Rainmaker wins $100,000 Lemelson-MIT award

Nonprofit venture capitalist BP Agrawal wins humanitarian award for rain-harvesting system, health kiosks.

BP Agrawal, founder of Sustainable Innovations, has won the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability.

The award goes to an individual's overall achievement in improving the lives of others through science or engineering innovation, not for one particular invention.

Agrawal has achievements in several areas. He started out in the corporate world working for big names like Hughes, ITT, GTE, General Dynamics, and Vecna Technologies bringing patented technologies to market. During his corporate stint, he patented a single-bit voice-processing technology that enabled voice over satellite, and a "self-healing" modem. He was also the associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing and on Communications, and an evaluator of small-business innovation research program applications for the National Science Foundation.

Then Agrawal migrated to the nonprofit world to become a rainmaker for those doing good. He founded Sustainable Innovations in 2007. It's a nonprofit organization that helps tech entrepreneurs build self-sustainable projects that can aid developing nations. The organization becomes a partner, finds capital, and assists in project development and management, as well as marketing.

But Agrawal could also be considered a rainmaker in the literal sense.

Agrawal's organization has submitted a proposal to the Indian government to install a large-scale version of a rainwater harvesting system. Aakash Ganga, which means "River from Skies," collects rainwater from individual rooftops, and pipes it into manmade underground reservoirs that can be accessed as the need arises during drought season. The business plan revolves around villagers renting out their rooftops for water collection, using a portion of the collected water for their own household, and sending excess water to a common village tank. Seventy percent of the water is used by the individual households or sold. The rest goes toward supporting local agriculture.

Agrawal capitalized on local pride and the existing Indian custom of jalwa puja, a practice in which mothers worship at a spring 45 days after the birth of a child, to protect the reservoir tanks from would-be contaminators or poor maintenance. Women are invited to worship at the wells per Indian custom, and the names of the local masons are engraved on the reservoir tanks to instill a sense of community ownership.

The technology has been successful for 10,000 villagers in various drought regions throughout India, which also happens to be Agrawal's original homeland.

Agrawal, who came from a small farming village in India, has a degree from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in India, a Ph.D. from the University of South Florida, and completed the executive MBA program at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

In addition to the Aakash Ganga rainwater project, Agrawal has partnered with TEOCO (The Employee Owned Company) CEO Atual Jain, who is also a Sustainable Innovations board member. Their joint project is called Arogya Ghar, aka Clinic for Mass Care. Arogya Ghar provides computerized health clinic kiosks that only require an individual with a high-school education to run the available health care services effectively, and cost an estimated 25 cents a visit per patient. The kiosk has been tested in rural areas where access to proper medical services are scarce. In 2009, it was approved by the Asian Development Bank for a pilot project in China, and has been successful enough at curbing the spread of preventable diseases that USAID, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization are interested in possibly using the kiosks in 50 villages by 2012.

Agrawal will accept his sustainability award at the Lemelson-MIT Program's Eureka Fest June 16-19. This year's student prize went to Erez Lieberman-Aiden. The $500,000 2010 Lemelson-MIT Prize has not yet been announced.

The Lemelson Foundation, founded by Jerome H. and Dorothy Lemelson, has given over $150 million to research since its inception. Jerome Lemelson is best known as the prolific inventor and patent holder who championed inventors' rights and challenged the limits of patent law.

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