara co-founded AmberWave to develop strained silicon, an advanced form of silicon that makes computer chips run faster and consume less power.

Kane has to his credit the invention of a highly potent anthrax treatment and he is extending the concept to anti-HIV therapies as well.

Natarajan's innovation will be a lifesaver as he has developed the technology to enable implantable cardiac devices to detect incipient heart attacks.

The million-dollar question is whether Indian scientists and innovators would have been able to achieve success had they stayed back in India.

"The biggest challenge an Indian student faces is finding the space to develop an independent mind. Resources abound and so do inspiring minds. The secret is to be foolish and stubborn enough to believe one can do what has not been done before," says Kumar.

"As regards research, India has brilliant minds that need direction and adequate resources. A critical component of direction is patience and a hard work ethic-none of the awardees achieved their goals overnight," he adds.

Sengupta too is positive about the future of engineering students in India and thinks they can certainly avail of the best resources possible.

"Engineering education in India is at the same level as the best in the world and I am excited to see the engineering research and development being done in India and by engineers of Indian origin, around the world," says Sengupta.

"Today, I believe an engineering student in India is equipped by our education system and societal support to compete with the best in the world," she adds.

Still, it is perhaps unfortunate that the same individuals, who live in relative obscurity abroad, find it easier to bring their projects to fruition in the United States than in the country of their origin. Kumar thinks that he has a solution to the brain-drain issue.

"Leaders in research and development need a strong commitment to original, high-quality science. The next five years will determine whether India sells itself short for quick profits, or adopts long-term strategies to move up the value chain.

Once scientists feel the nation is moving along the latter path, the brain-drain will immediately reverse," says Kumar. If past record is anything to go by, some of these innovators will create history soon.

Among those named in the list in the earlier years were Google conceptualisers Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Does that mean Indians as a racial group are making a big splash in the field of tech innovation? Not everyone thinks so.

The answers are highly variable depending on the specific case. And Indians as a whole cannot be grouped into being innovators or not," says Prof Tejal Desai, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Boston University who was among the list of judges that selected the final hundred on the list.

Kumar himself advises against being too complacent with moderate success. "We still have a lot to do before we are truly representative of our sheer numbers in the world, and comprise one of every six awardees on the list," he says.

Complete list of Indian Innovators

  • Anuj Batra (34), systems engineer, Texas Instruments
  • Ramesh Raskar (34), visiting research scientist, Mitsubishi Electric
  • Chaitali Sengupta (34), systems architect, Texas Instruments
  • Srinidhi Varadarajan (31), director, Terascale Computing Facility, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Mayank Bulsara (32), co-founder and chief technology officer, AmberWave Systems
  • Ravi Kane (32), assistant professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Smruti Vidwans (30), postdoctoral fellow University of California, San Francisco
  • Vikram Sheel Kumar (28), co-founder and chief executive officer, Dimagi
  • Ananth Natarajan (33), chief executive officer, Infinite Biomedical Technologies
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