Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala is Professor at the department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras and on the board of directors of the IIT Madras research park.
Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala is Professor at the department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras and on the board of directors of the IIT Madras research park. Known for his innovative interventions in the field of telecommunications, banking products and the Akash tablet, he heads the Telecommunications and Computer Networks group at IIT Madras. Excerpts from his chat with Shubashree Desikan on the importance of social innovations, entrepreneurship and more.
What has been your experience with social innovation?
I have always believed that engineering has to solve the problems of the people. The engineer’s prime role is to come up with technologies which help society. In a country like ours with such large gaps between the rich and the poor, having people from very low economy, with so much of poverty, you have to ask, “Can your abilities and technologies solve some of the problems?” I consider this my dharma. If I call myself an outstanding engineer, or professor, I should work on that.
Did you work on social innovations right from the beginning?
No, my Ph.D thesis was certainly not on this. Also, several Ph.D students who have worked with me have not worked on this. It’s like this — India has multiple aspects. If you look at its weakness, its industry is not that strong. It is not that independent. It has become much better today as compared to 25-30 years back. Even so it is not very strong. It depends quite a bit on imported technology. So helping industry come up with the right technology is also important. In fact one of the roles we have played is to build up the academia-industry interface — for instance, the research park.
If you look at the work we did in IIT Madras on low-cost housing — (we built) a house in 31 days — a two-floor flat completely built in 31 days and costing much lower. Again the focus is on asking ‘can we make a difference to the people.’ IIT Madras is itself moving towards such a situation when we are saying, “We will make a difference to society and industry.”
So there are two goals — for the industry and for society, sometimes the two can be aligned, sometimes not.
Your vision for solar energy in India
…Our dream is whether India can get 50 per cent of its power from solar energy by 2030. And I think we have done a lot of work in the last couple of years, ever since we started. I think in the next year or two we will make a major difference.
Do you see the spirit of entrepreneurship in young people today?
First of all, whenever you try to work on technology development you can actually work with the existing industry, or you can work with new companies. Existing industries are somewhat conservative. They are reluctant when you approach them with large, breakthrough ideas. Even if they are willing, they will not go full-fledged. So whether you like it or not, it takes a new company with energy to come up with new ideas. Entrepreneurship becomes a very important component of the life at the campus.
We try to create that vigour and energy among the youngsters. For the last 7-8 years it has accelerated, with technology business incubators coming up.
Are the students interested? Certainly! We are seeing far more students using it than there were earlier. We still have a long way to go. We still are nowhere compared to what we see in Silicon valley… but I think we are getting closer…
What are the challenges in going from the lab to the market?
Anything that you build in the lab is a lab prototype. It has not been designed for manufacturing, or working 24x7. It doesn’t necessarily take care of all usability issues. It doesn’t take care of commercial issues so that when you produce you can make money out of it. If you ask me, the lab prototype is 20 per cent of the process, 80 per cent still remains to be done…
And we (the faculty) or our students are not knowledgeable about that. You need to bring in industry persons… That’s where the research park is again bringing the industry persons on the campus so that we can work together.
What is your message for students?
There are huge opportunities. You can make a difference, provided you are able to grab the opportunities. Finally if you grab the opportunity, work hard, slog, that gives you so much satisfaction as compared to just doing the routine job. You have the ability to make a difference to the nation, to the society. Your dharma is to try to see the best that you can do. (You) should say, “Let me play a larger role in society. If things are wrong, let me fix it...” If you are determined to do something, you can. That’s what I have found. The determination to make a difference is critical.