A chat with Indian inventor Suprio Das

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A good job and a comfortable life. That’s what most of us desire. Now, there are some people who step aside from the herd and carve a path of their own, defying all social standards for a happy life. We have lots of HOWs and WHYs to ask such people. Let’s meet  Suprio Das, one such trend breaker who left his comfortable job to invent low cost technologies for the poor, and get an insight into what motivates such  mavericks and drives them to do what they do.

Suprio Das, a BIT Mesra alumnus (class of 1981) and former senior manager with the Nicco Corporation Limited quit his lucrative job in 2002 to invent low-cost technologies for the poor.

His first innovation in 2006, code named “Firefly”, was a unique battery that fitted on the wheels of a cycle-rickshaw (called a cycle-van in the video below), that could be charged while the rickshaw puller went about his daily job. At the end of the day, he came back home with light and energy to his household. The charged battery could be attached to an ingenious LED light that would illuminate a room.

After that he worked on producing electricity from water pumps, bicycle powered cellphone charger(which was used by Sunderbans residents when the cyclone Aila struck in 2009) and the most latest -ZIMBA, an automatic chlorine dispenser for disinfecting flowing water of random flow rates, without using moving parts or electricity.

Suprio has been working on this Zimba doser since 2010 and was aided by a team of four international students at Berkley and MIT. The Zimba team was one of the 30 semi-finalists in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.He has also delivered guest lectures at MIT’s D Lab classes.

Here we take you through his answers to the queries we generally have when we hear of such people….

What prompted you to leave your job? Did you have the idea of Firefly before you left the job or it just struck you?

 I left my job because I didn’t like it. There aren’t many creative things to do after you reach a certain level of your career. I started few businesses but fortunately nothing clicked. I say fortunately because now I get more time to work on my inventions. Meanwhile I got associated with an NGO called Aqua Welfare Society and used to visit villages to help them in the construction of modified shallow dug wells for the provision of safe drinking water in areas with arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

That’s when I realized that social welfare and engineering can be combined to come up with solutions for a common man.  90% of the innovations today are made for the 10% of the population. So I want to innovate for the other 90%.  I started working on firefly. I developed some prototypes and gave them to rickshaw pullers. The process not only combines the generation of power with the daily routine of the villagers, but also drastically reduces the capital cost to nearly 50% when compared to a solar powered lamp of equivalent output.

So what were the problems you faced with this first product? I would expect such a technology to be a hit in villages. But that hasn’t happened. What’s the complete picture here?

 I got to see lot of funny things that I hadn’t anticipated. I learnt that it isn’t technology that always matters. There are social and economic concerns. I realized that the needs and wants of people are not same. A person might need a water purifier but he will want a cell phone.

  With Firefly, there were some other kinds of problems too. Like we saw there was a man who preferred to steal electricity as he found that to be much more convenient than kerosene lamp or firefly. Then there were people who used to keep the lights on all night, discharging the battery faster. The technical issues could have been resolved, but I didn’t have time to work on it further.  If anyone is willing to take it forward, they are more than welcome.

 How do you get the products manufactured?

I do it here at home. I also have some friends who help me. For instance when there is some heavy metal work to be done, I go to a nearby factory.

 How do you manage funds? What are the financial returns so far in this journey?

No. I haven’t sold anything. I managed my own funds. There was one project in for which I got half the funds from TEPP.

So what drives you to work everyday?

The joy of creation and the happiness that my creation can give to people. I am happy with what I do. Had I been in job, I would have had hypertension and all but now I am healthy and enjoy my work.(He smiles..)

Not all solutions work out. Did you face any such dead end?

Yes..that’s bound to happen. When you start working on a problem, you just have a solution.You don’t know how you are going to achieve it. You make a number of designing changes but you see it doesn’t work. What’s difficult is to wipe it off and work with something new because the old thing keeps coming back and interfering with the new idea.

From solution to prototype to product..what are the steps you follow?

First there is an idea; then I research on it. Internet is my mentor.I look up details on the subject because there is no point doing things which others have already done. In that case, carry it forward from where others have left. Another way is to talk to people in that domain and tell them everything about what I am working. They might give some ideas of how to do it.

Once the theory is intact, next would be building prototype and keep modifying and improving it till you are satisfied. Now when the science is in position then you gotto work on the designing part-how it’s shape should be, where is it to be fitted etc.

Then comes the P2P stage (prototype to product). Making a product on mass scale will require a big manufacturing facility. Then of course the financial and marketing aspects come into picture.

How and when did your association with MIT start?

In 2008 I hit upon http://iddsummit.org/ , the site of the International Development Design Summit. During the summit they have a conference for 4-6 weeks. People from different backgrounds-farmers, engineers, economists, students etc come together. Teams are formed and people are asked to work on a social problem and come up with a solution. They are also mentored during that time.

I had applied for the IDDS 2008 and got selected. That’s the first connection I made with them.In 2009 I again applied and got selected.That’s when I suggested to work on chlorination because I had stated working on it just few months back. A nice team was formed and many of them are still part of the team. Once our work got published, Stanford University got interested. They wanted a chlorination solution at point of use. We set up few prototypes in Dhaka for them.

What’s your suggestions for youngsters who want to be independent inventors?

The road is very tough, but there is immense satisfaction and happiness. The world is changing. Earlier they used to say, designing for the developing world. Now it is said, designing with the developing world. Now people from MIT and Stanford come and live in the slums here to be able to understand the problems better and then go and work on solutions in labs.

So I would say go out and work in the field because working within the confines of a room and actually implementing your ideas in the real world is very different.

Do you know anyone who is making a difference to the life of others? Send us the details of such  heroes.We are eager to tell the world about them!

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