An “e-dog” that can detect a bomb at a railway station or a crowded mall. A point-of-care test that can raise an alarm about hard to diagnose cardiac diseases. These are just two of the socially relevant nano-sized devices that Professor V Ramgopal Rao, chief investigator at the Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics at IIT-Bombay, has developed.
Overall, he has been the face behind 15 such devices, for which he was awarded the Infosys Prize for Engineering and Computer Science 2013. The jury has recognised Rao, who has over 330 publications and 22 patents to his name, for his “wide-ranging contributions to nano-scale electronics” and “for innovation and entrepreneurship in creating technologies and products of societal value”.
Rao, who got his MTech degree from IIT-Bombay and a PhD from Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany, began working on the e-dog in 2008 when the Prime Minister’s principal scientific advisor asked him to develop solutions for detectiing explosives.
Later, he and his team of 20 scientists at NanoSniff Technologies Pvt Ltd, a company he co-founded with Soumyo Mukherji at IIT-Bombay’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), developed a low-cost point-of-care sensor which can detect cardiac markers in the blood “within a few minutes”. The project was funded by the Defence Research and Development Organisation under its National Programme on Micro and Smart Systems.
But Rao says there are no takers in the market. “Converting research back into money and taking the product to the market is an uphill task. The industry continues to be averse to risk-taking. It is easy to start a software company in India and scale it up, but not a technology-driven company, which needs much higher levels of funding and resources for a longer period of time.”
Talking about the US and its well-developed ecosystem which facilitates funding from the government and venture capitalists to start-ups, he says that “a similar ecosystem that allows conversion of an innovation into a product does not exist in our country”.
In fact, “facilitating the commercialisation of nanotechnologies” was one of the primary reasons Rao set up NanoSniff Technologies. The company’s only source of funding is IIT-Bombay (SINE is a facility within IIT that helps its faculty/students to launch start-ups.) But clearly, that’s not enough to “take the products to the next level, which is the market”, says Rao.
That hasn’t deterred Rao, though, from continuing to research and innovate. “We are now focusing on demonstrating our products