Lakshya aims high
NIT Warangal's Alumni Foundation, Lakshya, is doing something that can be a game changer in the higher A education sector, building an ecosystem of research and innovation in tandem with academic courses. It is bridging the gap between alumni, students and the institute Usha Turaga-Revelli There are two kinds of people who go back to their alma mater. Those who have barely stepped into their classrooms, had a ball from freshers' day to farewell party, teased their teachers, ragged their juniors and scraped through exams. The other kind are those who best utilised their days, the resources and took away from the institution something that they truly believe laid a foundation for their careers. The first kind come back to have reunions, have a hi-and-a-ho parties where they recall their college-time peccadilloes with relish. And the second kind are for a serious and continuing re-engagement with the institution. This batch of people is definitely the second type. And their bond with the growth of the institution began while they were still students. "When we were students at National Institute of Technology ,Waranagal (NITW), we used to pool money for students who could not pay their fee. And this continued after we graduated in 2008. When we noticed that we were getting a lot of funds from alumni, we decided to register our work as a foundation in Warangal." And thus, Lakshya Foundation was born. A funding body to start with, Lakshya followed a meticulous process, verifying the background of the students through a home study - wherever the students hailed from - the only criterion being the need of the student. The donations were displayed on the website to the last pie.A But Lakshya decided it can go further with its activities, to develop innovation and entrepreneurship programmes as well as campus enablers. And was helped along by the donors whose enthusiasm helped Lakshya to jump from Rs 30,000 for its first project to a whopping Rs 5 lakh for its second. "The first project was taken up as a pilot and the product was a submersible hovercraft. It was amazing the way the alumni teamed up to make this happen. There was an alumnus who made trips to Singapore to get parts for the hovercraft," recalls Anand Rajagopalan, co-founder and CEO. Anand, who joined Oracle through campus placement and worked there for three and a half years, subsequently quit to work full time for Lakshya. Inspired by their faculty member Dr A Venugopal, an alumnus himself and a Ph.D from IIT Delhi, Lakshya then formulated a project to work out group projects for students, a la IIT, where it is now a formal and funded arrangement. This led to Lakshya choosing an advisory body with people from industry as well as alumni, hand-picking management gurus, theoreticians, change-makers and doers, including Venkat Changavalli, Vasant Roy, alumni themselves. The idea was to enable students pursue research even as they studied, though it culminated in nothing and as the alumni were mostly from the industry, they were happy to encourage innovation for its own sake. But the problem area was follow-up and that is where Lakshya came in, to form a synergising relationship. And, soon enough, the first patent was acquired. The Hovamarine aircraft was patented in the name of National Institute of Technology, Warangal, and its inventor, Joby Yeldo, was all in all paid Rs 55,000 to develop his invention . Hovomarine is an unmanned amphibious vehicle, which combines the capabilities of a hovercraft and a submarine, with vast application potential in the field of search and rescue, recovery of space modules from the sea and maritime security. Yeldo recalls how the entire team joined hands to help him on to his invention. "They provided not just funds but timely technical assistance. Lakshya did not just fund my project, it held my hand through the entire process, right from preparing the abstract to filing for a patent."Alumni associations sometimes work with the institutions but with just a touch point in the form of a coordinator. But, Lakshya wanted NITW to participate in the whole process. Become a partner in the projects, engage its faculty and bring in a holistic research culture for the students. "I would consider it one of our major achievements, this synergy between students and the institute and the alumni," says Anand Rajagopalan. Lakshya now consists of two senior advisors, six alumni, three faculty members and a student team of three. "Lakshya is doing something that can be a game changer in the higher education sector, building an ecosystem of research and innovation in tandem with academic courses. It is bridging the gap between alumni, students and the institute," sums up Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, RTI activist, Director, Abhyasa EduCorp, and an alumnus. Rakesh now serves on the Lakshya team as an alumnus advisor. With a patent already in its kitty within the first couple of years of its inception, Lakshya is now funding six new projects by students, with technology frameworks that could revolutionise systemic applications within public services. A product that is almost ready to be launched is a new concrete developed through construction debris. Modern cities do not have a mechanism to dispose of the millions of tonnes of debris that is generated in them every year. The debris is usually removed from the site at great expense, used as landfill at best or simply dumped on the outskirts at the worst. "Given that we have such space constraints and land is a precious resource, one of our projects is aimed at generating wealth out of waste through intricate technology," Anand explains. The outcome of this research is a self-compacting concrete using recycled aggregate, with the aim of generating concrete not just for pavement blocks and tiles, as is done now, but at producing concrete capable of bearing heavy loads. As the student Sumanth Reddy has done his part in making the product, the alumni have stepped in once again to guide the student innovators on how to make it market viable. "While the industry is happy to give free consultancy, it is a proud moment for Lakshya consultancy as Sumanth is invited to demonstrate his innovation at an international conference in Kyoto." Lakshya is also in the process of getting all necessary certifications from national agencies. Another project along the same lines is the Earthquake Resistant SCC. It is concrete that contributes to increase in the energy absorption capacity of structures, thus making them safe at the time of quakes. The nano silica concrete aimed at making thinner concrete and hence lighter bridges and other structures is another project in the bouquet. The students are also working on smart metres that can automate collection of data from domestic electric meters, now a manual process. The team is also planning on developing a software module that can collate the data and provide advanced analytical data at the press of a button, from consumption patterns to distribution blues. It is something that would help in the complex planning to reduce losses and more efficacious utilisation of power. Also in the pipeline is a voice control system for all electrical devices, with a mechanism to control a whole range of operations. "There are many alumni associations that offer financial help to students. But I find that Lakshya is very systematic and transparent, something that not only reassures the donor but also motivates more people to donate," Prabhakar Puvvada, class of 1980, and now based in Atlanta, says. He feels that NITW will stand out among engineering colleges in the State for providing proactive scope for innovation and research right from student days. Lakshya Foundation has moved on even further. From funding innovation to funding start-ups and facilitating to enable students to become employment providers. Cloudsgreen is one such project. Cloudsgreen.com is a portal to generate, store and manage e-receipts. Considering that technology needs to logically lead to more employment even as it simplifies things, is Lakshya looking at social sector innovation? "Yes, we are looking in the direction of social innovation, envisaging partnerships with NGOs and development agencies. But, more importantly, what we need to do immediately is build a bridge to markets. Marketability is what makes our innovations reach a logical culmination and thereby create greater human resource base," Anand Rajagopalan says. An arrow, it is said, needs to be pulled back to launch forth. Seeking support from the old to fire up the new, seeking to calibrate young minds into a constructive mode, combine education with innovation that generates solutions for veritable issues in the system we live in, Lakshya's unique philosophy may yet be a shining example for alumni elsewhere to follow.