The right role model can change your life: Promoting innovators to create innovators.
When I was growing up in my village in India, the kids played outside all afternoon. After a bath in the evening, we were made to do some prayers and meditation before we started on homework. Dinner used to be a late affair. After two decades outside the country when I was visiting home in 2005, I noticed that the television had taken center stage at home. Kids rushed through their homework to watch the TV in the evening. Their heroes and role models were singers, sports stars, and movie actors. But the nation’s economy is never built through individual contributors such as singers and sportsmen. It is often created by innovators and entrepreneurs who can scale their offering to create wealth and jobs while solving real problems. I wondered how I could help promote innovators to the next generation and hope to convert some of them to follow a different path. A few technology and business leader got together and decided to do something about it.
Together we created a program to find innovators in engineering colleges in India through an innovation challenge. We wanted to promote primarily physical engineering, not just software products. The first event was held in 2006 in Trivandrum, where we selected 25 teams from 150 applicants to display their prototypes and pitch their ideas. The prizes were set relatively high (Rs 100k, 50k and 30k as the top prizes) in those days. We continued to run this every year with meager resources scraped together from donations. In 2012 we introduced a weeklong innovation workshop as part of the program. In 2015, I teamed up with the MIT-India office to create a program called MIT-Make In India. It was conducted at my ancestral home in Chirayinkil, Kerala, where I set up the first FabLab in South India. 20 students (10 from MIT, 10 from India) lived with me for a month in the old house designing and creating products late into the night every day. We repeated the MIT program in 2017 at IIT Delhi and IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh.
In 14 years, the TechTop program reached some 2,500 engineering students and initiated more than 50 startups.
What takes to create an entrepreneur is instilling skill set that gives them the ability to develop solutions for problems and a mindset that builds confidence in themselves. After working with college students for 13 years, I now believe that it is easier to change school kids than college kids. By when they are in their 20s, most would have pretty much become set in the way they think. They are also closer to taking on social responsibilities as adults with pressure for finding a job and settle down. That is not the time to ask them to do a startup. It should start much earlier. We should be reaching out to kids in schools and initiate the change early on so that the next 5-10 years can put them on a very different life trajectory. Currently, we are reshaping the TechTop to create a similar change in school kids. Watch for our new programs in Mentor development and Innovation ecosystem development.
In the thirteen years of innovation programs that TechTop conducted, one frequent change I saw in college students was in their aspiration. Most students from rural India had a job as their prime goal after their undergrad. Several of the TechTop participants have gone on for graduate programs in India and abroad compared to the students who did not attend.
One of the students who approached me with a wild project idea was from a college in Thanjavur. He said if carbon nano-tubes (CNT) are produced in the lad by passing CO2 and air at 350C over a catalyst, why wouldn’t it work on the smokestacks of rice mills in his town? He created a catalytic module and inserted it into the chimney with permission from the mill owner. It started raining CNTs, according to him. His project won the first prize. He got admission for Ph.D. in a European university and started several startups in the field of CNTs. He also received the Forbes 30 under 30 award. A little push was all it took to get this kid to fly high.
Current direction that TechTop is considering is to create a nationwide program to train mentors from communities who could teach and inspire kids and youth in creativity, technology and problem solving. Hopefully such an initiative will make an impact in job creation in the post-Covid world.