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IIT-ians' boon for kids with cerebral palsy

Last updated on: September 25, 2010 15:22 IST

IIT-ians' boon for kids with cerebral palsy

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai


Ajit Narayan and his IIT-Madras colleagues at Invention Labs have created a device that lends voice to children with cerebral palsy!


Even when 21-year-old Ajit Narayan packed his bags for the United States in 2003 after graduating from Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, his plan was to come back after a few years and be an entrepreneur.

His inspiration: his professor, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, and the numerous conversations he had with him.

In 2007, Ajit was back in India and with a few like-minded friends, he started Invention Labs, an enterprise that would work for inventions useful to society.

In 2010, they invented Avaz, one of the most useful talking devices for those affected with cerebral palsy.

In this interview with rediff.com, Ajit Narayan talks about how they made Avaz and also his plans to make a similar device for autistic children, mentally challenged and people affected with stroke.

Invention Labs can be contacted at enable@inventionlabs.in  Phone: +91 44 6555 2989, +91 44 2250 0763

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Image: Ajit Narayan.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
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On IIT-Madras days

I was part of the group under Prof Jhunjhunwala and it was natural for a student who works with him to dream of starting a company. When I told him about my dream, he said it was a good decision.

In 2003, after I passed out, I had four months to go to the United States to work. He then got me in touch with Mr Kannan, who was trying to make low-cost ATMs (automated teller machines) for rural India.

I helped him make the electronic prototype while he worked on the mechanical prototype. The four months' experience I had with Kannan also solidified my thinking about what I wanted to do later on in life.

I went to the US to see the world, get a professional perspective on engineering, make some money to start a venture and then come back to India.

Impressed with the use of technology in daily life in the US

While in the US, I was in touch with some of my old friends from IIT-M -- Ashwin Chandrasekharan and Adib Ibrahim -- who also had similar ambition of starting a venture in India. I was also in regular touch with Prof. Jhunjhunwala.

I was very impressed with the way America had adopted technology in day-to-day life. I once saw a man sweeping the road using a sophisticated machine. I felt how technology has provided solutions to their problems and made their lives easier.

It is not so in India. I wanted to invent things that would improve the lives of Indians. So it was my dream that I should start a company that would create products which are useful to the people of India.

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Image: Avaz, a talking device for those afflicted by cerebral palsy.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
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Back in India

It was not a difficult decision to come back to India, after four years of working in the US. I had decided earlier itself that I would come back.

I didn't ask many people before taking the decision. Perhaps, it was impulsive. One day I just packed my bags and came back.

Looking back, I feel I was a bit naive about coming back to be an entrepreneur without any idea about what I wanted to do.

Starting a company

In June 2007, I, Ashwin and Pritam Shivanna, who was our junior, started a company. Adib joined us later.

We wanted to call our start-up 'Inventors' Inc'. The idea was that a lot of inventors from all over India should join hands under one umbrella so that we could all contribute to the country.

But we were not allowed to have the name by the Registrar. He said Inc. meant something else in America and we cannot have the same name. When we named it Invention Labs also, we were asked why there were no equipments in the lab!

We started in a disorganised way on the first floor of my parent's house with an initial investment of Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000, or about $11,000). We had saved up some money for this.

When we invaded the garage, my mother felt we would soon take over the entire house! Then we rented a place at the SIDCO Electronics Complex and moved here.

We had this dream of making a product for India but we didn't have any particular product in mind. So, we spoke to Prof Jhunjhunwala, and he in turn spoke to Kannan. By now, the ATM had progressed a lot but he needed some help.

We started making money because of that. So, we didn't have to touch the corpus. In a sense, we started making profit from day one. We did some other work also till we knew what we wanted to actually do. Such small work gave us sustenance.

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Image: The Invention Labs team.
Photographs: Courtesy Invention Labs
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Milk packet vending machine for MILMA

It was at the end of 2007 that we got a proposition from the Milk Marketing Co-operative, MILMA, from Kerala. They wanted to have milk packet vending machines in apartment complexes which worked like ATM machines. They called it Any Time Milk (ATM).

So from Kannan's money wending ATM, we moved to milk packet vending ATM! Prof. Jhunjhunwala also encouraged us to take up the offer.

It went on for more time than we had expected. So, it was not a good product from a business point of view for us. It was not a product we could sell in large numbers. More than that, customers are satisfied with the current ecosystem of milkmen delivering packets at home. We are yet to be paid by the government too. We didn't anticipate all this when we got into it.

A few days back, the ATM we made was inaugurated in Kochi. As a pilot project, one machine was set up in an apartment complex in Kochi.

Avaz, for those who do not have awaaz

Actually milk packet vending machines was only our side story. In the middle of 2008, a golden opportunity came to us.

Anil Prabhakar, a professor at IIT-M; his wife, Namita Jacob; and Prof. Hema Murthy do a lot of voluntary work for the disabled at Vidyasagar (formerly called the Spastic Society of India. World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand is the brand ambassador of Vidyasagar). One day, he asked us to go there.

Rajul Padmanabhan, the director of Vidyasagar, gave us a detailed view of what affects those with cerebral palsy. It was an eye opening experience for us: all those children with normal intelligence who could not express themselves in words.

He said if only the children were able to communicate, they could achieve so many things. This problem is faced all over the world.

In countries like America, they have devices like the speech generation machines that cost $50,000 and are unaffordable to ordinary people. It is like what physicist Stephen Hawking uses. He is the pioneer in using this kind of technology.

Rajeev told us to design a communication device similar to what is used in the US but is affordable to people here.

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Image: A child suffering from cerebral palsy after celebrating Holi, the festival of colours.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
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IIT-ians' boon for kids with cerebral palsy

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Designing Avaz for the CP children

Children with CP -- cerebral palsy -- cannot communicate or move their hands in a coordinated way, they cannot even hold a pen and write. But they can make gross muscle movements. We decided to convert the muscle movements of the head, hands or legs, into speech.

We reached a plan after spending hours with the children at Vidyasagar. We made a prototype and spent hours with the children of Vidyasagar to find out where they were frustrated, what they were happy about, where they were comfortable, etc.

We went back to them with a better prototype after each session. The teachers there were very helpful with the feedback. It was tough because we were working for those whose feelings we don't experience. We cannot even imagine what the world is for a person with cerebral palsy.

Interaction with the children was absolutely essential; it was not like sitting in a lab and coming out with a product.

Rohit was the one who used the device first and gave us feedback. He was the boy who demonstrated to us that such a device can have an impact on someone's life.

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Image: Rohit.
Photographs: Courtesy Invention Labs
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How Avaz works

We started work on the device by the middle of 2008. By the beginning of 2009, we had the first prototype ready. It took us two years to develop the product.

We called it Avaz as in many Indian languages, it means 'speech'. Our product gives speech to a child, and that is how we decided on the name.

The device is mounted on the wheelchair which the child uses. It can be kept on the desk or on the child's lap.

We have used the T9 method used in mobile phones. We looked at it as T1 where we have to capture only one movement; the movement of the hand, head or leg. It is like, converting those movements to creating sentences. After creating sentences, we create voice. It works on a principle called scanning.

These children do not have the dexterity to touch the exact word on the screen. So once they touch anywhere on the screen, a colour moves to each word and when it reaches the right word, they need to touch again, anywhere on the screen.

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Image: Award from MILMA.
Photographs: Courtesy Invention Labs
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Price of Avaz

Our target price was 1/10th of what was sold abroad but we were able to do better than that. Our target was Rs 40,000, but we could sell it for Rs 30,000.

We launched it in February 2010 at Vidyasagar. When a gentleman from a software company called 3i Infotech heard about this product, he decided to buy the first 10 Avaz and donate it to Vidyasagar.

After that, a software company in Karnataka bought and donated a few to the Spastic Society of Karnataka. In the first couple of months, we got a lot of enquiries from many organisations all over India. By now we have our device in almost all the big cities in India. It is through outreach programmes that we reach many places.

Our aim is to incorporate the device into the way children are taught in various institutions so that teachers can structure education with the help of Avaz. That will be more helpful to children.

At present, Avaz talks in English. There is a strong demand for local languages and the government of Tamil Nadu has asked us to have Tamil language in Avaz.

We make 30 units a month. We have sold 50 units so far. Yes, it is a business proposition for us and we want to do this in a commercially successful way. We are a very small company and we cannot do this as philanthropy.

We are in an ideal situation where we can do something that is useful to society. It is high technology and serves a society that is totally under-served so far. What more can we ask for?

Next in our agenda is Avaz for autism, dyslexia, mental retardation and people affected by stroke. The last few months, we have been doing research on this.

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Image: Dipak Ghosh, 15, uses his feet to operate a computer in Kolkata.
Photographs: Reuters
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Rohit, the face of avaz

Rohit was the one who started using the device first. He became our mascot! He was the boy who demonstrated to us that such a device can have an impact in someone's life. He is also one of the proud owners of Avaz.

When Rohit spoke for the first time in his life, it was a defining moment for all of us. He said, 'Talking is fun with Avaz'. The happiness on his face was unbelievable.

When we came back from the US, we never thought that something that we created would make such an impact on the lives of people and we would be changing lives. This was beyond our dreams. The journey so far has been fantastic!


Image: Rohit, the face of avaz.
Photographs: Courtesy Invention Labs
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