EDISONS OF TOMORROW

From a smart medicine pack that keeps a tab on a person taking tuberculosis medicines to technology that identifies the right blood vessel for an intra-venous procedure, innovations are now coming in small packages.

And research competitions are challenging these “Edisons of tomorrow” — students, scientists and entrepreneurs — by encouraging them to think-up novel solutions in healthcare.

Prototype development

Take the ‘Grand Challenges in Tuberculosis Control’ programme for instance. Winners get $30,000 as a grant for six months to develop a prototype. And those who scale this challenge get $100,000 each to integrate the innovation into India’s healthcare system.

The TB-control challenge, an initiative from IKP Knowledge Park, has the US Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as partners.

Big innovations are required and will continue, but the idea here is to open opportunities for effective, high-volume and low-cost solutions, says Gopichand Katragadda, Chairman and Managing Director of GE India Technology Centre (GE-ITC). GE’s Edison Challenge gives the winner a Rs 10-lakh grant, and the runner-up, Rs 5 lakh.

Exposure to market

The challenge gives university research an exposure to market needs, as perceived by the industry, he says, adding that GE would be open to absorbing an innovation that “fits the bill.”

Globally, such initiatives are not unknown. In fact, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, collectively founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, among others, also looks to russel up the excitement around science and research.

One of the 15 recipients of IKP’s first round of funding for TB-control solutions is Bill Thies, a researcher with Microsoft Research India. His team’s innovation helps ensure that a patient takes the TB medicine regularly and without the direct supervision mandated in the Government-run system.

The innovation involves giving numbers, hidden behind the pills in a strip of TB medicines. On taking the medicine, a four-digit code is revealed to the patient, who has to combine it with a six-digit number printed on the pack and give a missed phone call to that number. And this gets captured at the monitoring end.

TB control falters, since patients default on taking their medicines regularly. Thies’ team’s innovation seeks to plug this gap. The grant money goes to Innovators in Health, a non-profit organisation in Bihar that partners and co-evaluates the initiative, says Thies.

In the GE Edison challenge, this year’s winner was a mobile application to diagnose skin cancer and related abnormalities from IIT (Kharagpur). And last year’s runner-up, Vellore Institute of Technology’s VeinLoc (blood-vessel detector), has taken the innovation a step further, by applying for a patent.

The five-year Edison challenge encourages awardees to continue interacting with mentors at GE — a no mean exposure — since GE’s centre at Bangalore is its largest multidisciplinary research, development and engineering centre outside the US.

Intellectual property

Explaining the academia-industry misfit, Katragadda says universities are flush with funds, but are not tied to deliverables and market insight. Besides, there are trust issues between universities and the industry on matters such as intellectual property.

The Edison challenge looks to bridge the gap, by including interactions with technology resource persons and angel investors, to awaken researchers to market-place realities.

jyothi.datta@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 23, 2013)
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