In fact, Shrikumar Suryanarayanan, a Distinguished Alumnus, has announced a scheme to sponsor two biotechnology startup teams each year with ₹10 lakhs, who will also be given laboratory space and access to potential mentors in academia and industry.
And they shouldn’t be short of ideas. Students in the biotechnology department get to choose from courses in computational biology and biomedical engineering, apart from electives across the board in other departments. There is also an incubation facility in the department exclusively for IIT-M students, who can work with suitable faculty – even faculty from other institutes – or people from industry. “The idea is that students don’t do their projects in a disinterested fashion,” says Prof. Jayaraman.
Support aside, it takes tremendous courage and confidence for a person, or a team, to dedicate themselves to building an enterprise which may or may not become successful. Many ideas go unexplored when students, unsure of whether they can work full-time on their ideas, decide not to pursue them. “IIT Madras provides support for this as well with Nirmaan, a team of faculty members, students and alumni dedicated to providing support and mentorship while you work on concretizing your ideas without committing too much to building a startup,” says Prof. Ashwin Mahalingam, a faculty advisor at Nirmaan. The Entrepreneurship Support Scheme, for instance, which started in April 2012, is sponsored by various alumni and 20 startups have so far been funded through this scheme. Then there’s the Leadership Lecture Series, with three or four lectures every month, that aims to create more avenues for alumni and other industry leaders to interact and share their experiences with students.
Final-year undergraduate students have the option to convert to an M.S. in entrepreneurship where they can work full-time on their ideas. “So the worst that can happen is that the idea fails, and the student can sit for placements while collecting their B.Tech and an M.S. in entrepreneurship,” says Prof. Mahalingam. Apart from this, undergraduates also have the flexibility to take a semester off to pursue their ideas and safely transition back into business as usual if it doesn’t work out. The sheer number of safety nets and resources put in place by IIT Madras has enabled students to confidently venture into startups.
But how does one get good startup ideas in the first place, you may ask. Most ideas come from discussions and teamwork. The Center for Innovation, CFI, practically breeds startup ideas. “It’s useful for a hardware startup to start from close to IIT-M. Outside the campus, timeline expectations, revenue and sales expectations have the potential to sidetrack one from development and tech work. The overall ecosystem in the campus, including CFI and Research Park is supportive of tech work,” say the founders of Ather Energy, an IIT-M startup working on a futuristic, smart and energy-efficient electric scooter which has already attracted more than a million dollars in funding. Many academic projects which start out at one of several laboratories at IIT-M also end up as startups. Many of the facilities mentioned previously are also open to alumni. So students remain a part of the IIT-M family for the rest of their lives.
All this entrepreneurial zeal derives from faculty members who think differently, which we certainly need to do if we are to cope with, and capitalize on, India’s burgeoning population. One of the most pressing needs is providing affordable housing for lower income groups. Currently, “affordable” usually means uncomfortable, cramped and sometimes unsafe. Glass fibre reinforced gypsum (GFRG), a new building material developed in the Civil Engineering department by Prof. Devdas Menon and his team, may change all that.
Gypsum is a byproduct of the fertilizer manufacturing process, and is available in plenty in India. It is reinforced with glass fibres, and the resulting material is shaped into large panels. These panels can then be used to construct most structures required in a house, including the roof, floors, walls and stairs. The prefabricated nature of these panels means that construction time is minimized – a pilot project of four flats was built in the IIT-M campus in a month – and the abundance of gypsum results in building costs as low as ₹1250 per square feet. Tests and simulations have also shown that buildings made of GFRG are less prone to earthquake damage than conventional buildings. The success of the pilot project has encouraged Tata Housing to begin construction of a five-storied complex in Mumbai, with other projects in the pipeline.
Now, all these homes need a power supply. Just producing more power isn’t enough; we must find ways of more efficient distribution too. Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Electrical Engineering department first noticed problems with the existing system while supervising the setting up of solar panels on the roofs of buildings in the campus. The repeated conversion between DC (supplied by solar panels and stored by batteries) and AC (used by most appliances) resulted in power losses of over 40%. This led him to investigate the possibility of using only DC across the entire grid, and found that DC appliances were more efficient than their AC counterparts. He then proceeded to convert a number of offices, including his own, and hostel rooms to run on DC alone. In what would be a radical change in how power is supplied to, and used in, homes, Prof. Jhunjhunwala and his team are now planning to introduce these DC grids in various locations across India.