4 Indians in “Top 35 Innovators Under 35” list from MIT’s Technology Review

MIT’s Technology Review today announced the TR 35, the magazine’s annual list of 35 outstanding men and women under the age of 35 who exemplify the spirit of innovation in business and technology. The latest list of Technology Review TR35 list of 35 innovators under the age of 35 includes 2 Indians from the Technology Review India TR35 list selected in March 2011 and two innovators of Indian origin.

Two Indians Ajit Narayanan, Invention Labs, Chennai and Aishwarya Ratan, Yale University, who were part of TR35 India Winners announced in March 2011 form part of this list. The 2011 TR35 were selected from more than 250 submissions by a panel of expert judges and the editorial staff of Technology Review. Judges represented leading organizations such as Google, Harvard Medical School, Microsoft Research, MIT, and Stanford University.

Profile of inventors include:

Ajit Narayanan, 30

Affordable speech synthesizers

Invention Labs

Some four million people in India suffer from cerebral palsy and other disabilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to speak. Giving them a voice is the job of Ajit Narayanan’s low-cost tablet-based system, Avaz. Even someone with only limited movement control can use Avaz to construct phrases that are spoken out loud by an artificial voice.

Speech synthesizers have long been used in the West (perhaps most famously by Stephen Hawking), but they are prohibitively expensive to all but the richest in India. Narayanan’s Invention Labs, based in Chennai, designed Avaz to be not only cheap but also capable of supporting multiple languages. “The average young person in India speaks and uses three different languages every day,” Narayanan points out. By working directly with Asian hardware manufacturers, he has been able to bring the cost of an Avaz down to around $800, compared with $5,000 to $10,000 for a single-­language device in the United States.

Just over 100 of the devices have been sold so far, mainly to specialist schools, and they are in use by around 500 children. “I’ve seen parents weep when Avaz allows them to talk with their [child] for the first time,” says Narayanan. He is currently working with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to improve the quality of the speech synthesis, and he also plans to use mobile app stores to distribute a version of his software with about 90 percent of the full Avaz system’s functionality.

Aishwarya Ratan, 30

Converting paper records to digital in real time

Yale University

Beginning in 2009, while working with Microsoft Research India, Aishwarya Ratan spent 15 months figuring out how to help local microcredit co-ops, which often struggle with handwritten entries that are illegible, incorrect, or incomplete.

Her solution combines digital technology with the familiar paper notebooks that villagers prefer. Co-op members use an electronic ballpoint pen to write in ledgers placed on a slate equipped with software that recognizes handwritten numbers. The slate provides feedback on whether the records are complete and legible, stores them in a database, and gives real-time balance updates, both on a screen and verbally in the local language. The database can be shared with the nongovernmental organizations and banks that back each co-op.

In field tests, the hybrid slate yielded entries that were 100 percent complete and made record keeping faster while letting co-op members retain the paper records they are comfortable with. The potential of the system is tremendous: microfinance co-ops serve 86 million Indian households. High-­quality record keeping could make them more efficient, helping members save more and repay faster, and it could allow the co-ops to borrow more easily from banks.

In June, Ratan became the director of the Microsavings and Payments Innovation Initiative at Yale University, which as part of its mission studies how technologies can help the poor financially. Meanwhile, the NGO that Ratan was partnering with continues to test the slate in villages.

Piya Sorcar, 33

Software that can be localized to teach taboo topics


Despite considerable educational efforts by experts and organizations alike, public awareness in India about the growing HIV epidemic has remained low. So Piya Sorcar, founder and CEO of TeachAIDS, has developed interactive software to educate children about HIV in a way that’s sensitive to the country’s cultural mores.

When Sorcar traveled to India in 2005, she found that even children and young adults who received training on HIV didn’t learn much: cultural taboos prevented educators from speaking frankly about how the virus is transmitted. As she designed her software, she took pains to ensure that it didn’t run afoul of those taboos. She analyzed cultural responses to every image used. She recorded narration with correct local accents, created gender-specific versions of each program, enlisted local celebrities for voice acting, and tested to see how much information children retained, even long after the lessons were over.

The cultural sensitivity has paid off: Sorcar’s software has been approved and distributed by states in India where other sex education is banned. The software has been designed to be modular, so that it’s easy to swap in locally appropriate elements. The country of Botswana has approved it for every school in the nation, and Sorcar hopes to distribute it to countries around the world within five years.

2011 TR35 Honorees

1. Pieter Abbeel, University of California, Berkeley

2. Yemi Adesokan, Pathogenica

3. June Andronick, NICTA

4. Judd Antin, Yahoo Research

5. Solomon Assefa, IBM

6. Jernej Barbic, University of Southern California

7. Dan Berkenstock, Skybox Imaging

8. Christopher Bettinger, Carnegie Mellon University

9. Alexandra Boltasseva, Purdue University

10. Jennifer Dionne, Stanford University

11. Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage

12. Yu-Guo Guo, Wuhe

13. Jeff Hammerbacher, Cloudera

14. Dae-Hyeong Kim, Seoul National University

15. Bhaskar Krishnamachari, University of Southern California

16. Gert Lanckriet, University of California, San Diego

17. Xiao Li, Microsoft Research

18. Andrew Mason, Groupon

19. Miriah Meyer, University of Utah

20. Joel Moxley, Foro Energy

21. Ajit Narayanan, Invention Labs

22. Alina Oprea, RSA Laboratories

23. Andrew Phillips, Microsoft Research

24. Chris Poole, Canv.as

25. Aishwarya Ratan, Yale University

26. Jesse Robbins, Opscode

27. Ben Rubin, Zeo

28. Umar Saif, Lahore University of Management Sciences

29. Riccardo Signorelli, Fastcap

30. Noah Snavely, Cornell University

31. Piya Sorcar, Teachaids

32. Paul Wicks, PatientsLikeMe

33. Fengnian Xia, IBM

34. Fan Yang, Stanford University

35. Kun Zhou, Zhejiang University

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