Please tell us about yourself

Dr. Dhananjaya Dendukuri is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Achira Labs, a Bangalore-based start-up which is developing new technologies for medical diagnostic testing at the point-of-care. He obtained his B. Tech. in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1999 and won an Institute Blues (Bronze). He received his Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Toronto, and his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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T5E caught up with Dhananjaya in his Bangalore based office.

How did you get into the field of microfluidics and what is it about? Could you tell us about the microfluidic chip that put you on the TR35?

My PhD work in micro-fluidics provided the background for what my company does. Micro-fluidics is a relatively new area- 15 to 20 years old in academia. Right now, the ideas in micro-fluidics are transitioning from academia to industry. A broad analogy is that micro-fluidics is where electronics was in the 1960s- in its early stages of maturity. I finished my PhD in 2007. I was very clear that I wanted to come back to India, because I always felt much more comfortable in India and believe that world class technology can be developed here. There are enough examples of Indians doing great technology development abroad, and though in the recent years India is becoming a destination for such activities, by and large technology development in India is in nascent stages. So that’s what drove me to come back and work here.

Microfluidics is basically miniaturised plumbing, and involves miniaturisation, integration and automation, on a chip. It has a lot of applications- one of them is diagnostics, in analytical chemistry and biology. In India, there is a specific need for affordable, rapid and multiplexed diagnostics with increased efficiency of diagnostic-delivery processes for greater accessibility by different target groups, especially the masses and rural areas. Currently, there aren’t enough portable instruments for field testing. We wanted to use that technology to address problems in the area of diagnostics, both in terms of technology and delivery.

When you get down to technical specifics- one challenge is making manufacturing cheap enough. Suppose we’re planning to do a panel of tests, can we take a small finger prick of blood and do all of them? Yes, that was our aim. Together the above two bring in economies of scale and better validation of diseases. We also wanted to do all these tests in 15 to 20 minutes. These were the big-picture reasons for getting into the field, which ultimately define our technology processes.

While we are also developing plastic microfluidic chips that are made using sophisticated manufacturing technology, one question was- can we find a locally available (manufactured and developed) technology that is scale-able, providing an integrated platform for these tests? Weaving – an art, craft and technology – was one such process that seemed to gel with our big picture. We got a grant from Grand Challenges Canada to build a chip which would be affordable and built or developed using locally available expertise. The process of manufacturing entailed using weavers (from Kancheepuram) to weave the chip. So some of our chips are actually woven fabric containing specific reagents. We exploit the weaving properties of textile to tune capillary flow. The cost of a chip is in paise (a 90% reduction on costs compared to conventional diagnostic chips). A lot of common simple tests can be done on our platform.

What are your thoughts about being on the TR35 list? How important do you feel these kind of awards are?

It feels great to be recognized in this fashion because the MIT TR35 awards have been won by some really pioneering people in the past. More personally, for me, it is a validation of my belief that technology development in India can encourage local expertise to build technologies. It certainly serves as encouragement and a mark of recognition not just for me but for the company and the people behind it too. However, I would also like to add that there are many such entrepreneurs out there who are doing equally good or better work, and such talent needs to be recognized to put India on the Technology Development map. Of course, the ultimate success of the company and technology will be decided in the market place.

You did your B. Tech. in chemical engineering. Could you tell us a bit about your stint in insti? How did you make your decisions about a Masters degree and PhD, what was the road from Chemical Engineering? What prompted you to choose an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon area such as microfluidics and diagnostics?

Well, in insti, I spent a lot of time doing things other than studying! When I look back I was casual about things then, and what college is supposed to be like. But I had an absolutely fantastic time meeting peers, made friends for life, participated in many extra-curricular activities – I started questioning a little too late into IIT what I was going to do next. My one piece of advice would be that everyone should be thinking about these things a little in advance, not in 7th or 8th semesters like me! Thinking about what to do next is important, but it’s more important to understand one’s motivations and inclinations, which should ideally be influenced during one’s stint in the insti, because ultimately innovation comes from doing what one is passionate about.

I drifted into a Masters degree. That is when I realised I actually liked engineering. I tutored for a lot of classes at University of Toronto, which was a great experience for me. Gradually, it dawned on me that I was inclined to do a PhD as I liked what I did – the science and the teaching. So I was lucky enough to be accepted for a PhD program at MIT. In MIT every undergrad has to take an intro class in biology- I took the course too. I hated biology in school (what I remember about it was learning the difference between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, vertebrates and invertebrates- the approach was mind-numbing). But that- just memorizing information- is not biology. I realised biology was interesting, like a story really. Biology is about generating hypotheses and learning to test them out and analyse them. The frontier of the century is biology, and that was an important input while starting my company. I am not a biologist, but I have tried to pick up some background in it to try to address some problems in the field. One nice thing about Chemical Engineering is that it takes a systems approach (analysing the input to a system, the output from it and the changes in between) to problems, and with some abstraction, that approach can be applied to other fields. That kind of approach has its value in human biology.

Academics in IITM did not inspire you as much as in your Masters and PhD?

I take a lot of blame for it, but somehow academics in IITM didn’t come together for me. A lot of this was because of the lack of deep questioning of what were my scientific inclinations.

I also believe Indians are genetically good teachers, but not enough of a research component came into our classes. Research provides a platform for inquisition and creativity and assists in identifying one’s likes and dislikes of a subject, especially for undergrads.

I was an average student. I saw a lot of really smart and amazing students, who left and moved to other careers- like banking and finance, and maybe with some inspiration during their stay here, some of them would have stayed in engineering. The contribution they could have made to engineering and science would have been immense.

There is an ongoing debate in the IITs on the impact of IITians taking up lucrative non-engineering jobs. What are your views on that?

Well, there’s a market forces way of looking at it. People are going where there is the greatest market value for them. The problem is that this approach optimizes for a short term problem. For a country to progress we need to create a significant pipeline of new technologies and capabilities. Everyone asks- when is an “Apple” or a “ Facebook” going to come out of India? When are we going to graduate from services to products? The simple answer is, when we invest in those things. From a long term point, a systemic change in the expectation of an educational system, its actual delivery and opportunities that encourage innovations become important.

But it’s difficult to expect an undergrad student to make that decision- the decision not to take a well paying job. We need to have a systemic shift- with the government promoting technology start-ups out of places like the IITs (like the Tech Park in IIT). There are already efforts on but there’s still a long way to go. I would not blame the students alone, but the lack of lucrative opportunities in companies developing new concepts and technologies in India. IITians are not average students and if they are not going be at the vanguard of science and technology in India, who is?

Students shouldn’t be risk averse at age 21. Most people have very little to lose then. If you don’t take a leap to follow your passions, it is very difficult later on and therefore the insti should help develop this passion or inclination towards certain fields

Another thing- there’s a sense of entitlement among IIT students. But it is important to know that it won’t propagate through life. There are a lot of hungry, and motivated students, not from IIT, doing very well. IIT simply gets you a foot in the door, but the advantage is not perpetual. We need to be hungrier to do well and be different. Be adventurous and use your talent to do something.

We’re in an interesting situation where high paying jobs are concerned. A company (for example Goldman Sachs) is earning in dollars for what an employee is doing in India. The value creation is in dollars, so they can afford to pay the employee in India high salaries. At the other end of the spectrum, is an Indian engineering company whose goods and services are mostly sold in India, so there is no way they can earn in rupees what another company earns in dollars. They find it difficult to make competitive offers to people from IIT. Indian engineering products and technologies have to go global for this to change. At the second rung of colleges (non-IITs), the median salary drops sharply. There’s almost a 100% premium on IITians. In my opinion, that is not justified- the IITian is not creating twice as much value as every non-IITian in an entry level position. The reason this is happening is because of the scarcity in the supply of IIT students – just 5000 a year for a country of our size.

What were some major differences between IIT and universities in the West- The University of Toronto and MIT?

Things are different in the West- the whole system comes together better than in India, is what I felt, for various reasons. Overall differences? Overseas there is a lot more rigour, the weekly grind is much more than in IIT. 30% of an average grade is based on weekly assignments. They’ve figured a better way to make those things count.

There is a lot more of working in labs/research internships than there was in IIT at my time. An interface with the outside world gives better exposure to what is out there. One gets an idea of what one would like to do, take up for a career. But I think that has changed now. In IITs too people have a lot of intern and lab experiences before graduating, nowadays. I think that is a welcome development.

Also, in universities in the west, the educational system is different with the students joining because they are really inclined to do so, and college fee is usually their responsibility and that enhances their seriousness towards their academics.

One more thing I noticed- our whole cultural scene in IITM was so biased against India. It was almost like we did not live in India. Quiz questions were usually about Greek epics, and obscure rock bands. We even had an ‘India Quiz’ to make up for this! There were so many other things like this. When you leave IIT you realise you were living in a bubble that was not very representative of India. In my time we were very disconnected from the context in which we live. Some of that is a good thing, but a little more of a connection to India, looking at solving problems which are genuinely faced by Indians would have been better. I am sure things must have changed by now, since many IITians, I hear, are choosing to stay back in India than go abroad. A welcome statistic.

I feel that if IITs truly want to be world class, they need to focus more on graduate students and research, and a little less on the undergraduates.

Why did you start your own company? Why did you choose not to work in an established research lab somewhere?

Basically I wanted to return to India.

Also, in the field of microfluidics, there has been a lot of academic work done. But it’s been lacking a killer app- there were not enough people willing to translate those exciting ideas into products. I wanted to contribute to working on applications.

Then, in India, there were not enough companies doing microfluidics, so once I received support from a mentor (Suri Venkatachalam) and investors (Nadathur), we decided to start a company in this area. Also, if I went to a larger company, I would not have got the independence to work on all the exciting things that I felt would contribute towards my goal.

The advantages of working in a start-up are many- it is lean, quick moving, and there is very little bureaucracy. You usually work around younger people and it’s exciting. You could be part of something that later becomes a very big deal and has a huge impact on your industry and the world.

The cons are, of course, potential instability. No one knows whether you’ll be around 2 years from now. A start-up has no large IT campuses with swimming pools, etc!

Was it difficult to find funding for a biotechnology venture? They are perceived as high-risk investments.

I was fortunate to find a mentor and an investor who understood the space of our venture. We have investor money, and also a grant from Grand Challenges Canada.

When it comes to a typical IT start-up, all you need is computers and people, and you can start. Here, we need expensive equipment like microscopes and freezers- the starting costs are in crores of rupees. Also, biotechnology has historically not returned the same as IT. But biotechnology is where unsolved problems are. I am very optimistic about the future.

You won an Institute Blues . What all did you take part in while in insti?

I remember doing hajaar things- being head of Stagecoach and Editor of Focus (something like T5E). I was the Speaker of SAC. I also did stuff for Saarang- I remember being an Informals coordinator, it was a lot of fun. I remember playing in Schroeter in hostel. I used take part in JAM, plays, quizzes and a lot of other things too, which I don’t recall now.

What was Focus about?

Focus was supposed to be about serious issues. Campus Times was another newsletter which covered fun stuff. In Focus we did one article that got us into a lot of trouble- it was about copying in quizzes. Not the academic quizzes. People were copying in fun quizzes. We had a group of quizzers who’d all share answers with each other and get into the finals, they were all good quizzers, but that was the done thing.

I also remember we did a survey of every single graduating B. Tech’s in one year, and we found that 210 out of 350 (or something like that) were going abroad for higher studies.

What were your favourite memories in IITM?

OAT movies, wing sessions (so much fun talking about the most inane things), doing a lot of lit-soc stuff. Just the campus, which was so brilliant. On the academic side, we had some really good profs, Professors Abhijit Deshpande, Dilip Veeraraghavan, Sivakumar, Pushpavanam, Shankar Narasimhan, Pradeep Thalappil and Professor Ananth are some of the names I immediately remember. They were very inspiring and I looked up to them. One of the best things for an undergrad is to see a professor and get inspired to be like them one day.

I certainly don’t miss the weather and the living conditions. I seriously think better weather would improve productivity! Another thing I remember is the poor condition of our hostels. I was from Mandak- I heard people got cholera a few years ago. Most hostels and other buildings in IITM are quite rundown and not very architecturally impressive- even the new Mega-mess, Himalaya! I went to IIT Kanpur recently and was quite impressed with their architectural efforts. I think IITM needs to provide much better living conditions for the students. It needs common areas that have a touch of modern architectural principles incorporating more light, air and comfort, and that really make you feel you are in a grand place that is going to change the world!

I’m very happy to hear that the number of girls at IIT has dramatically increased since our days. This is a very good change and I think it will have a significant positive effect on the institution in the long term.

In terms of smart people, problem solving smarts, you can’t meet a comparable crowd to IIT.

Do you have any advice for students and budding entrepreneurs?

One thing I’ve come to appreciate is the difference between problem solving and problem defining. Typically, IIT has people who are very good problem solvers, but the people who really change the world are the ones who define good problems. The people who did great research were ones who could define good problems and address them. Picking and defining good problems is more important than solving problems. Today, with all the tools available, a lot of research problems can be solved over a period of time.

I’m highly encouraging of entrepreneurship. You need to pick a good problem. You need to talk to a lot of people, and really understand the space, and the problem, before drafting a solution. You need to be good at multitasking- IITians usually are. You’ll need to talk to people and manage both the technical stuff and the financial stuff.

IIT has built an incredible brand value. To take it to the next level, more IITians need to change the science and technology situation in India, enhance the scientific prowess of India. We will then go from being a good brand that produces smart people to one that has actually changed India for the better. There is a question of the impact of IIT on India. Certainly, individuals have done very well for themselves, but the pertinent question is: what is the impact of IITs on India? And the jury is still out on that. No one in America will question the value of MIT or Stanford; they have billions of dollars of market value created from companies that came out of them. More people from IIT should change that in India, and it certainly can be done. I am myself aware of several individuals and faculty from IIT who are trying to change this situation. I think their efforts will bear fruit over the coming decade and I am very optimistic about it.