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IIT Madras becomes a fount of innovation to take on Covid-19

In the last six months, researchers at the tech institute have developed many innovative solutions
The Covid-19 pandemic since March has brought the world to its knees. Everything came to a screeching halt due to the subsequent lockdowns but inside the sprawling campus at IIT Madras, researchers were working 24/7 to innovate solutions that could help society see through the turbulent times.

In the last six months, the researchers’ vigour and passion led to some path-breaking Covid-related innovations. The institute and Helyxon, a healthcare start-up based out of the IIT Madras Research Park, developed and deployed remote patient monitoring solutions for Covid-19. An IIT Madras-incubated start-up — Modulus Housing — developed a portable hospital unit that can be installed anywhere within two hours by four people and researchers at the institute developed nano-coated filters for healthcare workers treating Covid-19 patients.

Each of the three initiatives had a big impact during the pandemic times. Innovation is now the hallmark of IIT Madras.

The remote monitoring device for Covid19 patients, developed by IIT Madras and Helyxon, and claimed to be first-of-its-kind in the market, registers clinically accurate continuous monitoring of four critical parameters — temperature, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate and heart rate. Over 5,000 devices have already been sold in public and private hospitals, and at homes, says Mohanasankar Sivaprakasam, Faculty in-Charge, Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre-IIT Madras, which collaborated with Helyxon to develop and deploy the remote patient monitoring solutions for Covid-19.

The device, that costs ₹2,500 to ₹10,000 depending on the configuration and parameters, is completely self-contained, portable, wireless and can be clipped on to a patient’s finger and data is streamed to a mobile phone or central monitoring system. The temperature is measured at the armpit and blood oxygen level, and other parameters on the finger itself. The device is reusable and has a lifetime of over a year.

Portable hospital unit

Modulus Housing developed a portable hospital unit that can be installed anywhere within two hours by four people. Called MediCAB, it is a decentralised approach to detect, screen, identify, isolate and treat Covid-19 patients in their local communities through these portable micro-structures. It is foldable and is composed of four zones – a doctor’s room, an isolation room, a medical room/ward and a twin-bed ICU, maintained at negative pressure.

Shreeram Ravichandran, CEO, Team Modulus, said that MediCAB is being deployed at various locations. “Currently, we are building a 100 bedded facility with CSR funding. We have implemented projects with private players, government bodies and NGOs,” he said.

MediCABS comes equipped with a prefabrication modular technology and a telescopic frame that allows the model to be shrunk to one-fifth its original size, which makes it convenient for storage and transportation.

The nano-coated filters for workers treating Covid19 patients also has defence applications and other places where air filtration of sub-micron particles is required. It is currently in the process of being field tested in practical applications. The nano-coated filter media has been fabricated by a nylon-based polymer coating on cellulose paper and was developed through the electrospinning process. The coating properties are optimised for efficient removal of sub-micron-sized dust particles in the air.

With such innovations IIT Madras is today a leading research institute in the country.

Driving innovation

So, what drives innovation at IIT Madras? Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras, says it is due to the institute proactively encouraging innovations in addition to academic research. Innovations often lead to products and applications of use to society and/or with business potential.

“We have an entire pre-incubation ecosystem on campus with a Centre for Innovation where students can walk in with an idea and walk out with a product, with facilities and funding support to progress with an idea,” he said. All the faculty and research scholars at IIT Madras are involved in research with about 50 per cent doing research that also leads to innovations and technologies that can be taken commercial, he added.

The institute’s Incubation Cell incubates companies that are able to develop a commercially viable idea or product. For instance, the Gopalakrishnan Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship takes cohorts of students and faculty in IIT Madras, as well as other Institutes, through a carefully curated programme to discover the route from their nascent idea to a product that the market might be receptive to.

The research funding from the Government of India has been growing at a CAGR of more than 16 per cent in the last five years, while that from industry has been growing even faster at 24 per cent. “Our research intensity therefore is growing rapidly,” says the Director. Currently, IIT Madras draws more than. ₹500 crore per annum as research funding from the Centre and industry together, he adds.

Commercial value

“The total industry-funded research is now of the order of ₹250 crore. This level of funding implies we are delivering commercial value to the industry. Besides, we are incubating nearly one start-up per week. The combined valuation of our start-ups is now estimated to be close to ₹7,000 crore,” he said.

Ravindra Gettu, Dean (Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research), IIT Madras, on the role of industry in research said that it is significant and keeps increasing. Funding and collaboration are important for taking research to the field, keeping it relevant and throwing up problems that need solutions.

Most of the developments funded through research-based industrial research and consultancy go into practice. Research projects funded by grants and a lot of those that form part of student work may take more time to reach commercial use, and this time varies considerably depending on the area of work and scope, he said.

Around ₹25 crore was earned from the innovations through patents, he said. The IIT Madras Incubation Cell and its sector-specific incubators for biosciences, medical technology and rural technologies continue to incubate companies at the rate of nearly one per week, with a total portfolio of over 200 start-ups.

The total valuation of IITM incubated start-ups is now in excess of ₹7,000 crore, with 88 start-ups in the market generating revenue of ₹366 crore and created more than 4,000 jobs in the last financial year, said sources at IIT Madras. “All these are deep-technology start-ups that incorporate sophisticated engineering and high-end manufacturing in their products,” said an official.

With all the path-breaking work, IIT Madras has put India on the global map in R&D and innovation.