The eight teams of engineering students all presented wonderful, imaginative ways to help save the world, one idea at a time. The ideas were presented in the finals of the Al Gore Sustainable Technology ventures competition recently at IIT-Madras, and I was lucky enough to be one of the judges.
All the presentations in the competition were remarkable. One was from a team from IIT-Kharagpur that suggested better ways to desalinate sea water – a most welcome idea as much of the world faces water shortages, now or in the future.
Another idea, presented by a team from Sastra University, Thanjavur, suggested a new means of capturing carbon from industrial exhaust to create relatively inexpensive industry-grade Carbon Nanotubes (CNT).
This could be important for a number of reasons, I learned. For one, it could significantly reduce carbon emissions from industrial furnaces.
For another, we need new and better ways of producing CNT; their unique molecular structure provides both strength and chemical capabilities that are paving the way for advances in nanotechnology, optics, electronics, architecture and other fields that affect our everyday quality of life.
“We can produce Carbon Nanotubes at a fraction of the current international prices,” one of the Sastra University students told the judges.
The competition was the result of initiatives led by Prof. Oopali Operajita, a senior advisor to various Indian parliamentarians. The unique feature of this competition, unlike other technology venture competitions, is that 33% of the marks were for sustainability parameters.
Another clever idea was a design that leveraged gravity and buoyancy to improve the efficiency of power generation. This could be applied to mini-power plants that work at a community level. Another early-stage idea was a new approach for producing algae-based biofuels – a cheap and efficient source of energy for the future.
We judges, many of us venture capitalists, got to talking over lunch and agreed that a number of these budding technology entrepreneurs would end up at top consulting firms and banks – trading in their dreams for a cushy job with a multinational.
Even the few who managed to resist this temptation and actually create a startup might not have the skills and experience to successfully manage a business. What they need is a blend of entrepreneurial zest and dynamism with a smattering of experience and maturity – what an Eric Schmidt brought to Google.
At the end of the competition I was heartened by the talent base in the country as well as the ability of these young people to generate fresh ideas.
The colleges themselves have set up entrepreneurship and innovation funds where many of these youngsters were able to raise up to Rs. 10 lacs as initial seed funding. There are also a number of Indian and international competitions that provide them a platform to present and test out their ideas.
This is an excellent starting point. What we need more of is a Silicon Valley type of ecosystem, where these youngsters can access mentors as well as executive talent. They will need angels to support them – financially and managerially – to polish their ideas into viable business opportunities.
We have a few angel networks like the Mumbai Angels and the Chennai Angels, but we need many more people to contribute time and money to build on these ideas. Even if only a few of these ventures take off, they can create a significant difference not just for India but for the world.
Do share your own ideas on how to promote innovative ventures in this country (by the way, the Carbon Nanotubes idea won first place, and desalination was second).