Ten South Asians Among Top 100 Innovators  
by: Francis C. Assisi

Boston, 22 September -- Nine Indian-Americans and one Bangladeshi American have been named to the 2004 list of the worldīs 100 Top Young Innovators by Technology Review, MITīs Magazine of Innovation.

The TR100, chosen by the editors of Technology Review and an elite panel of judges, consists of 100 individuals under age 35 whose innovative work in technology has a profound impact on todayīs world.

This yearīs innovators, selected from more than 600 incredibly talented nominees, are recognized for their contribution in transforming the nature of technology and business in industries such as biotechnology and medicine, computing, nanotechnology and telecommunications.

BIOTECHNOLOGY/MEDICINE

Aware of the health problems in the developing world, two of the innovators are already focused on helping India and other countries that are struggling to raise their health standards.

Perhaps the best example of this trend is the work of Vikram Sheel Kumar, 28, an MD, Ph.D. from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, who says: “The biggest dream I have is that one day we can close all the hospitals.” Kumar believes that mobile computing that use simple, portable computer programs can encourage people to self-monitor and to adhere to treatment regimens—one of the biggest challenges in medicine today.

As a medical student, Kumar started a Boston-based company called Dimagi to develop such tools. In a significant development, Kumar, in association with Alex Pentland, a Professor at MIT Media Laboratory, developed DiabetNet, a hand-held computer game for young diabetics. Capitalising on childrenīs passion for video games, DiabetNet encourages young diabetics to keep track of their food, activity and sugar-level. With this the patient can monitor his glucose level several times a day. "The DiaBetNet project was a challenging task. It is easy to monitor glucose level for the grown-ups, but how can we do it for juveniles. Therefore, we worked on the DiaBetNet project, which facilitates youngsters to keep track of blood glucose while enjoying games,” says Kumar.

Kumar hopes that one day his management systems, combined with cheap, at-home diagnostic tests that give patients up-to-the-minute data on their physical conditions, will keep people with chronic ailments from landing in the hospital. Already his PDA based systems are being used in rural India and South Africa.

Kumar explains: “My research focuses on building a class of preventive medicine using portable and wireless tools that empower patients with insight into their conditions and appropriate community support. While our current health systems are suitable for tackling acute care, patients carry the onerous burden of managing chronic conditions where healthy behavior is of essence, and regular monitoring is necessary. By giving feedback on their continually changing physiology, I am studying how patients can learn to develop accurate mental models of their conditions. Two such projects are DiaBetNet, a community-based wireless game for Type I diabetic children, and HiRoller, a self-monitoring aid for patients with bipolar disorder. In a project through Media Lab Asia called Ca:sh, I am studying how handhelds can be used to provide meaningful representations of data to assist rural health workers in India to promote healthy behaviors amongst mothers and children.”

It was only last February that Kumar submitted his dissertation entitled ‘The design and testing of a personal health system to motivate adherence to intensive diabetes management’ to Harvard-MIT. At present he is a resident at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

SMRUTI VIDWANS

A postdoctoral fellow at UCSF and co-founder of Phenotypica, Smruti Vidwans is on a different track -- but again, with socially responsible medicine in mind. After earning her Ph.D. from UCSF in 2001, Smruti Vidwans has been working on developing a suite of assays that mimic aspects of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis.

Recognizing that her lab’s research on TB can be generalized into methods for treating a broad spectrum of infectious diseases challenging the third world, and concerned about the reticence of the for-profit pharmaceutical industry to developing low-margin products for the developing world Vidwans decided to start a company, Phenotypica.

Early on, Smruti recognized that the process of mimicking aspects of a disease represented a unique new approach to pathogenesis and persistence; most anti-bacterial drugs are selected on the basis of their ability to inhibit dividing bacteria in culture, or selected because of their ability to inhibit a relevant target protein. In contrast, mimicking allows for assay platforms that can be deployed effectively independent of the drug targets and their structure. Once small molecules are identified, their in vivo targets can be identified and they can be used to eliminate the disease.

Smruti presented her idea informally at UCSF’s Entrepreneurs Discussion Group in late 2001, and received encouragement that the idea was valid and worth pursuing. She recruited her lab’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Jeff Cox, to join her in commercializing the idea. Subsequently she got involved in other UCSF entrepreneurial activities, becoming a steering committee member of UCSF’s Innovation Accelerator (UCSF-IA).

By the fall of 2002 an executive summary for Phenotypica was developed, emphasizing the value of their existing body of work in curing tuberculosis. Smruti leveraged the growing associations between UCSF and UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School to quickly identify a business student willing to join their team to enter the UC Berkeley/Columbia University/Goldman Sachs Socially-Responsible Business Plan competition.

Phenotypica became a semifinalist in the competition, but regardless of their ultimate showing the founders plan to set up partnerships and collaborations, file the provisional patents, and begin looking for funding. Smurti continues to further her entrepreneurial education at UCSF, attending the inaugural Intellectual Property course taught in the spring of 2003. She was selected to participate in the Womens Technology Clusterīs BioBiz VC Series in April, 2003, which really helped her to better pitch and talk about Phenotypica.

Smruti is determined to make a go of Phenotypica, but realistic about the company’s prospects: “I am still not sure whether this will actually happen but I am going to try my darnest to make sure it does.”

One other Indian American who was selected for his contribution to biotechnology and medicine is Ananth Natarajan, 33, CEO and Co-founder of Infinite Biomedical Technologies (with Prof. Nitish Thakor of Johns Hopkins). Infinite Biomedical Technologies was founded in 1997 to see the fruits of research move down the commercial pathway. By focusing on innovative solutions to important clinical problems, the company has enjoyed success and the projects have thrived. Essentially, Natarajan wants to bridge the gap between research and patient care. One of the technologies that he has developed will enable implantable cardiac devices to detect incipient heart attacks.

NANOTECHNOLOGY

At the interface of biology and nanotechnology, it is evident that tools and materials from the nano world are making headway in electronics, sensors, medical devices, and diagnostics.

Take for instance Ravi Kane, 32, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Kane created a highly potent anthrax treatment in which each drug molecule blocks multiple toxin molecules, rather than just one. He achieved this by synthesizing a substance that neutralized anthrax toxin, but more tests are needed to determine if the substance has the ability to combat anthrax spores, and can be safely administered to humans. Antibiotics which are already in existence are able to destroy the bacteria, but not the toxin in anthrax, which can be fatal.

If the researchers are successful, the substance would be given to healthy people as a preventative measure, or to cure people who are already infected.

Kane was recently awarded $2.1 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop an antidote for the anthrax toxin in humans. "The goal is to develop a compound that can be manufactured quickly and affordably to effectively eliminate the threat of a large-scale bioterrorist anthrax attack," said Kane, who earned a B.S. from Stanford and his M.S. and Ph.D. from MIT.

Kane is now extending the concept to anti HIV therapies by designing brand-new molecules that may one day fend off an HIV infection. Bolstering the body’s molecular defenses is a novel method that may lead to highly effective treatments for HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS. That’s why Kane’s research team is designing molecules that block the particular receptors (located on human cells) that act as the docking sites where the majority of HIV strains make their first attempt at infiltration. These receptors are present all over the cell surface, requiring a molecule with a “multi-armed” (or multivalent) structure to do the best job of preventing a virus from docking. “Multivalency allows us to block more than one receptor with each molecule,” says Kane. “This approach has the potential to be very effective – in fact, orders of magnitude more effective than any existing treatment.”

Again in the field of nanotechnology, Mayank Bulsara, 32, co-founder and CTO AmberWave Systems, an MIT-incubated start-up, has developed an advanced form of silicon, ‘strained silicon,’ to make computer chips run faster and consume less power.

Bulsara is sticking with traditional silicon—but manipulating it in new ways. He is developing a new form of silicon that promises to make computer chips 20 percent faster while lowering power consumption by 30 to 40 percent. The key is to stretch a silicon crystal by pulling its atoms apart just a few thousandths of a nanometer—“like a rubber band,” says Bulsara. This stretching alters the properties of the material so that the electrons racing through it are less likely to collide with silicon atoms, scatter, and slow down. Bulsara hopes to have chips containing the stretched silicon on the market in major quantities by the end of next year.

Bulsara obtained his degree in ceramics engineering from Rutgers University and decided to pursue a graduate degree at MIT. That is where his life took a turn toward New Hampshire. “I had been working with a professor as an advisor who left,” Bulsara recalled. “So I needed to find another and I became the first full-time aide for Gene Fitzgerald in 1994 and 1995.”

Fitzgerald is one of the professors who have seen the development of strained silicon take off from a theory to a viable entity in recent years. Under Fitzgerald’s tutelage, Bulsara was one of the first people at MIT to work with strained silicon -- which is a technology based on growing a layer of a compound called silicon germanium on top of a silicon wafer.

Bulsara explained that to increase the speed at which a semiconductor operates, one must increase the density and decrease the size of the transistor. To do that, a material other than silicon, which has physical properties that limit its effectiveness, must be used.

“What you do is take a normal silicon wafer and then grow a silicon germanium graded layer on top of that, and put another layer of silicon on top of the silicon germanium layer,” he said. “What happens is the top layer of silicon changes its physical properties to conform to the silicon germanium layer. The top layer of silicon’s atoms are stretched – or strained — out, lowering the resistance of electrons in the material.”

Fitzgerald introduced Bulsara to the technology and the two worked on developing the process to incorporate it while at MIT. By 1997 AmberWave was incorporated as a company and by 1998 was pursuing the technology as a commercial entity.

COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY

As expected, the majority of the Indian innovators are focused on computers and their application. Anuj Batra and Chaitali Sengupta of Texas Instruments are on the list for their efficient implementation of wireless technology.

Batra, 34, leads one of industry’s top teams advancing ultra wide band wireless technology, which provides the high transmission speeds needed for streaming media applications while consuming little power. In 2002, Batra helped start an ultra wideband (UWB) development effort within Texas Instruments. UWB is a wireless technology for transmitting high-speed digital data over a large spectrum while consuming very low power. UWB is ideally suited for wireless communications, particularly short-range and high-speed data transmissions for personal area networks (PANs).

Today UWB is well on its way to becoming a key wireless technology of the future. Batra holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Cornell University, a master of science in electrical engineering from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Chaitali Sengupta, 34, senior member technical staff at TI has made innovative contributions to the field of wireless (3G) modem implementation. High speed data coupled with wide area mobility provides a new level of communications ability that will open new markets, connect an unprecedented number of people, and stimulate economic growth. 3G wireless modems provide the high data rates that are powering cutting edge applications such as video streaming, video-conferencing and mobile internet access.

Senguptaīs achievements include designing techniques for reducing power consumption and improving performance of 3G mobiles, and system design and verification of hardware co-processors based modem architectures that are enabling software controlled yet high data-rate communication systems. Sengupta holds a B.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and both an M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Rice University.

Ramesh Raskar, 34, Research scientist at Mitsubioshi Electric Research Labs in New Jersey, is being honored for building large computer display systems that combine images from multiple projectors that will lead to new applications in entertainment, image guided surgery and user interfaces.

Raskar, who earned his PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, builds video projector-based displays that are intelligent and creates supporting components so that such displays can become part of an electronic infrastructure. ‘‘Like computers,’’ he explains, ‘‘projectors are becoming smaller and cheaper, similar to replacing large monolithic mainframes with computer grids. My research is focused on creating large displays via projector-based ‘display grids’.’’ Today, his image-processing algorithms are being deployed in advanced Mitsubishi Electric products.

Raskar is modest about his achievements, but proud of his native Pune and proud of his Indian background. ‘‘My contributions are minor but it feels great to be part of this new generation of Indians that is making an impact, no matter where they are in the world’’ he says. As for Pune he thinks it is a “happening place” and “like they say Pune tithe kaay une (when it’s Pune, there’s no shortfall of anything)’’.

Sometimes you just need to think outside the box. Thatīs what Srinidhi Varadarajan, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, did last year. The result, as Wired magazine observed, whenever Varadarajan makes a presentation he is ‘treated like a nerd superhero.’ That’s because Varadarajan, 31, who is also director of the Terascale Computing Facility at Virginia Tech, made supercomputing history when he cobbled together a system which outperformed systems costing hundreds of millions more.

His secret ingredient: 1,100 off-the-shelf Apple Power Mac dual-processor G5s. The design raised eyebrows, because Apple Computer Inc. had never considered itself a maker of supercomputing components. Varadarajan’s System X is currently ranked by Top500.org as the third most powerful computer in the world. Virginia Tech uses it for systems modeling, computational chemistry, biochemistry, nanoscale electronics and other research problems. The G5s have since been replaced by Apple Xserve units, which require less cooling and electricity.

"We believe System X is the first step in a similar paradigm shift in supercomputer architectures from expensive custom supercomputers to inexpensive cluster based supercomputers to solve the largest research problems. At a price of $5.2 million, world-class supercomputing is now within the reach of academic research budgets, enabling the larger community of academic researchers to tackle fundamental problems with easily available supercomputing resources," said Varadarajan.

Varadarajan received a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering from the Regional Engineering College of Warangal, India, and a Ph.D. in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is also the chief technical officer of California Digital Corp., headquartered in Fremont, Calif.

Finally, Bangladesh-born Aref Chowdhury, 32, of Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs has been recognized for inventing higher speed transmission of data over very long distances with fiber optic networks.

Tejal Desai (TR100 innovator for 2002) of Boston University and Sanjay Correa of General Electric are two Indian Americans who were part of the 29 member team of distinguished judges involved in selecting the top 100 innovators.

francisassisi@hotmail.com


Science researchers interested in profiling their work in this column are encouraged to submit their biodata and relevant publications to INDOlink at: editor@indolink.com