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Presenting: The Better India’s Best of 2020 – Top Innovations

Be it fighting air pollution, providing access to quality healthcare in remote areas or aiding the differently-abled, these individuals have shown extraordinary examples of how ingenuity and altruism can make the world a better place.

Presenting: The Better India’s Best of 2020 – Top Innovations

This article is a part of The Better India’s ‘Best of 2020’ — A list of 50 awesome changemakers recognised and honoured by The Better India this year. This is a celebration of remarkable people who exhibited courage, grit, passion, innovation, compassion and above all else, humanity. Find out all about them here.

Throughout 2020, you have heard The Better India (TBI) use the word ‘changemaker’ numerous times to refer to people whose actions have positively impacted society. They are ordinary individuals like you and me, whose courage to care and act upon it, has made them extraordinary.

And in the case of those we are celebrating here – their actions have translated through an array of innovations that promote sustainability, provide help to the marginalized or even try to save the planet.

Hence, with the year coming to an end, TBI celebrates these social innovations and the geniuses behind them, who have and continue to strive towards making the world a better place for all.

Here are top 10 innovators we would like to honour with The Better India Changemakers – 2020 title.

1. Dr Navin Khanna

14 years ago, a letter from India’s former president, Dr Abdul Kalam (the then Chief of Defence Research and Development Organisation), changed Dr Navin Khanna’s life forever.

An expert in mosquito-borne diseases, especially Dengue, Dr Khanna, as part of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) was called to tackle the 2006 dengue outbreak in northern India, by developing an efficient screening test.

It took him and his team of scientists, six long years of hard work, to develop a solution that was effective and affordable. In 2012, he developed ‘Dengue Day 1’ which proved to be a game-changer in combating the dengue outbreak.

“Unlike other tests that take days to weeks to come up with the results, Dengue Day 1 can diagnose a patient in just 15 minutes. As the name suggests, this kit can identify the dengue from the very first day itself. Timely diagnosis in this scenario can save countless people,” explains Dr Khanna.

Priced at just Rs 140, this life-saving innovation and its innovator were recognised this year with the prestigious Padma Shri award, India’s fourth-highest civilian award.

2. Tejas Sidnal

As an Architecture graduate, Tejas Sidnal would always be drawn towards sustainable architectural solutions and the role of biomimicry in achieving that. Biomimicry is a method where human-related problems are solved by mirroring designs and ideas found in nature.

Years later, his passion found purpose when he came across a video by Air-Ink, an organization specialising in processing air pollution into soot used to make black ink. The video got him thinking of using biomimicry and architectural design to create a building component out of air pollution. In other words, he eventually started Carbon Craft Design, a Mumbai-based startup in 2019, to produce carbon tiles using components sourced from Air-Ink.

“Each carbon tile is equivalent to cleaning 30,000 litres of air! Moreover, these tiles consume only one-fifth of the energy required to manufacture vitrified tiles. This means, instead of burning the tiles to come up with the finished product, we use a hydraulic press that helps us in manufacturing these tiles,” says Tejas.

Infused with materials like marble chips, marble powder, cement along with a proprietary binder, these handcrafted tiles, for now, can only be used for interior construction, but research to develop tiles worth exterior construction is also underway.

3. Rutvick Pedamkar & Sandip Patil

When done on a community level, electric composting methods are often preferred to manage a large volume of wet garbage efficiently. But the high consumption of electricity for composting can increase one’s electricity bill and leave behind a considerable amount of carbon footprint.

This paradox of a problem existed until two engineers, Rutvick Pedamkar and Sandip Patil from Maharashtra’s Thane district found a sustainable solution through solar energy use.

“An electric composter needs power for the drying, grinding and cooling process, community composting unit uses around 1200 units per month, and the bill can come up to Rs 10,000. You are burning the environment and your pocket, which is why we designed units with solar panels that produce electricity from the sun. Only the shredder machine provided with the system will require electricity, which won’t be more than 2 units per day,” says Rutvick, who along with Sandip has come up with several variations of the unit to suit different requirements.

All you need is a minimum of 6.6 sq ft area to install one of these solar-powered composting units.

This innovation can cater to all, from individual households to communities or companies generating over 500 kilos of garbage, at a price which is almost 50% less than the conventional options.

“Previously, a unit meant for a family of 4 would cost between Rs 8,500 to 12,500, but now we have managed to bring the cost down to a starting price of Rs 2,500,” adds Rutvik, who confirms that they have successfully been able to sell a total of 85 units so far.

4. Zuzana Gombosova & Susmith C Suseelan

Did you know that tender coconut water was more than a healthy drink? That it has the potential to save lakhs of animals by becoming a substitute for leather?

A Kerala-based company, Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt Ltd, makes this possible, by producing a bio-composite material from coconut water that can be a worthy equivalent of leather.

Explaining the workings of this vegan and environment-friendly innovation, co-founder Zuzana says, “This flexible biocomposite material has a circular life cycle. We use raw materials like waste coconut, banana stem, sisal fibre and hemp fibre that do not require any energy or chemicals. The final product is biodegradable that can decompose within 150 days. And, the best thing is that we ensure zero use of any aggressive chemicals in the whole process.”

While Zuzana is a Slovakia-origin designer based in India, Susmith is a mechanical engineer specialising in product designing. Their shared passion for sustainable fashion inspired them to create this innovation, which can make various products like belts, bags, wallets, etc.

Not just the look and feel, Malai Biomaterials has ensured that their innovation is durable enough to be compared with conventional leather, and so have managed to get tested and certified by the German company-TUV based in Chennai.

5. Akshay Singhal, Pankaj Sharma & Kartik Hajela

Despite the sale of 8,000 electric vehicles in India, most of the lithium-ion batteries powering them are imported.

Targeting this two-fold problem of high cost and limited access, Bengaluru-based nanotechnology company, Log 9 Materials came up with an innovative solution by developing a sustainable alternative to lithium-ion batteries – the Aluminium Fuel Cells (AFCs).

The founding trio- Akshay, Pankaj Sharma & Kartik Hajela- made use of readily available materials like aluminium, water (electrolyte) and graphene (from graphite) to make a cheaper and simpler design. Specializing in graphene, their AFCs provide five times the range of an average lithium-ion battery, and are also 30-40 per cent cheaper, easier to use and don’t require frequent charging.

“The key difference between a lithium-ion battery and AFC is that the former is a storage device which requires regular charging while the latter is a pure power generation device. This is why AFC’s are more in tune with average automobile consumers’ behaviour, refuelling their vehicles within minutes instead of recharging it for hours. Moreover, they offer a range of above 1,000 km unlike their lithium-ion counterparts which have a maximum range of 250 km,” says Akshay Singhal, the co-founder of Log 9 Materials.

6. Binish Desai

Popularly known as the Recycle Man of India, Binish Desai’s innovative mind is always on the lookout for grassroots problems to solve. This years’ COVID-19 situation posed another on-ground challenge of tackling biomedical waste.

“Facemasks are the new normal, and single-use face masks are widely used. But, once they are disposed of, they end up in a landfill. So, I thought why not try to incorporate this with the bricks I am already making,” says Binish, whose earlier innovation of converting paper mill waste into bricks helped pave the way for the current innovation called P-Block 2.0. In this case, he was using his knowledge of recycling industrial waste into sustainable building material, to make bricks out of PPE kits and face masks.

Using 7 kgs of biomedical waste per square foot, each brick is made with 52% of shredded PPE material, 45% paper sludge and 3% binding agent-formulated gum base. They are made from non-woven fabric from masks, gowns and head covers, and are claimed to be lighter but stronger than the previous brick variant.

These bricks are also fire-resistant and waterproof and cheaper than conventional bricks that cost around Rs 4 per piece. Each piece of P-Block brick costs Rs 2.8.

“After getting the NOC (no objection certificate) in September, we are on our way to collaborate with the government to set up bins in public spaces to collect a large amount of biomedical or COVID-19 related waste. From our collection from hospitals, we have managed to produce 40,000 to 45,000 bricks so far and are planning on automating our manufacturing units for better scalability,” he adds.

7. Mani Teja Lingala & Mrudul Chilmulwar

Most times, problems come paired with a solution. It is the innovator’s job to identify and implement the correct one.

This belief has continued to inspire and motivate two innovators- Mani Teja Lingala and Mrudul Chilmulwar- to come up with a unique solution to help the visually-impaired identify currency notes correctly. Hence, they came up with an innovation called Drishti, a pocket-sized sheet that helps recognise currency notes without the use of sophisticated technology or braille.

Visually impaired individuals who were used to identifying older currency based on the length and texture, after the demonetisation, were caught in a fix, having to unlearn and adjust to the new kinds of notes. Although the Reserve Bank of India’s mobile application aimed to solve this problem, lack of widespread access to such technology, created problems for many visually-challenged people.

Finally, recognising the problem, the duo created Drishti, made of polypropylene plastic sheets that are cut using a laser cutter and marked with various cuts to determine width and height. By placing it against a currency like a template, these cuts would aid the user to identify the currency notes accurately.

“When a currency is placed against this template, and its width goes beyond the template, it is an old note, and if it is within the template, it is a new one. To know the denomination, there are three edges on the top (like steps) to identify based on height,” explains Mani, who has decided to make this technology open-source for a wider reach and use.

8. Sachin Gangadharan

The food delivery business is one of the most thriving industries in the current times. However, there is a highly problematic outcome of the practice- rampant use of plastic packaging contributes greatly to plastic waste’s ever-increasing burden on the planet.

However, Goa-based startup, LaFabrica Craft, founded by an architect-turned-entrepreneur Sachin Gangadharan, has the right solution to this humongous problem.

“The practice of food packaging and delivery in the food and restaurant business is predominantly centred around plastic or aluminium containers. These containers either pile up in our homes or probably enter a landfill. So to solve this problem, we came up with an eco-friendly packaging solution that allows liquid foot items to be carried without any risk of leakage or spilling,” says Sachin.

Made of recycled paper pulp or enzymes drawn from cotton, wheat husk and other organic materials, this packaging material is produced through a carbon-neutral procedure and is shaped into a pouch by self-help groups and locals. After use, these pouches that can hold more than 15 kg of weight, can be easily discarded into a compost bin to be biodegradable through an anaerobic process.

The founder adds that the paper is lined with an extra layer of Poly Lactic Acid, a polymer derived from tapioca or cornstarch for the leak-proof quality. If left undisturbed, the liquid food items inside this packaging can be retained for 46 hours before starting to leak.

Currently, Sachin is working on replacing the PLA coating with an alternative that can help biodegrade the pouches naturally, without the need for composting.

9. Rajat Jain

More than 17.9 million people die from cardiovascular diseases each year, according to a 2016 WHO report. And unfortunately, Rajat Jain’s friend was one of them.

A resident of Dehradun, Rajat’s tragic encounter with death is what inspired him to take a definitive step towards finding a solution.

“So many people have lost their lives to heart attacks because of non-availability of monitoring equipment, no routine monitoring, lack of routine heart check-ups, and no early diagnosis. When we talk about remote areas or hilly regions like Dehradun, the condition is even worse. Patients have to travel at least 40 km to reach the primary healthcare facilities, and there is no ECG facility available in such places. Sometimes, by the time they reach the hospital, they either collapse or suffer further complications during the treatment,” says Rajat, who co-founded a Dehradun-based startup called Sunfox Technologies in his attempt to innovate a technology that can potentially change this situation.

The answer to this limitation of resources experienced in remote locations was to create accessible diagnosis technologies. After years of hard work and perseverance, he was finally able to develop Spandan- a matchbox-sized portable ECG device that can detect heart abnormalities at an early stage.

Focused on providing last-mile connectivity to rural areas, this lightweight device acts as a junction box between your heart and your mobile phone. It comes with electrodes that are required to be placed on the patient’s chest. Once connected properly, it can provide heart readings in a few seconds through the phone application, Spandan ECG.

“The device not only detects heart ailments but also classifies 21 different kinds of heart abnormalities with the accuracy of 99.7 per cent in comparison to clinical diagnosis. Within a few seconds of reading, a prognosis is provided on your phone’s screen and can be understood by anyone, not necessarily a doctor,” he adds.

So far, they have been able to sell over 1000 devices and are working on creating three more variants of Spandan in the coming year.

10. Ashik SV

Since his teenage years, Ashik SV has been passionate about working in the field of controlling air pollution.

After years of hard work and nearly 35 prototypes, as an automobile engineering student from Dayanand Sagar College of Engineering, he has finally succeeded in patenting a unique device that can effectively filter soot and particulate matter from polluted air making it safer to breathe.

Known as P-PAL Tree, inspired by the Peepal Tree, this device is unlike any conventional air purifier that controls carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions. Instead, P-PAL Tree’s focus is to filter soot or particulate matter suspended in the air, responsible for causing fatal diseases.

“These pollutants are not only spoiling crops, damaging historical monuments but also ruining public health, aside from being a major contributor to global warming. I had a first-hand experience of its effects when I developed a nasal irritation after arriving in Bengaluru due to the air pollution. Once, the realization about the source of the problem dawned upon me; I began to dedicate most of my time to find the solution,” he says.

Now, his solution is the P-PAL Tree that has the capacity to filter up to 1 crore litres of polluted air in a day.

“There is an inlet fan that absorbs the polluted air inside the device and makes it pass through a series of thin films that trap the particulate matter. The soot particles then are channelled towards a chamber for collection while the filtered air is directed outside. It takes almost 6 months for the soot collection chamber to be full so that it can be recycled to manufacture printer ink, paint, tyres and other products,” says Ashik, while adding that P-PAL manages to do all of this with a meagre power consumption of around 35 to 40 watts, which is almost similar to that of a ceiling fan.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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