Invention Factory programme: Learning to invent and patent

The Invention Factory programme originated in the US

Students in IIT Gandhinagar

It is a hot and dry day at the huge campus of IIT Gandhinagar in Gujarat. The temperature is so high that it is becoming difficult to walk from one block to another. In the hot weather, I come across a group of students who are unperturbed by the heat and are judiciously working inside an AC hall. Their aim is to invent something useful. All of them are young inventors from different IITs, NITs and BITs from across the country. 

They are here for a six-week Invention Factory summer programme run by the Maker Bhavan Foundation to foster creative engineering skills among India’s extraordinary STEM students. The broader aim of the students is to get a first-hand feel of inventing something useful, develop a prototype and then file for a provisional patent in India as well as the US. Through Invention Factory’s earlier editions, 87 students from 15 IITs have filed 44 patent disclosures in India and the US. 

The students are full of enthusiasm. Take the case of Priya Sharma and Prabhnoor Singh, both third year mechanical engineering students from IIT Jammu. After doing an analysis, they found that majority of two-wheeler riders across the world have severe injuries in the neck despite wearing helmets. This, in turn, affects their spinal cord and back. “We are trying to invent a device that can fit with the helmet and act as a cushioning around their neck in order to prevent neck injuries for two-wheeler riders during road accidents. We are trying to invent a product that will act as a cushioning around a rider's neck to help in reducing the impact during accidents,” Sharma told THE WEEK.

Similarly, Anirvan Krishna, a student of Department of Electronics Engineering at IIT Kharagpur, and Pratham Vishwakarma, who is pursuing mechanical engineering from IIT Kharagpur, want to help senior citizens with their invention and are working on inventing an assistive device which can help monitor the vitals of senior citizens and render them physical support during emergencies. “We have done thorough research and found that most of the senior citizens above 70 years of age fall in the toilet. It is not due to a fall but when they go for urinating their blood pressure drops and due to this they feel dizzy and tend to fall in the toilet. A drop in their blood pressure leads to weakness and ailments. We feel that our device can help in alerting them in case there is a possibility of a fall,” said Krishna.

I also come across the team comprising Trishul from IIT Madras and Priyam Bhavsar from IIT Guwahati. Both found that eating food on the go is a challenge for many especially those who are travelling and do not have proper seating facility. Hence both of them are aiming to develop a storage bag which can be converted into a flat surface so that people can eat on the go without having to search for a proper table while travelling.

Ishika Raj from IIT Gandhinagar and Madhvi Dubey from IIT Kharagpur were perturbed by the issues faced by lactating mothers in breastfeeding a child. This is especially for working mothers who cannot remain with their newborn children for a long time. “Many of the working places do not have a fridge. So, we are thinking that there should be a device which can be attached to the bra and also can act as a storage device for milk,” said Dubey.

Kunj Shah from NIT Surat and Manush Patel from NIT Trichy wanted to solve the issues relating to brick masons and their struggle while layering the bricks. They felt that many of the masons have back problems as they have to bend to lay bricks. This team's aim is to develop a machine that can do the layering work so that the masons' work is made more efficient and easy.

Arshita Mishra from NIT Rourkela and Jyothiraditya from IIT Kharagpur were deeply concerned with the problem of bed sores with ill patients who have to lie down on the bed for a longer duration. “We think that it is better to prevent than to cure and are looking at a device that can help in the detection of bed sores even before they form,” Mishra told THE WEEK. 

Interestingly, the Invention Factory programme originated in the US, and Professors Alan Wolf and Eric Lima, the founders of the Invention Factory programme in the US, act as mentors, in addition to other academic experts. The journey began in 2013 when Prof Wolf was an acting dean of the School of Engineering at Cooper Union in the United States. One of the alumnus of the engineering college gifted $100,000. “It was a discretionary gift and being the dean, I was told that I could spend it on anything but it had to do with innovation. Then I called Prof Eric Lima and decided to figure out a way to spend this gift. In a couple of hours we created the programme almost as it is done today. The person who gave us this gift was himself a very creative person. He was thrilled that the students could have the opportunity to invent things and own them themselves,” Wolf told THE WEEK. 

Wolf further says that after the end of their six-week programme, students can file a provisional patent. “It is not a full patent but is a one-year protection of their invention. During this one year, they can decide whether they want to pursue a full patent or not. A full patent is expensive and time-consuming. A full patent allows you to sue people who infringe on you. On the other hand, the provisional patent helps you to show your invention to companies and investors and just because you have filed the patent, it is very hard for them to steal it from you. Only the full patent allows you to protect your invention completely. Most of these provisional patents do not do anything but at the end of the six weeks, I hear from students that they are proud of their work and they could do this again. They can find a significant problem and can design a solution and could prototype it. It gives them the confidence that they can be a serial inventor,” added Wolf. 

He says that the programme has grown organically and when guest evaluators come and see the programme, they say that they want this programme in their university, too. “It has happened in two universities in the US namely Syracuse and Cooper Union and now many IITs in India,” said Wolf. 

It is Hemant Kanakia - the Founder of the Maker Bhavan Foundation in the US - who brought that programme to India and started with the first edition at IIT Bombay and IIT Gandhinagar in 2018. Kanakia, an alumnus from IIT Bombay, feels that the Indian education system is geared towards collecting knowledge and most of the times it is theoretical knowledge. “Once I went abroad for higher studies, I observed, especially at places such as Stanford University, that they combined a lot of theoretical knowledge with practical stuff. This made them better suited to be a better engineer. I also heard from a lot of people abroad that Indian students are very brilliant but they are not very inventive,” said Kanakia. 

He explained that in the universities in the US, they learn to be a lot more inventive. “I came across the two professors from Cooper Union Alan Wolf and Eric Lima, who had been running an Invention Factory course in their institution in the US for a long time. It sounded suitable to what we are doing here in India. Hence, we started thinking about bringing them here and running a course in India for the first time. Over a period of time, we are thinking of being independent of them. Right from the beginning, we had the local faculty members involved in the country. Now, the local faculty is running the course on their own at different IITs.”

Kanakia says that instead of giving ideas to the students, the aim is to help them develop their own inventions. He says that the Invention Factory is not an incubation or a startup facility, but it is aimed at teaching students how to be inventive. The aim is also to become confident that they can do such a thing in a particular time frame. Developing that confidence can go a long way in the future.

He says that every year since the programme began in India, he has seen many students coming up with many interesting ideas, and final prototypes being developed due to their involvement in this programme. This, on the basis of patent disclosures both in India and in the US. “These are patent disclosures and the Maker Bhavan Foundation pays for that. Many of them have gone up to develop the idea further and industries have approached them to license the ideas further. The uniqueness is that we do not have any financial stake in whatever they do, unlike an accelerator. We are teaching them how to go about their invention. Many of the past attendees have stated that they have learned a lot from the Invention Factory programme.”

Kanakia further says that at Maker Bhavan, they are giving back to the country that gave them the engineering education. “We usually do not gain anything other than giving back to the students. The aim is to inculcate a habit of learning by doing things,” he said. Maker Bhavan Foundation has several programmes and works with the top institutions in India such as IIT Bombay and IIT Gandhinagar. We also work with private engineering colleges such as BITS Pilani. It started the Invention Factory programme with IIT Gandhinagar and IIT Bombay and are having it at IIT Jammu this year for the first time. 

I also get to meet the director of IIT Gandhinagar, who greets us at his vibrant office in the campus. He agrees that our education system right from the school is largely theory-driven or problem-solving driven and is not thinking-oriented. “With the Invention Factory, we aim to give the students an opportunity so that their imagination and ideas can be put together into a doable thing. Some ideas may succeed, some may not and even if they fail in this, there is a huge amount of learning. If we have systems where people might learn by doing things, the aim is to first do the things, implement, build something and then learn the theory behind it and correlate the same with the practical aspects. Most western universities, and the western world, are focused on impact-driven learning. In a western approach, the aim is to first build something and then learn on that, whereas, in India, we first learn something and then build on it. We, at IIT Gandhinagar, have a lot of practical aspects and Invention Factory is one example. We also have a lot of lab-oriented learning and the idea is to build things first and experience the actual phenomenon first and then education,” Prof Rajat Moona, director of IIT Gandhinagar, told THE WEEK. 

We also get to meet Nithin George, associate professor at IIT Gandhinagar, who has been supervising the Invention Factory since it started in 2018. He says that it is not an entrepreneurship programme, but a programme on patenting and teaching students how to invent. By being part of this programme, students have learnt the process of inventing; in the future, if one is interested in inventing something, they would know what is the process. We cannot measure the success of the Invention Factory by seeing that the product is successful or not, whether the product has been bought by people or not. Broadly, this is a training programme for the students on how to invent and how to patent,” said George. 

He further explains that there are conditions, though—it cannot be a software product and has to be a hardware product, so one cannot just develop an app. A hardware has to be developed and a prototype has to be there and work. “A student also needs to learn and pitch one's idea to several people including those who do not know about the product. All through the years, different products have been invented by first year and second year BTech students from different IITs, just to know the process of invention and how to file patents. Many of them have not gone ahead and scaled the product further as the aim of these students was just to develop a prototype. The success cannot be measured on the fact that whether the product is in the market or not. It is not a product development programme but a student training programme. The programme is unique because it brings in people from different IITs to work together. This time, we also have NIT students as well. The selection is very tough and it is not an easy process. This year, we had around 200 applications from different institutes; 100 were shortlisted, of which 40 were waitlisted and 60 were selected. Submitting an application is also a challenging process, as one has to make a video etc. In the final selection, judges from all over are invited - mainly people who have never interacted with any of the students,” explained George. 

During the programme, I also get to meet Suryash Patidar, an alumnus of IIT Gandhinagar, who was part of the first Invention Factory in 2018. He says that it was a life-changing experience for him. “This programme made me bold and confident as well. The greatest skill I acquired was observation, as I was able to observe the problem very minutely and solve the problem,” His team's invention was a mobile portable toilet for bedridden patients, which had a wheel that helped in the movement of the toilet. “Our observation was that majority of falls for elderly patients were in the bathroom. So, we designed it as a mobile toilet for hospitals, old age homes as they find it difficult to go to the toilets. We filed an Indian and a US patent for this invention. It was very cost-effective but it required changing the overall system, so we could not scale up to our expectations. When I visited the Invention Factory, it was like a pool of minds from different IITs and different course backgrounds. When we got stuck, they helped us and when they got stuck, we helped them. They tried to criticise our designs and we also tried to suggest upon their designs,” said Patidar. 

He says that he is currently thinking of incorporating robotics because it also helps in the incorporation of design and manufacturing. “It is at the back of my mind that I have to start something on my own sometime later. It helped me with my observation skills. In this programme, we get only a few weeks time to design something and I have realised that given the paucity of time we tend to think faster and come out with a better result.”


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