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Daring to dream

How engineering students were encouraged by Microsoft to innovate beyond the classroom

Picture this: Joseph is driving home from work at 9 pm. He is on the NH1 Expressway in Gurgaon and the traffic jam he is in doesn’t make his mood any better. He tries not to think about the unproductive meetings, the deals that went awry and irate clients – all in a day’s work! Joseph eases his collar. It seems very tight all of a sudden. Sweat trickles down his neck. Joseph curses his car’s AC system. It was time he called the garage. Actually, it was time Joseph called Emergency. A call he, unfortunately, doesn’t get to make. Joseph is the latest statistic in a high list of casualties from cardiac arrests that strike while driving.

Consider another scenario: Joseph is driving along the NH1 Expressway. He eases his collar in frustration; thoughts of his work day still rankling. As sweat trickles down his brow and his clothes suddenly seem to fit tighter, his phone responds. He receives an alert that a cardiac arrest is imminent. What happens next seems like something out of a science fiction film. A list of hospitals within a 5-kilometre radius pops up on his phone. Joseph manages to keep calm and drives into the nearest hospital, only to find his close friend already waiting for him. A family member joins him a little later. His phone had even alerted his emergency contacts! This time, Joseph will live to tell the tale. And what a tale it will be.

The protagonist, to whom Joseph owes his life, is a boy named Kshitij, 19, a student of IIT Jodhpur and inventor of an app called Lifesaver. Kshitij had always nursed a desire to solve a social problem but he was just another youth with dreams and no backing; until he enrolled in the Microsoft Academia Accelerator program. Microsoft Academia Accelerator is a program aimed at building a deep, long-term association between Microsoft and the academic community. Through the program, Microsoft collaborates with the faculty and students of leading engineering colleges in India to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among students and help computer science faculty in curriculum enhancement. So for students like Kshitij, Microsoft Academia Accelerator adds a layer of cutting-edge industry know-how to what he already learns in his Computer Science college curriculum.

Academia Accelerator

As for the Program’s mentors: the program is entirely driven by a team of Microsoft volunteers who are passionate about teaching. They teach students to leverage the opportunities that Microsoft platforms offer to build apps that can leverage the mobile-first, cloud-first paradigm. Apart from writing clean code, the focus is also on other critical parameters of success – teamwork, the importance of customer value proposition, UX/UI and how to make the right business pitch.

The LifeSaver app will evolve to integrate newer technologies such as a stethoscope feature in mobile phones.

Under the program, Kshitij and his team began a mentor-guided path to developing his first app. His mobile based Lifesaver app implements the innovative idea of a heartbeat sensor being transferred to the user’s phone via Bluetooth. Once the sensor detects an imminent heart attack, the user is alerted; the closest hospitals within a 5 km radius are displayed and the user’s emergency contacts are sent a message.

What changed things for Kshitij, as he recalls, were the critical mentor-aided inputs to integrate the Microsoft Band, a device that tracks your heart rate, exercise, calories burnt and sleep quality, into the app. Microsoft Band is key to the functioning of the app today. And there were other leads. From using Microsoft Bing to extract hospital data, he integrated Google maps along with Bing, to speed up the process; inputs he credits his mentor for.

Soon, Kshitij was pacing the corridors of hospitals to test his Lifesaver app with Doctors. There were real life and real-time challenges like getting appointments and getting busy doctors to keep to their appointments. Recalls Kshitij, “There was one time during a trial when a doctor suddenly left town without informing us!” The experience taught them to think on their feet. He and his team were soon on their way to Indore to run the trial there. The learnings from medical professionals proved invaluable. The app integrated a metronome into the CPR video, to check the timing of chest compressions. Ask him what his ‘Aha’ moment was in the entire process and he is quick to affirm: The moment when Microsoft Band was ordered for the project and when it played along with the app.

Life has definitely changed for Kshitij after the Microsoft Academia Accelerator program. The list of reasons why is endless. Exposure, opportunity to implement and apply an idea, availability of latest technologies, working with professionals from other fields are reasons he excitedly rattles off. Kshitij credits the program for making the team worldly-wise as well. They have been quick to pick up the need for entrepreneurial skills such as team building, media, marketing, and publicity.

Kshitij now looks forward to finishing at IIT as there’s much to be done in the ‘real world.’ The LifeSaver app will evolve to integrate newer technologies such as a stethoscope feature in mobile phones. Soon, cardiac arrests will be recognized and alerts sounded, well before the occurrence. It’s reassuring to see Kshitij’s heart beat for India and his dream of aiding a public cause come true.

In another campus, a 19-year-old is worried about the future of the planet. Around him, the world press is painting an apocalyptic future, predicting doom at every corner. Politicians are crying themselves hoarse with promises to save the earth, counter climate change and reduce carbon footprints. Rohan, a student of Chemical Engineering at IIT Mumbai sits up, his brain ticking. Awareness is the need of the hour, he decides, where the trick is to catch them young. And what better medium than gaming to arrest the attention of the youth – our planet’s future.

Rohan too is a young man with an idea but without the support, encouragement, and infrastructure to see it to fruition. Until, like Kshitij, the Microsoft Academia Accelerator came his way. And life was never the same again.

Rohan’s app Sustenance is based on an important insight: Most of us believe that one person’s deeds cannot tip the scales. The game addresses this very notion by dramatizing how every thoughtless action by humans impact the environment.

Let’s consider a scenario where Ajit, a young gaming enthusiast is playing Sustenance. They encounter a nemesis named Marley, an AI who is hell bent on killing the earth’s species. Ajit encounters Marley at every step by unlocking aids or magic potions namely Vaccine, Elixir, Purifier, and Boost. But here’s the Catch 22. The potions can be unlocked when the player invests in scientific research and industrial development, which in turn can cause greater harm to the environment. Learning to balance industrial development and environmental needs was the challenge and learning to achieve sustainable growth. Ajit represents any young gamer. He might just go on to share this app with tech-enabled schools, who will adopt it for students. And that is how the app will bring Change at the press of Play.

So, how did Rohan reach this far? He and his team were runners-up at for developing a traditional game of dots – once played on paper – into a digital version. They went on to develop the Sustenance app for the Finalists forum and won the Hackathon nationally. Next, his mentors at the Microsoft Accelerator program were quick to back the idea, he says, starting a journey from a mere thought to the business potential app with an edge.

Thus began an intensive coding and designing process. So when did Sustenance evolve from a student project to professional startup? Says Rohan, “At the start, we did see Sustenance as a student project but as we worked more on developing the app, we started seeing possibilities of expanding this app even globally.”

It was just a matter of time before Rohan was in entrepreneur/start-up mode, picking up the tricks of the trade. From learning development to social media props, there was the exhilaration of expanding horizons, he acknowledges. They have planned features that will aid development by creating communities. The Microsoft Azure program is helping them build such communities. Rohan is quick to credit the atmosphere at the Microsoft Academia Accelerator program – vibrant and buzzing with ideas and opportunities that no student curriculum could have provided – for where he is today.

As boys like Rohan and Kshitij go on to make history, how do their professors feel about the process? “The Microsoft Academia Accelerator program definitely has a deeper, more advanced involvement with students. The Program adds a lot of value in filling the huge gap that exists between a typical student curriculum and what is required in a real world!” says Professor Varma.

Once students interact with professionals, so many possibilities are opened up. Architects of large scale developers can mentor and inspire student innovation and entrepreneurial skills, adds the Professor. It also gives students a glimpse into the inner workings of large corporations and a chance to contribute to changes taking place in the real world. From the Accelerator program perspective, it gives them feedback on their products, events, processes, the ability to mentor the country’s future talent, and the beginning of a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Microsoft, as a silent and supportive mentor, is privileged to be ushering in Tomorrow. A future, in the hands of today’s youth whose minds are abuzz with the world- and life-changing ideas; ideas whose time has come.