FEATURES/Innovation Special | Mar 3, 2012 | 91562 views

18 Indian Minds Who Are Doing Cutting Edge Work

The wheels have been set in motion to win back some of the finest minds of Indian origin to align forces with their country of origin


1. Chaitan Khosla
He developed a treatment for celiac sprue, a disease that affects many in India. His work in biodiesel is globally significant too.

Profile: He is chair, chemical engineering; Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering; Professor of Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Biochemistry at Stanford University.

His Main Area of Work: His research lies at the intersection of chemistry and medicine. He has been working with genetically modified soil bacteria to develop new medicines (called polyketides) to treat cancer, infections, and other diseases.

In 1995, he co-founded biotechnology company Kosan Biosciences, which was acquired by drug maker Bristol Myers Squibb in 2008. Later, he founded Alvine Pharmaceuticals, which is developing an oral enzyme drug discovered in his laboratory for the treatment of celiac sprue—an autoimmune disorder, triggered by gluten in cereals, that affects the small intestines.

Yet another company he’s founded, Flamentera AG, is focussed on developing novel biomarkers for gastrointestinal diseases.

In September 2011, he and his research team found that high volumes of biodiesel can be produced from bacteria where E. coli can be used as a catalyst. Khosla and his team are currently trying to find ways to enhance its cellular controls to push this further.

How His Research Can Benefit India: A decade ago, one in 1,000 of the population were affected by celiac sprue but the occurrence has increased. Today, one in 310 people in India are affected by the disease and one in 120-300 of the population in Europe and North America.

His work in biodiesel is globally significant too. If successful, his work could help propel biodiesel to a commercial market from the niche space it occupies now.

What They Say About Him: “Khosla can tackle huge challenges and makes strong efforts to move forward. With celiac disease, there was an unmet medical need with no treatment except a lifelong gluten free diet at the time he stepped in. He has showed a strong commitment to do something about this,” says Ludvig M. Sollid, director, Center for Immune Regulation, Research Council of Norway.

(Nilofer D’Souza)

2. Krishna Palem


He has deviced a new microchip that uses less energy; also, his solar-powered notepad, iSlate, is being tested in India

Profile: He is head of the Rice-NTU Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAI), Singapore.

His Main Area of Work: His research is focussed on embedded computing, including low-energy computing and nanoelectronics. He’s pioneered a “pruned” microchip technology. An “inexact hardware” that drastically reduces power demands of microprocessors by allowing them to make mistakes, it is the harbinger of the next-generation power-stingy processors. Called probabilistic pruning, this technology makes the integrated circuits perform twice as fast, use half as much energy, and occupy half the space of the traditional circuits. This, says Krishna, is done by cleverly managing the “probability of errors and limiting which calculations produce errors”.

While doing this Palem has showed that the energy consumed by a computation could be traded for its accuracy. For applications such as digital image and video processing or cryptography, such integrated circuits can be designed to produce results to only the required accuracy, and therefore, the power needed for the computation can be drastically reduced.

How His Research Can Benefit India: Along with his team, he is creating a complete prototype chip for a specific application, a hearing aid to begin with. He has developed a solar powered iSlate, an electronic notepad, which is currently being tested in schools in Mohd. Hussainpalli village in Andhra Pradesh. In its 125th anniversary, IEEE recognised his PCMOS technology and iSlate as one of the seven “world changing technologies”.

What They Say About Him: “An unwavering theme of his vision has been to address the principal challenges to sustaining the performance and economic benefits of Moore’s Law. With probabilistic CMOS technology, he has perhaps shown the most profoundly original approach to tackling the barriers of power consumption and noise immunity in the continuation of the decades-long exponential improvement in the area and speed of the integrated circuits, known as the Moore’s Law,” says Moshe Y. Vardi, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University.

(Seema Singh)

3. Rakesh Agrawal


He is working on efficient and cheap energy production from renewable sources such as solar and biomass.

Profile: He is Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.

His Main Area of Work: Imagine being able to print out a solar panel on a flexible substrate; to be able to spray-on a low-cost nanocrystal coating and assemble a thin film solar plant wherever power is needed. If Agrawal has his way, this dream may well be reality one day. He is working on two types of nanocrystals: Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), and Copper zinc tin sulfide (CZTS). His team has managed to reach 12.5 percent efficiency with CIGS, which is pretty close to what you get with silicon solar cells. CZTS has only 8.4 percent efficiency, but utilises earth-abundant materials which will decrease the cost as efficiency increases.  

He is also looking for an efficient way to convert biomass to liquid fuel (like diesel) that can be used in transportation (which uses up about half the fossil fuel produced worldwide).

His Approach:
Thin-film technologies have made photovoltaic materials more competitive, but costs need to reduce further.  Agrawal’s aims to bring it below 50 cents/peak watt. US solar panel maker First Solar is currently the lowest cost producer of thin films at 74 cents/peak watt. Agrawal’s approach is to utilise nanomaterials that can be suspended in appropriate solvents and then deposited utilising high throughput capabilities. He hopes to commercialise the systems when he achieves efficiencies of about 15 percent.

How His Research Can Benefit India: India is grappling with huge energy shortages. If solar cells become cheaper and more easily available, it can change the dynamics of power production and availability in the country.

What Others Say About Him: “Agrawal has been developing what are called ‘ink based’ precursors to make the thin film solar cells of either CIGS or CZTS. The highest efficiencies reported for CZTSSe (Copper Zinc Tin Sulfo-selenide) has been about 10 percent. There appears, at this point, no fundamental reason why it should not be possible to exceed 15 percent efficiencies,” says Supratik Guha, director, Physical Sciences Department, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

(Cuckoo Paul)

4.  Mriganka Sur Reveals the Mysteries of The Brain  

5. Jayant Baliga's Invention Is A Power Saver

6. Harry Bhadeshia's steel connects UK, France


This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 02 March, 2012
Post Your Comment
Email Address
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated
Comments (27)
Local_yokel Jul 6, 2013
I was under the impression that new technologies benefit the primary investor and developer the most in the short term. And by the time these technologies are licensed to south asian countries, there are still more advanced technologies under development. and most researchers have no control over the final product
Dr.a.jagadeesh Mar 26, 2013
It is a question of BRAIN DRAIN.

In a thought provoking article, '€˜Beware The Reverse Brain Drain To India And China'€™(TechCrunch,Oct 7,2009) Vivek Wadhwa brought out many pertinent points on Reverse Brain Drain to India and China:
€œWhy would such talented people voluntarily leave Silicon Valley, a place that remains the hottest hotbed of technology innovation on Earth? Or to leave other promising locales such as New York City, Boston and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina?
My team of researchers at Duke, Harvard and Berkeley polled 1203 returnees to India and China during the second half of 2008 to find answers to exactly this question. What we found should concern even the most boisterous Silicon Valley boosters.
We learned that these workers returned in their prime: the average age of the Indian returnees was 30 and the Chinese was 33. They were really well educated: 51% of the Chinese held masters degrees and 41% had PhDs. Among Indians, 66% held a masters and 12% had PhDs. These degrees were mostly in management, technology, and science. Clearly these returnees are in the U.S. population'€™s educational top tier - €”precisely the kind of people who can make the greatest contribution to an economy'€™s innovation and growth. And it isn'€™t just new immigrants who are returning home, we learned. Some 27% of the Indians and 34% of the Chinese had permanent resident status or were U.S. citizens. That'€™s right '€”it'€™s not just about green cards.

What propelled them to return home? Some 84% of the Chinese and 69% of the Indians cited professional opportunities. And while they make less money in absolute terms at home, most said their salaries brought a '€œbetter quality of life'€ than what they had in the U.S. (There was also some reverse culture shock €”complaints about congestion in India, say, and pollution in China.) When it came to social factors, 67% of the Chinese and 80% of the Indians cited better '€œfamily values'€ at home. Ability to care for aging parents was also cited, and this may be a hidden visa factor: it'€™s much harder to bring parents and other family members over to the U.S. than in the past. For the vast majority of returnees, a longing for family and friends was also a crucial element.

A return ticket home also put their career on steroids. About 10% of the Indians polled had held senior management jobs in the U.S. That number rose to 44% after they returned home. Among the Chinese, the number rose from 9% in the U.S. to 36% in China.€

(Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University).

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
Ashok Jain May 31, 2012
Wow! but what a concentration of bright minds in the US!!!
Venkat Mar 28, 2012
None of them are in India? :-(
Jack959 Mar 9, 2012
A COMMENTER in speaking tree, TOI blog on why modern indians didn't make use of intelligent ancient Indian wisdom of spirituality
Even on peripheral if one sees the implications from these theories, study of science in today's style is part of studying such theories. Their models are not incompatible with models used in Physics etc. Actually they do help. if one studies properly (and there are some famous examples).
If we have not contributed any thing substantial in science. technology or making life better in our country as well as taking these theories further in recent years, it reflects more on our capacities (I will rather say that shame on us for making life in our country so shabby despite so interesting intellectual developments in past in all aspects of knowledge, but I have more hopes from the next generation). Why blame theories for that?
Blame should be more on not studying properly these or any theories nor managing properly.
Dr Venkat Pulla Mar 7, 2012
I am not a scientist. I am a social worker and an academic. It is great to read about any one who has achieved something irrespective of the place of acheivement. All this advancement will be put to human use. A very balanced tribute to them that has ample scope for youth of India to scale their dreams and set their destiny. Inspiration begins with admiration. Thank you for writing this peice of positive Journalism.
Chanakya Mar 5, 2012
Not a single among these teaching at the Indian Uni's. And please dare someone share that crap of Indian colleges being the worst among the lot. Yes they are, exactly because the "Indian Minds" are not so keen to share theor wisdom to build their own nation. We are bound to fall, divide and shatter. Sad. True.
Response to Chanakya:
Venkat Mar 28, 2012
Well Said Chanakya... I will be so proud of them they reside in India and give the best of them to our mother country...
Jack Mar 3, 2012
@Seema instead of a generic cliche term 'india bashing' i would prefer to call it constructive criticism.
I never intended any malice as such. I want to wake up the creativity of our country out of stupor induced by hoards of foreign invaders that came to loot and rule this Land of the Golden Bird. This land must once again shine and be a beacon of the world. Most of the scientists mentioned in the article are displaying their associations with foreign universities. Why do we need this? Cant we do something creative authentic innovative on our own?
The west likes to see 'originality' which is present in our glorious culture and spirituality. they are not really in awe of our modern achievements, in which they are way ahead of us.
Narendranath Mar 3, 2012
Yes, fine for them to do such good work in USA as many other Indians do there after getting their basic founding education in India. They may come on their own here. No special invitation is desired or required. India depends on USA as much as USA depends on India, no more and no less. My own experiences of working in USA and UK have been similar but one is required to innovate / invent / discover in India, in order to claim special status, not otherwise.
Moh Mar 3, 2012
I would like to point out a specific example here. I know of Krishna palem very well, through a close acquaintance. All the people/organizations who seem to praise him do so for political affiliations. Other than the grandoise words written there his work has never benefitted anyone directly. His venture iSlate is a big joke, it is supposed to help poor students understand simple math like multiplication? why do you need a solar-powered notepad to do all that? His work has never seen the scrutiny of industry. His inventions are never going to change India or for that matter any other country in anyway. This article loses its legitimacy by including such people in its list.
Response to Moh:
Seema Mar 3, 2012
Moh or Mor@ Palem is on the list not because of political affiliations but because his work has been peer reviewed and published in the academic world. Most of all IEEE, which by any definition is not a political organistaion.
Palem has worked in the industry (HP and IBM) and at the intersection of industry and academia. As for some of his seminal achievements (in case you care to understand): In the early 1990’s Palem founded the Real-time Compilation Technologies and Instruction Level Parallel Processing Laboratory (REACT-ILP) at NYU’s Courant Institute to focus a research agenda on compilation technologies for embedded systems: among the first of its kind in the US. His early efforts recognized the defining role of Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) - the underpinning of the HP-Intel alliance and the IA-64 microprocessor architecture leading to a host of significant achievements.
It is a testament to his vision that core concepts of Adaptive-EPIC form a dominant theme of modern embedded system-on-chip architectures including most recent offerings from industry giants ST Microelectronics, Sony (Play Station Portable), Xilinx and Altera.
And he is also not here coz of iSlate project. Did this article say that iSlate will change India or the world?
That's an exploratory project, in the true scientific tradition.
Jack959 Mar 3, 2012
The term 'pioneering' should be used here. Is any indian service or product pioneering and made totally with indian expertise, without any western support or education. Eg. if in future an indian would invent an anti gravity device (which its said existed in india in ancient times) then that would be a useful pioneering invention and really 'cutting edge' . But alas todays indians are too engrossed in bollywood, cricket and in getting the next crore. to be involved in any radical ground breaking invention to benefit humanity.
Response to Jack959:
Seema Mar 3, 2012
Jack@I am surprised (and amused) at your India bashing in this forum. Not sure what's triggering that but you are welcome to drop your comments.
Arun Mor Mar 2, 2012
How many of them are really Indian ?????
The jury should have a look at their profiles before doing their job.
Response to Arun Mor:
Seema Mar 2, 2012
Arun: By the way, the jury was not supposed to check their level of Indianness, as it were. Nor did we think for a bit about their citizenship when shortlisting them because the idea was show some of the truly innovative work done by people who have gotten initial education here. And trust me, many are proud of their Indian heritage, at least one of them, Vamsi Mootha, said it in so many words.
Response to Seema:
Arun Mor Mar 2, 2012
@ Seema, your arguments are justified but then the title is a bit misleading. The word 'Indian' seems to imply that it refers to the citizens of India . Another thing I would like to point out that it is the US who is going to enjoy more of their success rather than us and most importantly, people outside India will see them as citizens of US not India and that's what's most important : it improves the image of US not India.
About Vamsi Mootha, wiki doesn't mention about his schooling but does tell you that he actually did his undergraduate and graduate work at Harvard.
Chitti Babu Divi Mar 2, 2012
These innovative projects are great; especially learning there are minds of people from Indian origin behind these cutting edge projects is even more pride and inspiring.
Jeevanandham Mar 1, 2012
Mr .Jack,
I am also thinking the same matter ,what stop us invent usefull stuff ?It is true all Technological Items mankind using are invented and developed by westerners only .
i)Basically our culture and religions teach us be content in life what ever you have .We used to content with what we have. . That is one of the reason we are not exploring any frontiers
ii)Another main drawback is we are lacking in keeping records of the happenings and maintaining history that keeps knowledge continuity between generations excepts Purana and Ithikasas.
iii)Another main thing is facing adversities ,all scientific inventions except few ,are facing strong oppositions at the time of Introductions ,like electricity ,phone ,car ,truth about earth ,. We always want to align with other people hence our thoughts are not going out of box .
Response to Jeevanandham:
Jack Mar 2, 2012
Mr. Jeevanandhan,
Thank you for your response. Actually India does have Yoga Ayurveda and Vedanta. and yes you're right. Its a beautiful concept even better than western science, for man to explore the truth, that is what the wisest man on earth and other great india Rishi Munis like Patanjali etc. did in search for the truth, much before any western scientist existed. Today western science is discovering what hindu cosmology discovered thousands of years go. but those were ancient indians, not todays materialistic western following copy cats. Baba Ramdev is tne ONLY exception. I salute him.
Mohan Phadke Feb 28, 2012
this is great news would like to be updated in future
Jack959 Feb 27, 2012
I commend the excellent work the above are doing for better future of humanity. But fact is very few of them are doing their work without ANY i mean ANY influence of western knowledge. I mean for a while imagine the west with all its inventions that we use today didnt exist. is there any indian who has made a globally useful invention like TV, electricity, combustion engine, etc. entirely from indian expertise WITHOUT any western support. Alas india had thousands of years of science but they didnt do anything. it was left to british
Advait Misra Feb 27, 2012
What a terrific choice of people. Thank you for giving us, esp the younger folks, a glimpse of what excellence means. In India, we set our bars too low! Confirmatory stuff is what most people run after.
Amith Prabhu Feb 27, 2012
This article is a great service to the younger generation of confused Indians. helps inspire scholars and also highlights how Indians are making waves across the world in various fields of science. Hope some of these potential Nobel Prize winers are tapped by the Government of India to ad value to research and education in the pure sciences in India.
Jeeva Feb 27, 2012
Thanks for this Ms Seema Singh. I am a celiac disease awareness supporter and promoter and might just get back to you if need be. I have anyway contacted Prof Khosla because it's great news for us Celiacs if this works out.
Jeeva George Feb 27, 2012
I would like to know more about Chaitan Khosla. I am a celiac and so are many I know . What is the research or his cure may I ask? How come we Indian Celiacs don't know about this. I know Univ of Chicago is coming out with a vaccine but don't know about the others. Please enlighten us on this.
Response to Jeeva George:
Seema Singh Feb 27, 2012
Here's a paper that Chaitan Khosla wrote a while ago talking about the future of celiac treatment. I am not too sure about the advancement in India. My hunch is we don't have great results to show. But a small effort is on at THSTI (new institute in NCR) on pediatric cases by Dr Shinjini, formerly at AIIMS.
You can read the paper here -

If you can't access that Nature paper, let me know and I will send you the pdf.
Next Article in Innovation Special
Like this article? Subscribe to Forbes India
Just give us your mobile number and we will get in touch with you
Most Popular
Insta-Subscribe to
Forbes India Magazine
For hassle free instant subscription, just give your number and email id and our customer care agent will get in touch with you
click here to Subscribe Online