Young, Warm and Level-Headed: Mr Subrahmanyam Pulipaka
Rudransh Sharma | Nov 12, 2018
When the dust settles, the face we see is of the victor. The chief guest for INNOVISION 2018 Mr. Subrahmanyam Pulipaka fits into the bracket of victors that the above quote talks about. This year's Innovision stood witness to a man who is driven by his own passion, young and warm blood to strive for a completely renewable India. With his research and entrepreneur background, he makes for a perfect candidate for team Monday Morning to have a word with. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Monday Morning-How are you feeling today and how has your experience been in this college?
S Pulipaka: It’s good. Especially given that I have heard that this Institute ranks amongst the best NITs in the country. Your campus is appealing but I am yet to fully explore it but I must say the concept behind your techfest seems appealing to me.
MM- You were speaking on solar energy techniques and opportunity for young entrepreneurs. So, for MM would you please reiterate your views on how is the solar energy linked with entrepreneurship?
SP: India has been on the forefront of the solar energy revolution especially since Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over. We have had a complete overhaul of the target (energy installation) we had set for ourselves. We now hope to achieve 100,000 Megawatt by the end of 2020 which will account to over 20% of our entire energy production. He also co-founded COP21 the international solar energy alliance and because of these two things, India is there on High-Intensity Proliferation Chart which India was not a part of, at least not until the last decade. So this is creating so many new opportunities for the solar energy entrepreneurs in the way, of developing new technologies to increase the growth of the energy sector. When you look at the demographics of the energy production 80% of the share is been controlled by 20% of the population. The rest 20% will be what these entrepreneurs will majorly focus on, through innovative things. 20% may sound less but actually, there is a huge scope for them in this sector.
MM- The main inventive of any entrepreneur is to earn ballistic profits. So keeping that in mind is there enough margin there to earn?
SP: We are referred to as millennials you know, not only because of its textbook definition but also due to the mindset we share. We like to be asset free. Ola and Uber did not have any asset until recently and this is very similar when it comes to the solar energy entrepreneurs. You do not want to own a power plant but you can take all the profits from it very easily. The main job of these entrepreneurs would be to develop this sector in terms of technology. The problem with the Indian market is that it is majorly public sector when it comes to solar energy in specific. Thus the growth is not homogenous which led to nosediving of the prices. So currently we are juxtaposing such that the growth in terms of technology is increasing and the prices are reducing. Still, I see a good future and a good enough margin for profits to be properly explored by the people.
MM- Privatization of solar energy would only lead to the increment in the prices, so considering that solar energy is considered a cheaper alternative to the conventional power sources so what do you feel about and how will the profits still be preserved for the entrepreneurs out there?
SP: It's only when you are just getting the power out from them, that they are cheaper. While installing, it is still very costly. The thing is that private players are still here, they are just being guided by the government. When it comes to the entrepreneurs their main challenge or work will be to address how to increase the quality of operation by keeping the expenditure in check. So maximizing the efficiency of operation is their task, not the performance.
MM- Why are you particularly inclined towards the youth of the developing nations like India and Africa and what’s the link that you perceive among these two nations?
SP: A very good question. When I was in Rwanda in July the honorable prime minister was there. Before leaving he laid down 10 guiding principles for India and Africa to work together. Something which was very clear was the link that India and Africa share. Combined, they both constitute to 1/3rd of the world’s population. Also going by both the geographic and demographic dividend there is no doubt that 65% of this population is of the youths and this is closer to 70% in Africa. This goes without saying that these people will be taking the baton tomorrow. When it comes to the problem of energy access the number of people with no energy access in India is the same as the number of people without the energy access in the entire African continent. So when you have the same problem and the same distribution why not use them both to iron out the problems we share. That was the question I had. So immediately after coming back to India, I started the youth energy forum. Youth energy is more powerful than any other form of energy. Why is that I’m more inclined towards the youth here is because most of the time we see them as job seekers rather than creators and energy sector will create jobs in an exponential manner.
MM-Entrepreneurship requires huge capital. But these two countries are not that fortunate monetarily. How do you plan to counter that in your model?
SP: Yes, I agree for entrepreneurship you need money but I won’t say that there is no money in India and Africa. Actually, there are several African nations that are richer than many of richest countries. But you are correct in one way, on how to make capital access to them. They are mostly thought as capital intensive and some time they actually are. Through the forum (I can answer behalf of the team), we are trying to facilitate or procure funds to make a fund of funds to nurture ideas and snipe our problems. Other than that African development bank, Asian Development bank there are lots of lines of credits extended to African nations. In fact, our honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 4 million dollars’ worth of line of credit to the entire continent out of which equal share will go to the countries, whichever he visited in the last 4 years which is around 24 countries. So funds are already there. We have clarity which people think youth-centric organization lacks at. We will target one thing at a time and then we will scale it up and that’s the approach we are adopting when we approach to procure funds.
MM-How was your childhood like? What propelled you to be the person you are and the views you hold now?
SP: There is a batman analogy here: you either die or see yourself become a villain; with this, I would like to begin my story. When I was small, my city had which had a thermal power plant one which incidentally is one of the largest in south India. We still had irregular access to electricity I used to ask my parents about it. They used to say “it was beyond their control”. Another thing which they used to say which I never paid much heed to was “you’ll be the one to clear the challenge”. BITS Pilani cleared that up and gave me a good perspective. That’s where I knew where to go. So from 3rd year, I started working on projects. Even after college, I wanted to be involved in electrification. I visited the African and Indian villages to see their condition and then made up my mind. The vision was always clear “power to empower”. We just don’t provide them electricity and come back because if you give them electricity what will they do? You should have an allied activity intertwined in such a way that not only does the economy improve but also their standard of living is raised to a whole new level.
MM-Tell us about your research on the photovoltaic cells.
SP: So before being an entrepreneur, I was an avid researcher. I have 12 publications in different journals. I began with the reliability of solar panels. What is the best way to maintain or operate the efficiency such that the plant optimally performs? This.was the question I set out to answer. Rajasthan is an arid region due to it being a dessert, also is filled with the dust. That is where I began on how to address the soil problems on the panels. Which gradually evolved into a data-centric approach. Why go there to see the soiling instead I can see the data to see the condition and this was the question and we answered it through the product which I developed in BITS that eventually became a commercial product. That was my journey.
MM-How is the work culture in BITS Pilani? What differences did you feel right of the bat coming here to NIT Rourkela?
SP: It is not an apple to apple comparison because we are fully private. In BITS there is no attendance policy we have a lot of freedom and we are compelled to take ownership. The faculty is only on a need to know basis rather than they being proactive. There I would say, gave us the kickstart. One day you are a student who just came to pursue engineering the next day you are making important decisions of your life. Starting from making your own timetable. You make your own timetable, you choose which classes and what tutor to select. That made us snap out of our confront zone from the very beginning and continued for the rest of the time we stayed at the campus. I strongly believe that’s something that should be followed that’s the only difference I saw here.
MM-What are your views on the research culture we have in India and how does it pan out on a pan-global scale?
SP: And a very interesting question and a topic very close to my heart. I went to the US, China and Russia there academics and industry are in sync. Everything that’s been researched in the university is being backed up by the industry in one way or the other. Industry uses the universities as a crash bed, if it crashes fine, if it takes off good, bring it on the market. In one way they are getting dedicated researchers who are not on the payroll to work on their product. Thus close to all the risk is mitigated. This is something very good and what India lacks in. The University gets full on exposure of the industry right from day 1. They know what the industry wants, they know its transformation and take on real-time projects. For students, they are the luckiest one, they apply what they learn in real time. They don’t wait like us for 4 years for the application of their knowledge. In India, we also have government-funded institutes which are swimming in money. The R&D there is only limited to publications with high credentials. It never sees the industry and thus no one from these industries trusts us, students. It’s not like we lack the capability. Since all the heads are the alumni of these institutes only. So why not nurture them in the university.
MM-You've been working in various different countries, which among them do you feel is the most accommodating when it comes to a foreigner?
SP: is very subjective to the reason for the travel. Still, ironically Rwanda Africa is the most accommodative.
MM-What vision do you have for India and its youth?
SP: Very good question, which cannot be answered in simple terms. We are the fastest growing economy and the population. When population increase the resource distribution shakes from the ground up because the resources are not there to sustain such a large population. We have already crossed that threshold decades ago. What I see is the youth can stop the brain drain and move to a time where anti-brain drain will happen. Brain drain is people leaving the country to settle into another country. I mean you are an asset. Since you are from a government institute which means part of your fees is subsidized by the taxpayer’s money. When they are paying its imperative that your work should help the taxpayers of the country. The brain drain will drop as far as a belief because we understood what the problem was and explored its market opportunity. India’s rural area is a 500 Billion Dollar market. We need to focus on indigenous products which counter the western ones. That can happen only if the youth decide to stay here and develop it. So I see 10-15 years down the lane this thing to be changing. I don’t see we will have our google because we will have something better that. We are doing well in science so I see us becoming a garden not only to be visited but make us grow at the same time. Thus I am very optimistic about India
MM-How do you manage to be the CEO and as well as being a researcher?
SP: It’s very tricky. It’s not that easy being both because as researchers you have a confirmation bias among, all the 21 bias that affects a human decision confirmation bias is the best and the worst. As a researcher you seek validation but, as CEO you can’t wait until something is perfect because someone would have already sold it in the market. So it’s an inner conflict for both me and the team who are more of commercial mindset, but the next gen CEO would be tech oriented or researchers because tech and management should go hand in hand. Imagine it like a tricycle with the hands being economy, technology, and management. People say let’s drive it from the technological side but if the economy becomes greedier it will tilt the vehicle towards its side. So ideally you should drive it from economy’s side, with the two in the back. With that aspect in mind I strongly believe that there is no need of a CTO, CEO should have the vision and should know the fair deal in the technology so he can manage both lead us forward.
MM- If given a choice, which side of you would you like to realize: a CEO, or a researcher?
SP: It is a very tricky question. The researcher always wants to come out, because of the kick of innovation, but I would still suggest/want the CEO should come out because we as a CEO see the impact of what we are doing every day. We can actually make a change. You are on the front face while representing the technology and your country. But when we are representing the technology a CEO could do it better than a researcher so I would still want CEO to come out.
They have a word for us that is untested. We have to wait for 4 years to apply what we learn in the industries.
--- Mr. Pulipaka on how different and difficult is the academic culture in India as compared to other counties.
MM-What were the hardships you had to endure to get where you are today?
SP: Well, it’s a journey full of emotions. Because in India we don’t have the appetite for new technology especially when it’s costly as well as when it’s made in India. We like things from the west we use them without any inhibition. The second challenge is being young and straight out of college. They have a term for us and that is we are “untested”. The first question they ask is “So how can you sell it?” They are also very biased on the name tags of the institute we belong to and the lack of credentials.
MM- Do you believe that a world without fossil fuel could exist?
SP: Yes, I believe such a world could exist and if I’m not wrong all of us should. The IPCC report which came out recently says we have only 12 years left to change the way of living so that the temperature grown is less than 1.5 degrees. For this we only have 3 options.1 to reduce the fossil fuel consumption, 2 to increase the carbon conversion rate, 3 is to shut down the fossil fuel consumption and shutdown is the only option we should go through with. The renewable sources of energy are abundant and we are not exploiting any of its reservoirs. All we need to do is develop the required technology to convert everything into energy. I’m not in a fan of nuclear energy because instead of going with nature we are going against it. Bottom line is awareness the more you spread the more the switch will be. So if not immediately I can see gradually a world without the fossil fuel to exist.
MM-Since most of your work includes working in rural areas. What difficulties do you have to face? Have you ever had to explain your work to a layman?
SP: Yes, I had to. He asked me “what you do?” in technical terms which he dialed to understand. So I told him that “I am a doctor of solar panels”. When we go to rural areas, the first part of the job is we do a survey and evaluate the stakes and stakeholder. So most of the times they think they just want to exploit us and they will leave. Because there have been such cases. The solution is to involve more villagers in the decision making process. There is something we call as “E grade” means engineering, economy and entrepreneurship grade. We want to involve them so we let them pay us on a monthly basis, and we allow them to use it for themselves. Another thing is awareness and accessibility. Another major problem is the stereotypes and prejudices they have there.
MM-Tell us about your forum and how as a student can I contribute towards it?
SP: A good question. The main aim of the forum is to act as a platform in which youths from India and Africa can come together and debate on the challenges and soln. this is the first part, we need to a part of the solar energy revolution and it is nothing but thought converted into action. So we cannot debate sitting inside ac rooms which consumes more energy than an entire village. To put in action we are collaborating with various things. We identify the project then we divide into necessary elements then we seek support from college going students underprivileged and the stakeholders and we want to form a consortium where everyone can be a part of it. In any part of a chain we have a various chain so in any chain, we need students and youth. So students can contra in a brainstorming session.
MM-Any words for our readers and for us?
SP: Nice name! We are supposed to lose interest when someone says Monday Morning but you guys are from what I have heard the only entertainment source the Institute has. Your Quora posts and controversial posts. I am very happy and keep on doing what you are doing. One thing is that is we are afraid of failing and yes you should be but to a certain extent. There is also a success in failing. So if you successfully fail you can tell people how not fail. So use your title which is an oxymoron itself and let others know it’s ok to fail but you have to fail successfully.