An e-dog that can detect a bomb at a railway station or a crowded mall. A point-of-care test that can raise an alarm about hard to diagnose cardiac diseases. These are just two of the socially relevant nano-sized devices that Professor V Ramgopal Rao,chief investigator at the Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at IIT-Bombay,has developed.
Overall,he has been the face behind 15 such devices,for which he was awarded the Infosys Prize for Engineering and Computer Science 2013. The jury has recognised Rao,who has over 330 publications and 22 patents to his name,for his wide-ranging contributions to nano-scale electronics and for innovation and entrepreneurship in creating technologies and products of societal value.
Rao,who got his MTech degree from IIT-Bombay and a PhD from Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich,Germany,began working on the e-dog in 2008 when the Prime Ministers principal scientific advisor asked him to develop solutions for detectiing explosives.
Later,he and his team of 20 scientists at NanoSniff Technologies Pvt Ltd,a company he co-founded with Soumyo Mukherji at IIT-Bombays Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE),developed a low-cost point-of-care sensor which can detect cardiac markers in the blood within a few minutes. The project was funded by the Defence Research and Development Organisation under its National Programme on Micro and Smart Systems.
But Rao says there are no takers in the market. Converting research back into money and taking the product to the market is an uphill task. The industry continues to be averse to risk-taking. It is easy to start a software company in India and scale it up,but not a technology-driven company,which needs much higher levels of funding and resources for a longer period of time.
Talking about the US and its well-developed ecosystem which facilitates funding from the government and venture capitalists to start-ups,he says that a similar ecosystem that allows conversion of an innovation into a product does not exist in our country.
In fact,facilitating the commercialisation of nanotechnologies was one of the primary reasons Rao set up NanoSniff Technologies. The companys only source of funding is IIT-Bombay (SINE is a facility within IIT that helps its faculty/students to launch start-ups.) But clearly,thats not enough to take the products to the next level,which is the market,says Rao.
That hasnt deterred Rao,though,from continuing to research and innovate. We are now focusing on demonstrating our products in real-life conditions and hopefully they will be converted into marketable products in the future, he says.
Using the same principle of an e-sniffer,Raos team is developing a sensor network for BEST buses in Mumbai. The idea is to have multiple sensors inside a bus. The driver will be given an Akash tablet which will display a map of the bus with all the seats and other areas in green. If any suspicious material is inside the bus,the area will turn red. The driver can then check the object. Currently,nothing prevents a person from putting explosives on a bus. Our sensor network is meant to be a deterrent.
He adds that the only problem is to look at feasible ways to power these sensors without depending on batteries or chargers. We have recently patented a technology that creates power from vibrations in the buses and we can implement it in this area, Rao says.