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Paying it forward through engineering

System Design and Management student aims to improve the world.
Rajesh Nair, SDM Fellow
Rajesh Nair, SDM Fellow

Several years ago, System Design and Management (SDM) Fellow Rajesh Nair returned to his native India and noticed that the television stations focused almost solely on Bollywood stars and overpaid athletes. It disturbed him, because, as he put it, “India is actually built by entrepreneurs and innovators. And we never give them the due that they deserve.”

Nair, who is the founder and CTO of Degree Controls, Inc., a U.S.-based engineering firm that specializes in thermal management for electronics, took action when he founded TechTop, an engineering competition for India’s college students. The first competition was held in 2006, and it has now grown into an annual event that attracts more than 200 entrepreneurial proposals. Participants invent product proposals and then judges (Indian scientists, engineers, IT professionals and Nair himself) whittle the list down to 50 semi-finalists, and then 20 finalists, and finally, three winners. Several have gone on to form successful companies with the prize money, which is about 100,000 rupees. “It’s like a mini [MIT] $100K competition,” Nair says. The prize money is about the equivalent of $2,500 U.S.

“We run this on a shoestring budget,” Nair says. He credited his Kerala, India-based office of Degree Controls, Inc. for its hard work in hosting and promoting the competition each year.

With a similar background to many of those engineering students, Nair founded his own company back in 1997. It’s a profitable and successful company with 100 employees, but Nair is not one to rest on his laurels. “I don’t like the word ‘success.’ It’s an ongoing struggle all of the time,” he says of running a business.

The drive to experience something “different” propelled him toward SDM, where he will earn an SM in management and engineering in December 2013. The SDM program is jointly offered by the MIT School of Engineering and MIT Sloan, and resides within the MIT Engineering Systems Division (ESD). He’s been here as an on-campus student since January and lauded the SDM program. “It’s absolutely amazing,” he says.

There’s a need for programs such as SDM, he added. “Every engineering student comes out of school as an expert in one discipline, such as mechanical or electrical,” he explained. “But you can never apply just that one single discipline in any job you go to. That electrical engineer needs to work with a mechanical engineer and maybe a software engineer to create a product. That is what a ‘system’ is. Over time, the engineer needs to learn how to build a system. That is the hard way. But here [in SDM] is one of the few places where they teach you how to design a system.”

Because it’s a joint program, Nair has benefited from MIT Sloan classes such as Power and Negotiation (15.665), which, he says, hammers home the point that every interaction is a negotiation, whether it’s with a 2-year-old or a CEO. He also enjoyed New Enterprises (15.390) with Howard Anderson. Nair has also taken some courses at the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Group, where he and several classmates (including Paul Wu, MBA ’12) invented a handheld camera for scanning a retina for detecting diabetic retinopathy. They formed a team, RetiCue, a 2012 MassChallenge Startup Accelerator Finalist and a winner of some $250,000 in awards.

According to Nair, diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness in diabetes patients. If detected early with retinal imaging, it is largely curable. However, many diabetic patients worldwide simply do not have access to the expensive and cumbersome eye imaging machines, which are currently only located in ophthalmologists’ offices. With a handheld camera, Nair says a trained technician can travel to remote parts of the world to scan patients’ eyes, and then the images are stored on cloud servers where doctors can access and evaluate them. The scanning can be done in less than a minute and no dilation drops are needed.

Nair was inspired by his mom, who has diabetes and has now gone partially blind from this condition. “We didn’t even realize it was retinopathy,” he says. “There are not many of these cameras in India. Every diabetic patient should be checked,” he adds.

Nair will return to Degree Controls, based in Milford, N.H., once he graduates. In the meantime, he spends weekends back at home with his wife Shanthi, who also works for Degree Controls, and their two daughters, Lekha and Meera.

He finds the time to help others, from young engineering students to diabetic patients, because he’s inspired by so many different topics. “I sleep less and work more,” he says. “These are all my choices, and I do it for the fun of learning."

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