India Nurturing Homegrown Ideas

Monday, August 6, 2007

A little seed money has helped to unleash the potential of this rural nation’s many back-yard inventors. IMPHAL, India. Uddhab Bharali wanted to be a mechanical engineer. But before he could get a college degree, his father developed asthma and could no longer work.

The youth decided to start manufacturing plastic bags to support his family. But the machine he needed cost $12,500, five times what he had in savings. So he built his own.

Twenty years later, he has invented 65 machines designed to do everything from peel garlic to extract the fleshy seeds from pomegranates. Orders — and appeals for new inventions — have poured in from as far away as Los Angeles.

“After I made that first machine, I knew I could do anything,” said the diminutive 42-year-old, who still lives in North Lakhimpur, a modest town in India’s remote northeast.

“Now there are a lot of problems people want me to solve.”

India may be better-known for its high-flying entrepreneurs who have turned the nation into a high-tech center and outsourcing mecca. But the still largely rural country also is gaining a name as a center for smaller-scale innovation.

In farm sheds and machine shops and on small rural plots, India’s back-yard inventors are coming up with creations that their backers hope will make it big, solve a few of the world’s problems, boost India’s exports and continue cutting the country’s dismal poverty rate.

In northeast India alone, inventors have come up with a solar-powered motorboat, capable of whisking fishermen or eco-tourists silently and pollution-free through river backwaters, and a bicycle that drives added power to the gears when it bounces over a rut. There’s an ultra fuel-efficient engine, and a low-cost alarm system designed to alert pedestrians to oncoming trains in foggy weather. There’s even a mechanical speed bump that generates electricity every time a car passes.

“Not many societies emphasize the need to learn from common people,” said Anil Gupta, India’s guru of grass-roots innovation and a leader of the government-backed National Innovation Foundation. But “we’re generating the pool of ideas for people to invest in,” he said. “Gandhi said, ’Let the breeze come from any direction.’”

Over much of the past 20 years, Gupta, an academic and anti-poverty activist, has traveled around India scouting for rural innovations and helping inventors patent their work and find venture capital to get their projects to market.

The effort has had a few big successes.

A penniless cotton farmer in Gujarat state eight years ago invented a machine to extract cotton from unopened bolls, a tedious task women and children had long done by hand. Gupta’s innovators network — a constellation of Indian projects and institutions designed to fund good ideas — invested $15,000 in developing the technology; today, it is patented in the United States and India and earning its inventor a half-million dollars a year.

Another product, an herbal eczema cream developed with input from nine Indian herbalists and traditional healers, has had sales of 300,000 tubes since its launch on the Indian market nine months ago, Gupta said.

New twist on old ideas

A tree-climbing device, fashioned by a coconut harvester in Kerala state, is now sold across India and used as far afield as the United States by biologists studying trees. The device tightens around a tree when a climber steps on it, creating a stable platform.

“We’ve sold technology on all five continents,” said Gupta, a gray-bearded, soft-spoken professor.

Still, turning a good idea into a marketable product remains a challenge. At a recent inventors workshop in Imphal, part of an isolated region near the Myanmar border beset by more than a dozen small-scale insurgencies, a share of the devices on display turned out to be things already invented, including an inverter, designed to store electrical power for use when the power is out.

Other participants, many of them with minimal formal education, took old ideas — like hatching eggs in a temperature-controlled machine — and worked out ways to achieve them using local materials, such as kerosene lamps instead of electrical power.

“This is science of the people, by the people and for the people,” said Mahendra Sharma, a deputy secretary in India’s Ministry of Science and Technology, as he walked among the exhibits.

But plenty of ideas were new, including Uddhab Bharali’s electric pomegranate de-seeder, which he devised after kicking a pomegranate across the floor in frustration and seeing the seeds fall right out.

His sleek, silver machine, the first in the world to extract pomegranate seeds without crushing the casing — he says — can process 18 pounds of pomegranates in five minutes. But to improve the volume to make the machine marketable, he needed to get to a ton a day, he said. That would cost $20,000 to engineer, a challenging amount for a poor man to raise in India.

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Source: Chicago Tribune (link opens in a new window)