Connecting the Dots

Recently, I visited one of the IITs and met a Professor of Environmental Engineering whom I had not met for quite a while.

“Oh Dr Modak, you are dropping in after a real long time. Busy making money eh?” Professor greeted me and ordered for some chai. I presumed he was joking because he was one of the busiest Professor Consultant with hardly any time for his PhD students and a little interest left to teach.

“Well, I just dropped by to catch up with you”, I said.

We had conversations over an hour, and I learnt a lot about his current work, especially the assignments and publications.

While getting up from the chair, I asked the Professor about his colleague who I knew was working on a similar or connected area of research.

“Well, don’t know much Dr Modak, we hardly talk about our research”. He didn’t seem to be  enthusiastic in answering my question. He asked “Are you going to see him as well? Well then please don’t share much on what I just told you but do let me know later what is he up to now a days”  He certainly was curious.

We know today that most faculty in the elite institutions do not talk to each other. Everybody works in their own kingdoms or territories and there is less of connect between each other. There is so much insecurity and competition. Unfortunately, in the process, the students and research assistants suffer and honestly so the department and the institute. Can you imagine a document published by the department on its next 5 years strategy on education, training and research, developed by the faculty working together? There is so much adhocism, individualism and poor transparency.

Years ago, I investigated the titles and abstracts of masters and doctoral dissertations in environmental science and engineering at some of the reputed universities .  The results were rather dismal. The topics floated were either not relevant or creative, contributing to something new or mostly too mundane. The “material and energy input” by the students and faculty to prepare the dissertation was certainly wasted.

According to my Professor Friend, the faculty is not often connected to the challenges of the real world. Research is not practice driven nor the research drives a better practice! Most dissertations lie like coffins on the shelves of the department library. The only purpose they serve is getting a degree certificate for the student and a publication for the faculty.

I protested saying that this is quite a sweeping judgement. There are indeed a few outstanding dissertations that I had come across. Professor apologized saying that there are exceptions and that he was making an overall statement. So I let him go.

Ideally, we need to have an ecosystem of problem or challenge posers, researchers / innovators, corporate with a CSR program and investors. These stakeholders when connected could do wonders.

Imagine that a challenge is posed on the management of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in the groundwater of a watershed in Tamil Nadu. A researcher and his Professor at the university decides to connect with the local NGO  to understand the ground realities of impact, solutions earlier tried, and challenges faced e.g. managing of rejects from a Reverse Osmosis unit. A research problem is then formulated in partnership with the NGO. The idea is communicated to a corporate whose CSR is focused on water availability and water quality. The Corporate shows interest in the research plan and provides seed fund to the Professor to cover the travel and piloting. Imagine that this engagement is actively watched by a potential investor who is interested to scale up and replicate the solution. Of course the solution will have to be techno-commercially viable. The research if successful leads to a business model that may have participation of the student, professor, CSR funder and the investor in varying degrees.  All dots get connected to realize a beautiful picture not earlier seen. It’s a case of co-creation with a result-oriented partnership. More importantly, the problem of high TDS is successfully addressed for the interest of environment and the community.

I have been dreaming for long to create such a connect at the universities. My discussions with the Vice Chancellors have been positive. But takes a lot of effort to move the elephant! Sure, we need a platform to connect the dots.

Last year, I came across a passionate group from Bangalore called Let’s Endorse who built an IT based platform connecting NGOs as problem posers, innovators and CSR companies. They mapped some 1700 active NGOs pan India, created a bank of 500+ innovations and got 35 corporates on board opening the ecosystem to innovators who could address the challenges posted by the NGOs. The challenges covered the space of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over two years this platform could deliver 200+ innovative projects on the ground with a potential of commercialization and replication.

I suggested Let’s Endorse to expand the platform to include the universities and create an interface for the Professors and researchers. Using the platform, it should be possible to identify relevant research topics, build further using the library of innovations, engage with the field based NGOs, garner the corporate support through CSR and come up with results that may interest investors. My not for profit Section 8 company Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation (Ekonnect) signed up a MOU with Let’s Endorse.  A beta version is now ready, and the platform is called OPINE (Open Innovation Engine).

To test OPINE and reach its final version, we are currently engaged by ThoughtWorks, a company with 25 years of experience in the software industry. As a part of the CSR, ThoughtWorks, Ekonnect and Let’s Endorse have launched a Social Hackathon for the universities. This hackathon addresses the following challenges connected to four SDGs.

  1. Developing an efficient prediction and response system to map, track, prevent and treat communicable disease outbreaks in real time
  2. Developing an ecosystem to boost organic farming to ensure socially, economically and ecologically sustainable production standards
  3. Developing a business model using waste as an input to build products, ensuring sustainable management of waste and livelihoods generation
  4. Leveraging technology to build solutions to increase road safety in order to dramatically decrease road traffic deaths in India

These challenges are now open to students’ population pan-India, to ponder over, come up with great ideas, submit on OPINE. All teams (that can include a Professor as a guide) get a chance to win a grant, further mentorship, and other freebies.

Reach for submitting your ideas on the above four challenge statements. Do circulate this announcement across your network.

The submissions close on 31st March 2020 after which, the shortlisted teams shall be invited to ThoughtWorks’ Bangalore office for the demo in May 2020, where the winners shall be declared by the Jury.

Personally, I am very excited to see how OPINE grows and adds a value to our university research. Once populated I am confident that it will guide not just research but help students to shape their careers in green business.

When my Professor friend learnt about OPINE, he asked “Dr Modak, why don’t you talk to the Government?”.

I wasn’t sure whether he was serious as his suggestions have been often difficult to understand.

But me being optimistic, I answered, “Why not?”

You can reach me regarding OPINE platform on

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