Baby Steps Towards an Innovation Ecosystem

Posted By: Rise Team|Dated: March 19, 2015

I arrived at the PES University Campus in Bangalore on a cloudy Thursday morning. Walking past 20-something teenagers at the college campus, I went up to the fifth floor of the building where the Bangalore edition of the Rise Prize Solar Challenge was taking place.

I met several participants – a healthy mix of Ph.D. students, young professionals, designers, mechanical and electronics engineers and entrepreneurs – gearing up for their presentation to the jury. All the teams had conceptualized their own unique version of a low cost, energy efficient, do-it-yourself rooftop solar kit.

 The jury members, all renowned experts in their own right, were visibly excited to listen to a wide variety of ideas. From unique approaches to the design to mathematical models to enhance efficiency of the solar kit, the participants had presented several distinctive ideas. As one jury member casually mentioned, “This is absolutely wonderful. The challenge pushed participants to think of the ‘solar kit as a consumer product’ that can be picked up from a retail store. To me, that is the most exciting part of this contest.”

As the jury was winding up after listening to the pitches from various participants, Rise Blog caught up with the three-member jury to gather a few insights. Each of the jury members – Debajit Palit, Associate Director, Social Transformation Division at TERI, Dr. Bharath Reddy, Senior Manager at Solar Energy Corporation of India and VS Ravishankar, Head, Universal Design Lab at the NID Bangalore – brought to the table very specific areas of expertise. Prof. Ravishankar is an expert on design thinking, having won the NID-Business World Design Excellence Award in 2006. Dr. Reddy has worked in the area of solar energy for over 15 years and holds a Ph.D. in Physics, while Mr. Palit has worked in the area of clean energy access and rural electrification for several organizations including The World Bank and United Nations.

Ravishankar says, “I must congratulate Mahindra Group for coming up with the concept of a solar kit. Imagine people walking in to a retail store and picking up a DIY kit and setting it up on their terraces. I think, the whole do-it-yourself concept is very new in India but it attracted me to become a part of the jury.”

Solar Energy Corporation’s Reddy says that the famous Indian jugaad model of innovation was about DIY, but unfortunately it has not stepped up to become mainstream. He adds, “For example, at Exhibition Street in Patna, you can buy photovoltaic panels and various components with which you can make a rooftop solar kit, but it is something that’ll be quick and dirty.” The Solar Challenge is all about building a kit so easy to assemble that it can be productised. There is no doubt that the market for rooftop solar is tremendous, and at the right price point, it could be scaled up reasonably.

All jury members unanimously agreed that such a contest got them excited about the concept of innovation. Palit says, “I was attracted to the idea of fostering an ecosystem for disruptive innovation. If you look at the Western markets, say the U.S., we have organized institutions (like National Science Foundation and DARPA) funding such innovations. I believe it’ll be wonderful for India if such institutions can be setup.”

The jury members also applauded all the ideas that were presented at the Bangalore edition and congratulated the teams that had come up so many different approaches to the same problem. They added that it’d be even better if teams could have more access to institutional funds, mentoring and faculty advice. Palit says, “People have very good ideas, the key is to nurture it further.”

Ravishankar added that diversity in teams would help the case even further. “In terms of participation, we need diversity in terms of gender (more women participants) and people from varied fields. We all have to join hands to build such a product.” In fact, the Rise platform has allowed teams to call for requests for additional team members needed in the next few stages of the contest.

Delving into whether such a DIY solar kit will become a commercial success, the expert panel says, “There are obviously a few gaps in the ecosystem at this point. For example, in India, it takes some time for non-funded teams to go from idea to prototype,” says Ravishankar. Reddy adds, “And, of course, prototype to commercialization will also take time. However, at a macro level, I am very optimistic. The need for off-grid solar is in the range of 40,000 MW and such technology ideas are crucial to meet this need.”

Palit, on a concluding note, says, initiatives like this one from Mahindra certainly lays a platform to set up a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

There will be gaps (funding, ecosystem to build prototypes and mentoring), which can be tackled along the way, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.



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