A Chat With Sujatha Srinivasan, The Brain Behind ARISE, An All-Indian, Low Cost ‘Standing Wheelchair’

ARISE, a 'standing wheelchair', was recently launched by IIT Madras. Here is the brain behind this, the unassuming Prof Sujatha Srinivasan, talking with her junior alumnus, Namrata Vora.

ARISE, a ‘standing wheelchair’, was recently launched by IIT Madras. Here is the brain behind this, the unassuming Prof Sujatha Srinivasan, talking with her junior alumnus, Namrata Vora.

In the current environment of depressing news from all quarters, here is a story of an amazing woman innovator with a mission.

Prof Sujatha Srinivasan, Department of Mechanical Engineering at IIT Madras, has recently been in the news for the commercial launch of ARISE, an amazing standing wheelchair. The innovative and functional design is exactly the kind of product we would expect from Prof Srinivasan, given her extraordinary professional and personal background.

I had the privilege of speaking with Sujatha, and bringing you the inspiring story of this woman, someone who faced all the challenges that came her way with grit and composure, while always remaining clear about what mattered most to her. It is a story that is a splendid affirmation of the fact that what matters most is that you believe in yourself. I am sure Suj will brush off this and any other praise – she is one of the most unassuming persons on the planet!

Sujatha was my senior during my BTech years at IIT-Madras. I met her again after nearly 25 years this summer. We were visiting the campus and met her in her assistive devices lab. The wheelchair was ready for launch, we saw a demo of it working and she told us all about it in detail, as well as about other innovations that are in the pipeline. My daughters were beyond impressed and it certainly upped my coolness quotient in their eyes for having such amazing friends!

Watch a video on the standing wheelchair, and hear Prof Sujatha Srinivasan speak here.

Read on…

NV: Thanks Suj for your time in the middle of a super hectic schedule. Please tell us what makes this chair innovative.

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Sujatha Srinivasan: Hi Namrata, so this wheelchair is different because it helps the user stand up. If a person is paraplegic, he or she loses control over their lower body and cannot stand up. However they do need to stand up in order to avoid secondary conditions like pressure sores and poor circulation. Usually a person who suffers from this condition needs an enormous amount of support both from aids and from other people, just to stand up. Using this chair they are able to stand up themselves as the seat swivels up gently when the user chooses to activate that mechanism.

NV: That is a life-changing innovation then!

Sujatha Srinivasan: The basic idea of integrating standing into the wheelchair has been around for a while. However, it was out of reach for most people mostly because of the cost. The ARISE wheelchair is a rugged low-cost product and is suited to uneven Indian terrain too. It is especially good in rural areas, a user can easily go 1-2 km on his/her own – so they can be employed or run a small shop themselves.

NV: This is revolutionary, clearly!

Sujatha Srinivasan: We have also built in many safety features. For instance, in order to ensure the mechanism does not get accidentally activated in a crowded area, the design is such that it can be activated only when operated by both hands and is gradual. The design also includes a detachable knee block for portability. If that is not present, standing cannot happen – this means the user is not accidentally tipped up.

NV: And there is a dramatic cut in its cost!

Sujatha Srinivasan: An equivalent product in the US is much more expensive primarily because it is custom-made. The manufacturer will actually fly down to take measurements of the user. The design of our product incorporates various adjustments to allow it to be customised to the user – it is a one-time process. This enables both mass-manufacturing of the product and customisation for the first time, which makes it affordable.

NV: So tell me Suj, how did the chair come about?

Sujatha Srinivasan: After my BTech from IIT-M and Masters in the US, I worked in prosthetics design and eventually did a doctorate in the field. We moved back to India, and then when I looked around I found that nothing had changed in the field of prosthetics in 15 years. I took up this challenge and saw it as an opportunity. I decided to carry on my work on designing prosthetics and aids for those with disability.

NV: You are a perfect example of someone who has made best use of what this country offers to hard-working young people, then took opportunities offered on an international level, and brought what you have learnt back home and innovated a product that improves people’s lives.

Sujatha Srinivasan: (laughing) Well I have always been different, and I have always felt that that was not an impediment.

NV: I am glad I am taking your story to my friends, family and all those who read this article! This is a story that needs to be told! So let’s go to the beginning – please can you tell us something about your childhood?

Sujatha Srinivasan: I grew up in different cities in India as my father had a transferable job. When I was 15, we were living in Delhi and my father had a sudden heart attack and passed away. My mother had never worked outside the home but was determined to educate my brother and me, so she took up a job. The three of us lived all alone in Delhi, not the best place for a young girl to grow up. It was very hard. I had a friend in school though – she was the one who kept me going.

NV: That must have been awful. I cannot even begin to imagine how you must have carried on. What did you do next?

Sujatha Srinivasan: My parents had always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. I was a diligent student and enjoyed maths and science at school, so I decided I could get into Delhi College of Engineering if I did well in my board exams as I wanted to stay close to my mother and brother. I didn’t prepare for JEE as I did not want to live in a hostel. At this point, my mother felt it would be much better if we all lived closer to family. So we arrived in Madras, I wrote JEE and also the Tamil Nadu state entrance test. I had no idea how to even approach the problems in JEE and I did not fare much better in the state test either. I got a place in a BSc Maths course with some difficulty as I was from a different state.

NV: And then?

Sujatha Srinivasan: In November I suddenly got a letter saying I could join an engineering college in a small town as the wait list had moved. Since we had relatives in the town, my mother agreed to let me go.

I arrived there in the middle of year, with a lot of catching up to do. However I got a culture shock – I did not enjoy being there as it was quite regressive. Girl students were expected to only wear sarees and had no freedom of any sort. I decided to explore how to get out of there. JEE was my ticket! So I started to look into how I could appear for it again. Here too, I found a friend who was very supportive. I had to travel to Trichy to write the JEE, in the middle of my college internal exams. This was risky as there was no guarantee I’d get through JEE, and could end up doing badly in my college exams too! This time I was better prepared however. When the JEE results were published, I found I had a good enough rank to get into a Mechanical Engg course at IIT Madras.

NV: You make it all sound so easy! It must have been all smooth here onwards.

Sujatha Srinivasan: I was happy to be back in Madras where my family was. I topped my branch in my first year but decided against a branch transfer despite being eligible because of a great mentor – a Mech Engg senior girl student. I was the only woman student out of a class of 60. It was anything but smooth – I hold no grudges any more, but being the only woman student was very tough. Thanks to some steadfast friends, I managed to carry on and do okay.

NV: 1 out of 60! We were 5 women in a class of 34, and yet it was tricky. Hats off to you! What did you decide to do next?

Sujatha Srinivasan: I explored options for my BTech final year project – I told myself I’d do something that had tangible benefits. I looked into what the professors in my department were doing, and found a project that being led by Dr Nair in the Composites Centre and Dr Jayaprakash in the Mech Engg department – working with CMC Vellore to design knee joints for polio braces. That is how I got interested in this area. I really enjoyed the work and eventually won the Best BTech Project Award!

NV: You are so cool! I had no idea! Did you head to the US after this?

Sujatha Srinivasan: I applied for Masters programs in the US but wanted to work specifically in the area of biomechanics that would help people who needed assistance. I did not get financial aid initially so joined work. Eventually a TA position opened up in University of Toledo and I flew into the US to start my masters program. My guide Prof Kramer was very helpful and remains our friend even today. He would drive me over to meet prosthetists in the area to explore potential problems. I submitted a proposal and got accepted. I designed, analysed and optimised a mechanism for knee disarticulation prostheses. I got my first patent as a result of my work for my Masters program. I also met my future husband here.

NV: Fantastic! So much grit da!

Sujatha Srinivasan: I just went along with what came up, but I have to say I have always enjoyed my work thoroughly.

NV: You make it all sound simple! Take some credit please!

Sujatha Srinivasan: Next I applied to jobs where I could continue working in this area. I decided against a PhD as I wanted to make devices.

NV: So you didn’t go for the hot industry of the time – software / computer technology?

Sujatha Srinivasan: No I wanted to continue in my field. The first place I went to had only men, with pin-ups on the walls of their work places! The second one was in a small town in Ohio, but I loved it immediately. The “foreman” on the shop floor was a woman! There was no gender discrimination here, and you were judged only based on the work you did. This is where I forged my identity as a professional mechanical engineer. I spent a considerable chunk of my initial career here, and the people I worked with were the best! They became my friends, though there wasn’t a non-white for miles around. I am still in touch!

NV: What about your husband?!

Sujatha Srinivasan: We got married around 3 years after I started working, and moved to Singapore for a year. It did not work out well – I realised my research position at NTU was more secretarial than anything else. We moved back to Ohio, back to our old jobs! I got several more patents and enjoyed my work thoroughly.

NV: I love your clarity!

Sujatha Srinivasan: After 3 years of moving back, we decided to start a family. My oldest daughter arrived, and I decided I wanted to enjoy motherhood. I quit work and hung out with her. I really loved it. Soon our second daughter arrived too. I was very happy!

NV: But life had other plans?!

Sujatha Srinivasan: The gun culture in the US and school shootings made us nervous, and we started thinking about where we really wanted to be. We decided we eventually wanted to head back to India. For this we made a plan – either I get a PhD and take up an academic position with my husband holding a corporate job, or he does an MBA and takes up a more demanding role – this was because we wanted that at least one of us should be flexible for the kids.

NV: What a story!

Sujatha Srinivasan: We decided it was best for me to do a doctorate, and so I went back to school ten years after I had done my Masters. I chose a theoretical topic in my field so I could work from home most of the time. I often worked for 12-14 hours with my infant on my lap. It was tough but I persevered. I must say all this while, our parents were hugely supportive, travelling from India to help our young family.

NV: Amazing!

Sujatha Srinivasan: My third daughter (a pleasant surprise!) arrived just as I was finishing my PhD. We were now ready to move back to India.

NV: Phew!

Sujatha Srinivasan: I decided to apply to IIT-Madras. I wrote to the HoD of Mech Engg at IIT Madras, mentioning that I was once his student though he was not likely to remember me. He replied almost immediately saying he did remember me – because I had once gone up to him to have my marks reduced as there had been a totalling error. I was taken aback that he remembered it!

NV: So let’s see – you are gritty, nothing fazes you, you know what you want, you have no hang-ups about things, PLUS you have super high levels of integrity! Can I be president of your fan club please?!

Sujatha Srinivasan: Please stop it!

NV: Ha ha! So I suppose you moved to Chennai then?

Sujatha Srinivasan: Yes, and my husband continued to work with his employer in the US. He works from home, which is very useful since my parents-in-law live with us too. I started as a visiting assistant professor, and now am a full professor.

NV: You did mention earlier how the idea of the chair came about – after your work in design of prosthetics and then your doctorate in the field, you moved back to India and joined IIT- Madras as faculty. You decided to address the much-needed design innovation needed here. How did the chair come about exactly?

Sujatha Srinivasan: What started as projects for my students eventually grew bigger. The standing chair started as a classroom project in my Mechanisms class for B.Tech students. One of my students took it up as project for his dual degree course.

Eventually we got a grant from the Wellcome Trust and also from TTK Industries (TT Jaganathan is an alumnus of IIT-M and has been a great supporter). We got space for the lab. Former students came back and we built a team. We have access to wheelchair user groups through various NGOs, who eagerly provide support. This enabled us to do extensive testing on real users while we were developing the design, and could tweak it based on user input. The industry partner was also like-minded and wanted to work towards making the product very affordable. This is why the chair design is so robust. You have seen the final product!

NV: Indeed I have, and it is super how you could produce it at such a low cost! You will get blessings from thousands of users whose lives will improve dramatically thanks to this innovation!

Thank you so much Suj, you are an inspiration!

Pictures credit: Prof Sujatha Srinivasan

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