Kshitij Marwah: From third last in his IIT- Delhi class to head of MIT Media Lab India Initiative

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By his own admission, Kshitij Marwah was an average student. At IIT-Delhi, where he studied, he was third from bottom. This was not because he wasn’t bright. His mind was not into regular studies. Here’s why it happened. In the last year of his course, he got an opportunity to go Harvard Medical School (HMS) and apply his computer science knowledge by working with doctors and do a thesis. This experience, which Marwah describes as ‘fundoo’ work, was a life-changing experience.

Culture difference in IIT- Delhi:

When he communicated his intention to go to HMS, IIT-D wanted him to follow procedures but he worked his way out to fly to HMS. “This was my first foray into creating something awesome, the project had designers, scientists and engineers,” recalls Marwah. But that joy was short-lived, he received a mail of suspension from IIT-D, and within a few days, he came back  “IITs are great, but there is a culture difference between how I was learning at HMS and what was happening in India,” adds Marwah.

Stanford, graduating and exploring:

A semester before he was supposed to graduate, Stanford Univeristy offered him a 7-8 month fellowship, which he took up.

His two stints at HMS and Stanford taught him a lot about innovation, collaboration and working with multidisciplinary teams. But it did not help him with his academics. When he was back for his  graduation ceremony, every student was lined people on basis on their GPAs (grade point average), and Marwah found himself third from last, but he told his Dad that it was based on alphabetical order. His Dad still doesn’t know.

Marwah biggest learning was that there was a huge cultural shift, the gap between him and his father was greater than his father and grandfather. He continued to be different, instead of living the IIT dream of a great job with big pay, he spent six months traveling in Europe and doing photography.

Tryst with MIT Media Lab:

Around this time Marwah heard about MIT Media Lab, but the impression he got was that it was for nerds. Following the advice of one of his friends, he applied. He was high up in the mountains in North India when he received an interview call from an MIT professor in early 2011. Marwah was not sure about what he said, but he was accepted. “When I first came into lab, it was a beautiful experience: the first five people that I met were a designer, doctor, photographer, material scientist and engineer, my whole life I used to ask myself whether photography was an art or a science, over here everything was mixed. The question on my mind was: why can’t we have this in India? Why go to other places in the West to meet these people?,” recalls Marwah.

More importantly, he felt he was finally at home, MIT Media Lab was full of people like him, who did not put a lot of emphasis on academics, including the head of the institution, Joichi Ito, who had dropped out of college. Everybody there wanted to dabble and create new stuff.  Marwah, also thought to himself that he did not want to wait till he was 50 years, made a lot of money, and then do some some philanthropy. India, he thought, will connect with a young Marwah rather than when he was 50 years old. The time was now.

Setting up the MIT Media Lab India Initiative:

He returned back to India, as Head, MIT Media Lab India Initiative, and launched the first design workshop. The goal was not to open a MIT Media Lab in India, but have a more bottom-up approach. For their first workshop in Mumbai, they received 3,000 to 4,000 applications, and they selected 200 students.

“The idea was to give these students a platform to express themselves and embed the MIT Media Lab DNA in them. There is a saying at MIT Media Lab, if you don’t fit in anywhere you will fit in here,” remarks Marwah. Over a period of five days, they had a mix of engineers, artists, designers who worked on 30 projects One of them Anirudh Sharma, took his project forward and created a new company called Ducere in 2011 to make intelligent/sensorial assistive devices for the visually impaired. Sharma is currently studies at the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab.

Even though the original intent was not to use the design workshop to find student talent, there have been several more examples like Sharma, who have followed up the workshop by gaining admission to MIT Media Lab.

Marwah followed up the workshop in Mumbai with a workshop in Delhi and Bangalore. The difference between the many hackathons that are conducted in India, and the design workshops that MIT Media Lab organizes is that they have a multidisciplinary approach and have a longer duration.

“Designers, technologists and final users get together to collaboratively identify problems and come up with a solution,” says Marwah.

Taking stock  and the future:

Marwah, who works with the Camera Culture group headed by Ramesh Raskar, Associate Professor, MIT Media Lab has been combining his love for photography, technology and art to come up with new innovations. The one with the most recognition is a new camera design called Light Field Camera technology, which when fitted inside a mobile camera, gives users the ability to capture single-shot 3D photos in high-resolution and also the ability to refocus a shot after it has been taken.

“The existing solutions are expensive or bulky, I wanted to democratize it and make any DSLR camera be able to do it. It is much like what photographs did to painting, my pitch is just take the photo and the rest can be taken care of by technology,” offers Marwah. He’s currently in the process of pitching his technology to HTC, Samsung, Apple and big Indian manufacturers, and is also in the process of launching his own company to take it to market. Marwah has informed Joichi, that he wants to stay in India and scale the current work that he’s doing.

“We can’t keep just keep creating creating accelerators and incubators without having innovation. In India we tend to look westward for the next technology innovation but we need to create a culture that fosters this habit in India at every level. My 3D Instagram like technology could have been developed in Silicon Valley, I was even offered money to do that, but I wanted to set an example and therefore developed it in India even though it cost me twice as much in terms of effort and investment,” adds Marwah.

Read more about him here.

Disclosure: The author first met Marwah at the INK Conference, in Kochi, where was hosted by the organizers. Marwah is an INK 2013 Fellow.

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