The Inventor Professor

Dipankar is an interesting combination of academia and entrepreneria – he is a Professor at IIT Bombay, a place where he also did his B.Tech before going to Rice Univ for his doctorate in physics. He has been entrepreneurial since his student days, with ventures like chai stalls and electronic equipment repair shops under his belt. In fact when he was running his repair shop specializing in repair of imported apparatus, he was at times earning more than what his dad earned then! He is also founder of Tree Labs – which he hopes will be a fountainhead of invention and innovation in India.

Tree stands for –

  • T – Think Simple (Kid in candy store)
  • R – Research
  • E – Enable
  • E – Evolve

His dream for Tree Labs is to do for hardware what Richard Stallman has done for software. For those of you have not heard of Stallman, he is the originator of the Copy Left movement – or the open source movement. What Dipankar wants to do is to create a set of inventions which will be creating profit for the community – or a creative commons for hardware as he puts it. Without this, he says, we can only be followers. The importance of hardware is driven home by the fact that it took much less to create a Wikipedia than it would take to build one chipmaking fab.

To this effect, Tree Labs is a Section 25 company, whatever that means. His ideas about invention are also out of the box. His inspiration is Edison’s quote – ‘Great ideas originate in the muscle.’ What he wants is perspiration to drive the inspiration. An interesting question Dipankar posed to the audience – ‘Which co has become big and is still making the first product?’ I can only think of our own company – Bulls Eye. Our first product is still a major contributor 17 years down the line, though I am sure it must change soon.

When asked about how does Tree Lab get its product ideas he mentioned 3 ways:

  • Get the customer before you get the product,
  • Start thinking like the end user
  • Serendipity

His ideas about entrepreneurship and startups are equally interesting. The challenge is to get the cheque. He feels that most startups fail because they work in isolation. Tree Labs’ dream is to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurs who will build on its invented ideas.

He demonstrated one great product that Tree Labs is working on. A welding machine. What comes to mind when you say welding machine is heavy equipment, a lot of light and heat, gloves etc. Tree Labs’ machine is the antithesis of what these expectations. Weighs 2.5 kg, produces very little heat outside of the welding zone and works on a normal 220 V powerpoint. He welded two hacksaw blades together using this machine. We all watched it without needing any safety glasses. The blades were held together with Dipankar’s bare hands even as they were attached to the electrodes! When I discussed this with my friend Giri Sakharani, he has promised to buy the first two machines when they get manufactured.

His philosophy on machine building is very interesting. He said that most welding processes today spend most of the energy wastefully when they create photons which bounce off the walls – doing nothing for the melting process. By using basic physics Dipankar is able to concentrate the energies and thereby reduce losses. His next product on the same lines is a table-top coffee machine sized induction furnace. He hopes to sell these to engineering colleges, rapid prototyping shops and jewellery manufacturers.

The same problem of low efficiency plagues most of the equipment that we use. Take motors as an example. 65% of the world’s electricity consumption is used to drive motors. And motors work on an efficiency of 10-15%. Devices that work using these motors have an even more abysmal efficiency record – fans 1%, pumps 5%. Imagine the savings that can be got by a redesign which will increase the efficiency of motors even by a single digit percentage point.

Another problem that he discussed was the petroleum addicted economy that we have. Have you ever wondered how many litres of petroleum products goes into the thali that you ate today? Starting from the fertilizer to the irrigation pumpsets to the tractor and harvester to the truck that transported the produce and ending in the LPG stove that cooked the food. We need to do something seriously about this.

Another interesting experiment that was demonstrated by Dipankar is something that can be tried out by all of us at home. Put a CD or DVD on a table. Shine a laser beam on it using a laser pointer. If the room is dark then you will be able to see not one but many reflections of the beam on the ceiling. This is because the CD surface is a diffracting medium. In fact the angle of the diffraction can also be used in order to determine experimentally the value of Planck’s constant. This principle can also be employed for spectroscopy that can be used to measure milk quality.

Given the inventiveness of Dipankar he seems to be even changing the basics of nature. He argues that for photosynthesis to be most efficient, green is a not too great a color to have. I don’t remember what color he suggested, but the next time I write I’ll google on why is the sky blue and why are leaves green.

Another interesting discussion happened on the basic physics of pumping. Assume you have a 30 storey building, which has a water tank on the top. What would happen if you create one tank on the 16th storey to supply water to the lower 15 stories. What would be the energy savings? Leave it to you to do the math.