Meet Nilay Kulkarni, Nashik’s wonder kid: self-taught programmer and student entrepreneur at 17!

“It was the first time a real-time technological solution that we built during Kumbhathon was used to measure crowd flow in Kumbh Mela. Ashioto counted 500 thousand people in 18 hours and impacted crowd routing decisions during the event.” — Nilay Kulkarni, student, Founder and CTO, Ashioto Analytics

This blog showcases the story of 14-year old Nilay Kulkarni, our wonder kid from Nashik, India — his work with Kumbhathon and MIT Emerging Worlds team, also a brief account of how Nilay crafted his pilgrimage from being an innovator to a student-entrepreneur. His invention materialized into a startup he co-founded Ashioto Analytics, a crowd traffic and footfall analytics system which heightens the likelihood of a zero-casualty stampede management.

MIT’s buildathon starts in 2014..

Nilay Kulkarni, at the age of 14, was spotted for his stellar problem solving skills at a screening for MIT’s buildathon at Purushottam high School. He was being mentored to beat the massive challenges of Kumbha Mela to be held in Nashik in 2015, by way of MIT Emerging World initiative Kumbhathon — a series of 2-year technical hackathons. Little did he know that this would become a life-altering event.

At a scale so massive as Kumbha Mela of 2015 hailed as world’s largest religious jamboree, opportunities galore for innovation included mobile apps for crowd control and redirect, live monitoring of dynamically gathered data on public transportation and accommodation dynamics, and the availability of first aid and help for casualties, and many more initiatives in making Kumbha Mela’15 casualty-free. Nilay picked the challenge of building a crowd counter and so his journey with MIT mentorship as a student innovator began.

Professor Ramesh Raskar, MIT and visionary MIT, Emerging Worlds (also Founder, REDX)

“Using computation as the core, this creative community can bring in some surprising results, in creating social impact, as we work on billion dollar ideas that could change a billion lives.” — Professor Ramesh Raskar, MIT

Kumbhathon, a periodic co-location of innovators — the genesis

Sparks flew between Prof. Ramesh Raskar, the visionary behind Emerging Worlds, MIT and Sunil Khandbahale (MIT Sloan Fellow) when they met as INK fellows and discussed the possibility of bringing together and co-locating students, local governing bodies, collaborators and investors in dealing with the pop-up city which was about to engulf Nashik in 2015. Kumbhathon, a series of innovation challenges hosted by the MIT Media lab in collaboration with local corporate and governing bodies of Nashik, India was born out of this interaction and provided a platform for Nilay to find his calling as an innovator and entrepreneur.

Prof. Ramesh Raskar, (Head, MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Group to the left) and Sunil Khandabahale (MIT Sloan Fellow), visionaries backing the idea of Kumbhathon

Nilay(in blue) with co-innovators and collaborators at one of the many 2-yr. Buildathons (for Kumbhathon)

For Nilay this exercise in hack-marathons (buildathon) across two years, helped locate his future-collaborators and partners for his entrepreneurial venture. These repetitive drills in exploring inexpensive rapid prototyping tools, like 3D printers, micro-controllers, and cost-effective pay-as-you-go cloud computing resources, made it possible to shrink the time, cost and impact cycles of innovation. Such cycles would otherwise cost millions of dollars but rapid prototyping paved way for pragmatic solutions in cost effective ways, and was key to launching Nilay’s journey as a student entrepreneur.

MIT Emerging Worlds team (Nilay second from left). Prof. Ramesh Raskar (extreme right), Sunil Khandbahale (second from right)

Getting to play Willy Wonka! waving the innovator’s wand at the buildathons…..

Nilay recalls that being a part of Kumbhathon was magical and indeed no words could describe the experience.

 “Kumbhathon was all about problems which would be faced by people two years from then at Kumbha Mela. Not just describing the problem, but groundbreaking innovative solutions which almost seem like magic!” he exclaims.“ I started imagining that among the 120 innovators, all of us were Willy Wonkas who could do magical stuff for people. As I started attending the event, my heart was set on stampede problem — priorly 39 people had died due to stampede problems. I thought I somehow wanted to solve this” says Nilay as he recounts his resolve. “We started off counting people in real time. We were planning to help the police direct stampedes in real time” says Nilay.

Nilay 14-yrs. (second from right) explaining the crowd counter application to Commissioner of Nashik Police, Nashik, India

Nilay’s team consisted of six people at that time. Kumbhathon was conducted every 3 or 4 months, initially with varied participation, but three members in Nilay’s team stuck around for about a year. In 3 days, they built a prototype with cardboard and tin foil, then piezoelectric switch followed by a matrix of switches and the product evolved from there. It was like a dream come true as an innovator for Nilay to be able to solve a problem, a dream of being like Willy Wonka

The first step using Crowd counter at Kumbha Mela 2015 (Nilay fourth from right)

Nilay’s voice was brimming with pride when he mentioned that many re-route decisions were taken by the city authorities based on the data that his team generated, “The step we all took at Kumbh Mela 2015. It was the first time a real-time technological solution was used to measure crowd flow in Kumbh Mela. Ashioto counted 500 thousand people in 18 hours and impacted crowd routing decisions during the event.”

Now what next for Nilay after Kumbhathon? Idea hexagon….?

Nilay[center] with mentors from the MIT Emerging Worlds team

 

Nilay’s team celebrated the success of Kumbhathon but what was next in store? With the solution Nilay and team came up with, what problem could be chosen next? In this case we are hinting at applying the concept of idea hexagon by Prof. Raskar, in his own words,: “ now we have a hammer we have hit one nail, how many more nails can we hit. There is a big market and a sustainable business”.

In an effort to create a sustainable business and fuel the on-going efforts in innovation, a physical location for MIT Emerging Worlds’ REDX co-innovation model called Digital Impact Square (DISQ) was created by Tata Consultancy Services Foundation (TCS) in Nashik. Several times in a year, a team from the MIT Media Lab participates in week-long camps to advance inventions. These efforts nurture relationships that are critical to the innovation ecosystem.

MIT Mentors at Digital Impact Square — June 2017 interacting with local innovators and entrepreneurs. (Nilay in yellow)

After Kumbhathon, Nilay recounts the fate of co-innovators. “During Kumbhathon and Kumbha Mela there was a lot of support, later on the team of innovators felt a wave of insecurity not knowing what will happen to this ecosystem of innovation at grass root level. The ecosystem was not really supportive back then. But when I was in 10th grade, things changed and I was happy to learn that a facility so special as DISQ was created , in a tier-2 city like Nashik”. Nilay is now geared up to use his innovation for a larger variety of problems at a much bigger scale. The crowd counter successfully deployed by Nilay and team is now being incubated at DISQ, Nashik and uses Prof Raskar’s REDX philosophy of bottom-up co-innovation.

After Kumbhathon, Nilay recounts the fate of co-innovators. “During Kumbhathon and Kumbha Mela there was a lot of support, later on the team of innovators felt a wave of insecurity not knowing what will happen to this ecosystem of innovation at grass root level. The ecosystem was not really supportive back then. But when I was in 10th grade, things changed and I was happy to learn that a facility so special as DISQ was created , in a tier-2 city like Nashik”. Nilay is now geared up to use his innovation for a larger variety of problems at a much bigger scale.

The crowd counter successfully deployed by Nilay and team is now being incubated at DISQ, Nashik and uses Prof Raskar’s REDX philosophy of bottom-up co-innovation. Nilay obtained critical guidance from MIT mentors and cross discipline experts across industry and academia.

“It is amazing to know that there is an ecosystem which supports a sustained innovation model in Nashik today. All our mentors who guided us through Kumbhathon are still with us to guide us on our way forward.”, says Nilay very proudly. “The moment I entered DISQ, it was nothing less than Google for many of us. I remember I had told myself: I will stay here; I will never go home. DISQ is like a programmer’s dream = unlimited coffee, unlimited wifi, bean bags. I kept telling myself that I will spend all my time here and will never go back home”..

MIT mentors craft Nilay’s critical transition: innovator → entrepreneur

Nilly’s idea on crowd counter, as an innovator, shaped up into a start-up Ashioto Analytics, Inc. (defunct.), and he has decided to share the code as open source for anyone who is interested to explore footfall analytics during events i.e., pilgrimage, concerts, Burning Man, etc. and could cause a significant load on infrastructure and civic facilities.

Adding to it, he reiterated the idea hexagon concept in spawning cycles in innovation,”Our mentors from MIT and DISQ pushed us really hard to understand the problem deeply. We are studying the nails — the problems (refer Idea Hexagon concept by Prof. Raskar). The kind of problems surrounding the existing problem. So that this would allow for us to make significant changes in our approach to make it work for people. See how our product fits into the need of the hour and the need of people. It is a difficult ongoing journey from being an innovator and evolving into entrepreneur. “

The Key takeaway for student entrepreneurs

Nilay recalls insightfully, “If I look back, I find it ridiculous, the kind of assumptions and thought process I started off my journey as an innovator with; what our team was thinking when we started this project Ashioto during Kumbha Mela. It seemed all so easy to create a business out of it. We really thought people would start paying for it. What is the value proposition? How much will you charge, why are we building a specific feature; would you sell the mat? or would it be more like a service. REDX has made this entire experience insightful. I find myself fortunate to be in this position. “

“Overall the way our journey is structured, when I look at the other startups, there is an absence of flipped venture model; I can see clearly how it can fail in the Indian scenario. It is a stark truth we need to wake up to and contextualize our business models to match our ecosystem.” Nilay specifically emphasizes on breaking the myths of a traditional incubator mindset and is a huge proponent of Prof. Raskar’s REDX model or innovation and also the flipped venture model.

To Nilay the idea of REDX and flipped venture models grew on him naturally. Nilay recalls what Prof. Raskar has to say:

“Copying the way business done in US in India is not going to work. ” — Prof. Ramesh Raskar, MIT Media Lab (Founder, REDX, MIT Emerging Worlds)

“ The ecosystem in India is very different. Overall the way our journey is structured, when I look at the other startups, there is an absence of flipped venture model; I can see clearly how it can fail in the Indian scenario. It is a stark truth we need to wake up to and contextualize our business models to match our ecosystem.”, shares Nilay.

As I wrap up Nilay’s story, I would like to leave you with a message from Nashik’s local hero.

Concluding…Nilay’s advice to an emerging breed of student-entrepreneurs!

For all you aspiring innovators and student entrepreneurs out there, here is what Nilay has to say,” A new wave of student entrepreneurs is coming up. While I was going through this journey, we got a fair amount of news coverage. I was only school going kid. I felt a misfit but I am loving the way things are shaping up. Students are capable of picking up anything they want. Once students come up with projects, it just ends there. A lot of effort needs to be made in converting these school/college projects and taking them to the next level. We are losing talent because the students are raised to think that it is taboo to stand out. Students are taught to think that whatever work they are doing, is of no consequence or value. On the other end of the spectrum, no need to get lost in the short-lived fame of being a student entrepreneur and be open to learning.“

As Nilay dreams of making Ashioto’s code open source he states his mission: “My new dream is to improve, adapt, and deploy this system all over the world…”

In conclusion, as a stepping stone and guide in this journey as an innovator and entrepreneur, look to platforms like Emerging Worlds’ REDX which offer close mentorship and collaboration. Such platforms are not only objective and impact-driven but also help in collectively driving and directing the team, the problem and the solution, very early on in the cycle of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Summarizing..

  • In his own words, you have witnessed the story of innovator and student-entrepreneur Nilay Kulkarni and how mentorship from MIT Media Lab’s Special Interest Group — Emerging Worlds has helped him launch his first entrepreneurial venture.
  • About Nilay’s personal experience with MIT mentorship, how REDX — (an MIT platform for co-innovation) and flipped venture model have surpassed expectations in helping social entrepreneurs solve relevant and burning societal problems.

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  • If you are an aspiring innovator or entrepreneur, through Nilay’s story I have showcased how it is effective to collaborate with key stakeholders early on in your entrepreneurial journey or your course as an innovator i.e., in effect the philosophy boils down to innovation first always, entrepreneurship next. Idea first, money next!
  • You have seen how Emerging Worlds’ continuous sustained innovation model is at work in developing countries e.g., Nashik, a tier-2 city in India
  • If you are deliberating on what kind of an incubator or start-up mentorship will work for you, you will learn about success stories and pitfalls of traditional incubators versus REDX (a bottom up co-innovation model proposed by MIT mentorship) and uses the flipped-venture model.

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About the author:Vidyangi (neuroscientist, biomedical engineer) is a speaker and author of the book Vertical Living. In the last two years, her debut attempt as an author has helped her experiment and apply concepts in human potential to pitching, studying innovation as a process, and exploring traits of successful entrepreneurs. She is a cross-discipline expert in areas related to creativity, communication and leadership. Her book Vertical Living talks about lifestyle traits of high achievers and exponential thinkers. Her book has been featured in London, New York, and Beijing International Book Fairs in 2017.

 

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