Hardware Mashups Inspire Frugal Tech

January 20, 2014, 11:49 AM

Hardware Mashups Inspire Frugal Tech


In 2009, Vinay Venkatraman was strolling the streets of Mumbai with two colleagues when he saw a group of people tinkering with old computer monitors and turning them into televisions.After observing the men over three weeks, Mr. Venkatraman and his team found that the workers were stripping the computer monitors, usually brought from the secondhand markets, and inserting T.V. circuits.

They even made T.V. remotes by scavenging components from the scrap market, said Mr. Venkatraman.

“It was really eye-opening as an experience for me,” he said in a recent telephone interview with The Wall Street Journal from his home in Denmark.

India is home to many such master recyclers and re-purposers and Hindi even has a special word it, ‘Jugaad’, meaning “frugal improvisation” which is catching on as a business principle.

The country also boasts of some innovative products such as Mitti Cool, a refrigerator made with clay, and a floating soap, that is less dense than water.

Inspired by those workers involved in what he calls “silicon cottage industries” in India’s financial capital, Mr. Venkatraman, started Frugal Digital in 2010 — a research organization based in Copenhagen and specializing in making low-cost technology equipment.

The nonprofit company makes use of common items such as outmoded mobile phones and clocks to design equipment such as hearing aids and projectors.

Mr. Venkatraman, 34, who grew up in India, graduated from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad in 2003– the top design school in India — and completed his post graduate studies in Italy.

It was his childhood and experiences of Jugaad in India and while living in Nigeria, that inspired his current venture to help people access basic things though inventive recycling.

“I have always admired the culture of improvisation,” said Mr. Venkatraman.

He started his career as a visual effects designer and has also consulted for top brands such as mobile phone company Nokia Corp., computer chip maker Intel Corp. and Lufthansa Technik, the maintenance and repair branch of German Lufthansa Group.

Frugal Digital was started using what its founder calls hardware mashups to address the challenges faced by people especially in the education and healthcare sector in developing countries.

“These are the biggest issues that the world is facing today,” said Mr. Venkatraman.

He also runs a data analytics company Leapcraft, which he started in 2013. Part of Leapcraft’s profits go into Frugal Digital for new projects.

Before each new venture, Frugal undertakes a rigorous study to determine where frugal engineering can help to address gaps in the system using items that are easily available in the local markets.

For example, while developing Clock Sense, medical equipment made basically from a clock, the team carried out extensive research in rural Andhra Pradesh to understand the rural healthcare system.

They found that many people living in those areas didn’t have access to proper healthcare as most of them lived at least seven to eight kilometers from the nearest health centers. Many people procrastinated about going to the doctor until their condition became critical.

To address this, Mr. Venkatraman and his team came up with a portable medical device that could be used to carry out simple tasks such as measuring pulse, blood sugar and oxygen levels. The team looked for gadgets that were easily available. They landed on a watch: on sale in the local market and simple to repair.

Clock Sense has been one of the most popular projects that the team has worked on, said Mr. Venkatraman, with many big companies enquiring about the product.

Mr. Venkatraman says he didn’t expect strong support for Frugal Digital right from the outset.

“I thought it was just me and my little crazy ideas trying to solve some complex problems,” he said.

But the turning point came when a video of a talk he gave at the Technology, Entertainment, Design, or TED conference in Doha in April 2012 explaining the work done by Frugal Digital, went viral over the internet.

Several designers, engineers and technologists since then have written to Mr. Venkatraman wanting to work with him.

Now, the designer is trying to tie up with some of the top Indian educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology and his alma mater, the National Institute of Design, to develop similar low-cost products.

Mr. Venkatraman doesn’t want to manufacturer these products but plans to share the knowledge he and his team have acquired while designing them. He hopes that tying up with manufacturers and developers will help Clock Sense reach 250,000 health workers in India.

He plans to build a mixed offline and online platform for people interested in frugal engineering to collaborate to build similar products. “If they come with a better version [of the products], it’s only for their advantage,” said Mr. Venkatraman.

There is one important factor in frugal design that designers, concerned mostly with building beautiful products, usually don’t take into account: The cost.

At Frugal, innovation is as much about keeping the cost low as about keeping the design fresh.

“If we cannot make a product affordable, no matter how good the product is, it’s of no use,” said Mr. Venkatraman. “We set a target price and try to work within the constraints of the cost to see what’s the best we can come up with,” he added.

In India, where mobile phones are more easily available than toilets, and millions of people live in poverty, frugal innovation is, according to Mr. Venkatraman, the “call of the hour.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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