Indians who will reinvent the world

There will soon be an Indian hand guiding nearly every activity in life if you go by the Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ list of ultra impressive up-and-comers which features 11 Indians. By Indira Kannan in Toronto

Written by Indira Kannan | Published: January 1, 2012 11:12 pm

It may be a stereotype that Indians are good at science and with numbers. But a look at the ‘30 Under 30’ list compiled by the American business magazine Forbes—of people that it says will “reinvent the world”—would only reinforce that notion. There are at least 11 achievers of Indian origin among the 360 people featured on the list,and all are connected to the fields of science,technology and finance.

Still,not everyone chose a career in those sectors. Nikhil Arora,24,from Irvine,California,was all set for a career in consulting,when he and a classmate in a business ethics class at the University of California in Berkeley picked up on a random nugget of information tossed out by the professor. The idea has now mushroomed into a fast-growing business in just two years with 21 employees and $1.5 million in revenues.

The random fact Arora and his business partner Alejandro Velez heard during their last semester in college was that you could grow gourmet mushrooms entirely on recycled coffee grounds. They decided to test the idea and planted 10 buckets of mushrooms and took off for their spring break vacations. When they returned,they found nine of the samples contaminated,but one had a healthy bunch of mushrooms growing out of it. They took that bucket around to their local branch of Whole Foods,an American grocery chain selling organic foods,and to the head chef of one of the best restaurants in Berkeley. They got a thumbs up from both,and Back to the Roots was born.

Speaking from the company’s office in Oakland,California,Arora recalled,“A couple of weeks before graduation,we got a $5,000 grant from my chancellor. That’s when we decided we’ve got a bucket of mushrooms that taste good,we’ve got some demand from Whole Foods,we’ve got five thousand dollars in our pocket,and so forget investment banking and consulting,full-time mushroom farming it is.”

Now they sell do-it-yourself mushroom kits for home users,and this year they hit their target of collecting and using one million pounds (4.5 lakh kg) of used coffee grounds. The best part of their business plan is that their supplier,a West Coast coffee chain called Peet’s Coffee & Tea,actually pays Back to the Roots to haul away its coffee grounds,effectively giving Arora’s company its raw material for free.

Arora grew up in a family that mostly ate traditional Indian food and was never a big fan of mushrooms. Now,he says,his parents always have a kit growing at home and his mother has been churning out recipes for mushroom sabzis.

While Arora wants to make it easy for people to grow their own food,27-year-old Sidhant Gupta from Delhi wants to make it easy for everyone to monitor and conserve energy and water usage in their homes. Gupta came to the US in 2007 for higher studies and is now a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

His work is in the field of ubiquitous computing,or as he describes it,“Basically,how do you put computers everywhere but in the background so that people don’t have to think about interacting with them”. He designed a sensor,a plug-in device that would inform users how much energy their homes are consuming. This technology is being commercialised by the California-based company Belkin,and Gupta believes the product could hit the market next year.

Now he’s working on a way to detect water leaks in homes and shut off the supply automatically. His interest in science started when he was a little kid growing up in Delhi. He recalls he was fascinated with computers when he was 7 or 8,when computers were “really expensive” in India. He would spend many evenings on the computer in his father’s office,before his parents finally bought him his own computer. Given his interest in tinkering and building devices,his research has a practical focus. “If you put two engineers on it for about six months,you can get a product out of it,” he says. “An end-user can install it without any knowledge and under 15 minutes.”

Meanwhile,two Indian-born achievers on the Forbes list are engaged in an ambitious fight against cancer. Raj Krishnan,29,has raised over $3 million from various grants,prize money in business plan competitions,and angel investors in San Diego,California,for his company Biological Dynamics. He is engaged in bringing to the market a one-time use,disposable device that can be used to detect cancer by isolating biomarkers in blood. The entire kit would fit into a palm,and he hopes to price it under $100. “There are no moving parts,and there’s nothing to break,” he points out. Krishnan said the company had just closed its first contract,although the details are not public yet. The product could hit the market in under five years.

The Tiruchirapalli-born Krishnan,who came to the US when he was 12,decided he wanted to set up his own company while he was still in college,when his favourite professor told him,“Nobody would trust a little kid with millions of dollars until he had ‘doctor’ in front of his name”. He developed the technology his company is currently using while working on his PhD at the University of California in San Diego,and was able to spin off his company in 2008. Krishnan’s product would be used for both early detection as well as monitoring the treatment of cancer.

Rizia Bardhan,29,from “a family of engineers” in Asansol and Kolkata in West Bengal,has been in the US for the past 10 years. She worked on using nanotechnology to diagnose and treat cancer while doing her PhD at Rice University in Houston,Texas. Now a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the San Francisco Bay Area,she is studying the use of nanomaterials in hydrogen storage.

“Hydrogen has the potential to be the fuel of the future,” she explains. The problem is in storing hydrogen,as it can currently be stored only in large containers. Her work lies in developing metal hydrides that can absorb and store large quantities of hydrogen in battery-sized devices. It would take about three decades to develop the technology for commercial and daily use. To continue her work,Bardhan wants to join the faculty of a university and spend her life doing research. Remarkably,her husband Cary Pint,a research scientist at Intel Corp,is also on the Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list.

All through his student life,Vivek Nair,who is currently pursuing a PhD in material science at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University,was troubled by headache due to pollution as he travelled daily from his house in Panvel,just outside Mumbai,to a college in the city. He refused to accept that carbon emissions were just a waste product,and the thought of putting them to use lingered in his mind. It all fell into place in Nair’s third year of bioengineering at SASTRA University in Tamil Nadu,while he was looking to buy carbon nanotubes for a college project. But the exorbitant price was a deterrent. Carbon nanotubes find widespread application in electronics,energy storage,automobiles and insulators,and are 25 times stronger than steel. Nair’s find can greatly help in reducing the industrial and commercial carbon emissions and arrest global warming.

Among those of Indian origin leading the charge on Wall Street is the New York-born Vikas Mohindra,financial advisor at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. The fact that he is only 25 years old means that a major part of his career has played out in the aftermath of the late-2008 market meltdown. Forbes put him on the list for gathering business worth $38 million from scratch in just three years. How does he do it,through all the stock market turmoil? “To be honest,I come into work despite what the market’s doing with a smile on my face,really excited to talk to my clients and meet new clients,” says Mohindra.

The youngest person on the Forbes list is 17-year-old Param Jaggi,who started college only this year at Austin College in Texas. He made the cut for creating an “algae-filled device that fits over a car’s tailpipe and turns carbon dioxide into oxygen”. Shakeel Avadhany,CEO and co-founder of Levant Power Corp,based near Boston,figures with his colleague Zack Anderson for developing a shock absorber that recovers and uses energy generated during driving on bumpy roads.

Other achievers in the finance sector include Kunal Shah,the youngest managing director at Goldman Sachs,and Maneet Ahuja,a producer and hedge fund specialist at the business news channel CNBC,who started working on Wall Street as a credit risk analyst when she was only 17.

Some of the Indian presence on the list is indirect—a Silicon Valley startup by a Canadian inventor working on a potentially revolutionary energy storage system is funded by green technology investor Vinod Khosla.

For many of those on this list,even the ones born in the US such as Nikhil Arora,the connection with India is nevertheless very strong. Arora’s company has received enquiries from India and although it’s not on the cards immediately,he sees India as a potential future market for his company.

Rizia Bardhan chokes up while talking about her family back in India,and is interested in collaborating with universities in India on her research. Sidhant Gupta credits his rigorous school and college education in India with giving him a solid foundation for his current research. Raj Krishnan says he is excited by the growth in India’s biotech sector and is also interested in bringing his cancer detection and treatment monitoring product to the growing Indian market.

Apart from those on this list,there are innumerable Indians making their mark in various cutting-edge fields—for example,a look at science competitions and Silicon Valley startups invariably reveals a host of Indian names. It would appear that from treating cancer to heating homes efficiently and eating mushrooms,there will soon be an Indian hand guiding every activity in life.

(With Aakriti Vasudeva in Mumbai)

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