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Engineering education? IITM also incubates firms

What is common to InnoNano Research Private Limited, which has developed a nano materials-based water purification technology; Ather Energy Designing, which has designed electric scooters with improved ride quality and battery performance for the Indian market; Airwood Aerostructures, which has developed super-light airframes, unmanned vehicles, designs for defence and aerial photography applications, and radio-controlled toy aircraft; Lema Labs, which aims to teach students technologies such as robotics and embedded systems, and PI Beam Labs Pvt Ltd, which is involved in designing solar power-assisted rickshaws – a convertible three-wheeled hybrid vehicle?

Well, all four companies were incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras Incubation Cell (IITM-IC). About 60 companies have been incubated at IIT Madras (IITM), with a majority of them situated at IIT Madras Research Park, which will soon add more built-up space to cater to more entrepreneurs.

The IITM-IC was created in March 2013, as a company under Section 25 of the Companies Act, to serve as the nodal agency for all entrepreneurial activities arising out of IITM, said Bhaskar Ramamurthi, director, IITM. The cell operates from the IIT Madras Research Park.

“Currently, about 60 companies are being incubated at IITM, with a majority of them situated at IITMRP. These ventures have been funded by students, faculty, staff and alumni of IITM and external members (R&D partners) in different domains,” said Ramamurthi.

The domains include e-mobility, energy, water, education, health care, transport, consulting, green technologies, data analytics, web/mobile applications, software development, construction, social media, computer vision, photonics, haptics (a technology that provides physical sensations that enable electronics to give their users feedback) and network management.

The total budget of ongoing sponsored research projects in IITM is Rs 584 crore, which constitutes a sizable part of the institute’s total budget, Ramamurthi said. The institute is pro-active in seeking out industry collaborations, to raise the technology bar in industry and make Indian globally competitive, he said.

Incubatees receive encouragement to grow on their own, said Sridhar Lakshmanan, co-promoter of ecoLogin Tourism and Travels Pvt Ltd, a company incubated at IITM. Considering that companies are under the IIT umbrella, funding is not a big challenge.

Lakshmanan’s company is an ‘alternate tourism’ company that provides guided tours – ranging from adventure and jungle tourism to heritage and culture. It also involves local communities in service delivery.

Entrepreneurs incubated at IITM gain access to resources such as lectures, faculty guidance, and highly qualified colleagues (this is a reference to IIT students who intern with the start-ups).

IITM’s master’s programme in entrepreneurship, Lakshmanan said, involves class-room learning in the first year, but in the second year the student must start a company and then submit a thesis based on his experience of running the company. “No other college does this. Even if the venture fails, we get a degree,” he pointed out.

IITM’s involvement in courses in innovation and social entrepreneurship being offered by its Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship has resulted in the development of prototypes such as a tent for homeless peoples in the winter, an assistive device for the blind, finger gloves for tea plantation workers, and preparation of business plans for these and other socially relevant innovations, through interaction with various stake-holders, said Ramamurthi.

Similarly, Amrit, the nano materials-based drinking water purification technology developed by InnoNano Research, has been widely deployed in India. Over 150 small-scale community purifiers were installed last year in the arsenic-affected rural areas of the country, serving over 100,000 people. By the end of next year this is expected to serve six lakh people.

“Technological solutions for other contaminants are in the process of deployment. These developments will contribute significantly to our dream of providing water to all through completely home-grown, sustainable and affordable technologies,” said Ramamurthi.

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