In conversation with Professor Dipti Gupta

Professor Dipti Gupta is a faculty member in the Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) department at IIT Bombay. Her research interests include flexible and stretchable electronics, wearable biosensors, and organic electronic devices for energy and biomedical applications. She is also associated with the Tata Centre for Technology and Design (TCTD), National Center for Photovoltaic Research and Education (NCPRE), Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics (CEN), and Wadhwani Research Center for Bioengineering (WRCB) located at IIT Bombay. Professor Gupta is a prolific researcher and entrepreneur. In 2022 she founded the company Profprenuer Innovations Pvt. Ltd. with a vision to bring efficient and affordable healthcare solutions to people in India. We spoke to her about her research interests and entrepreneurial journey, her experiences with grant writing and fundraising, etc. Here are the excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Please could you tell us about your research interests?

Prof Dipti

My research group focuses on flexible, organic electronics and wearable biosensors. We also work extensively on synthesizing, processing, and characterizing nanomaterials and their application as low-cost, flexible sensors. I have always been fascinated by flexible electronics, their versatility, and their myriad applications, especially in healthcare. A significant part of modern electronics, these provide excellent flexibility and stretchability to electronic devices while maintaining their electronic properties. This opens up possibilities for various applications which need this extra degree of freedom in form factor.  

I am exploring synergies between electronics and healthcare while developing materials, devices, and processes for potential application in the field. My main area of work right now is developing flexible sensors – for instance, pressure, vibration, and temperature sensors. In wearable electronics, regular rigid electronic components do not allow for proper contact with the surface. This causes issues with capturing high-fidelity signals. I believe that the electronics have to change into a different form factor to ensure that the results are more reliable and the patient experience is comfortable.

As a part of our WRCB-funded projects, we worked on developing a blood pressure measurement device based on flexible organic thin film transistors. Also, we recently developed wearable biopotential electrodes for continuously recording electroencephalography (EEG) signals. 

This has paved the way for developing various products and technologies, which we are interested in commercializing. Through commercialization, I want to take these technologies to people to make a difference in their lives.

Q. We would like to hear about your new venture. How was your journey transitioning from academia to entrepreneurship? 

During my career, I have worked on the development of biosensors for cyanide, phenols, and sensors for detecting some DNAs and proteins. In addition, we have worked extensively on semiconductor devices, for instance, energy devices like solar cell transistors. 

While working on the flexible organic sensor development, I was introduced to Dr. Vamsi Krishna, a neurosurgeon from Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad. During our interactions, Dr. Krishna informed us about the challenges faced in the neurosurgical field and the need to develop better sensors. There is a significant requirement for electrodes which can be put as sensors in the brain to get accurate measurements. Currently, these sensors are imported and expensive. It would be a great idea to develop equally good sensors indigenously and make them more affordable and accessible. 

Profprenuer Innovations Pvt. Ltd. was born from these interactions and collaboration with Dr. Vamsi Krishna and our shared passion for developing quality healthcare products in India for the societal good. We have established proof-of-concept for flexible and cost-effective sensors that can potentially be used directly on the brain surface. We have ongoing efforts to develop sensors that can be used inside the brain, which would also help with the deep brain stimulation treatment of patients with movement disorders. We have about ten to fifteen products in our portfolio and many more in the pipeline. However, we have adopted a systematic approach to focus on one product at a time. Our first product focuses on the development of sensor technology for neurosurgery applications. Our base technology is flexible electronics combined with semiconductor device technologies, and we are using those to develop platforms and application-specific systems.

Q. What can you tell us about your recent experience with grant application for Women Involvement in Science and Engineering Research (WISER)?

Women Involvement in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) is a grant awarded by Indo-German Science & Technology Centre (IGSTC). The WISER program was launched in 2021. The grant focuses on encouraging women to take up research projects in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The grant enables women scientists in India and Germany to establish new collaborations with researchers in other countries utilizing complementary expertise in science, technology, innovation, and research partnerships. The call is open to all areas of STEM and supports research projects for up to 3 years. 

The overall application process for this is straightforward. One of the crucial steps before applying for this grant was to find the right collaborator from Germany. Through this scheme, women researchers/entrepreneurs can apply to be a part of an ongoing R&D project with acceptance from the host team. I had a project idea in mind to develop organic transistor-based platform technologies for cancer biomarker detection. I had the experience and expertise from developing semiconductor device technologies as a platform. I needed a collaborator with a complementary skillset with expertise in biochemistry, particularly in capturing and identifying the biomarkers associated with cancer in the blood. Finding the right collaborator is key to the success of such a joint endeavor, and  I did thorough research to find the perfect fit. With the help of Dr. Jasmin from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany as a collaborator, we proposed an integrated liquid/electrolyte gated transistor (EGT) technology platform for the rapid detection of cancer-associated extracellular vesicles. The project involves the joint and parallel development of a device to capture and detect cancer-associated biomarkers in India and Germany.

WISER allows women scientists to network and establish long-term research collaborations. We were among the first batch of awardees for WISER. The funding under the WISER grant supports research staff, consumables, contingency, and short annual visits to the host organization (KIT). The funding support, however, is not provided to the foreign collaborator. They need to have previous funding for the proposed work. 

We found the application and evaluation process to be thorough and transparent. Overall, the application process for the WISER grant is straightforward, and the grant offers ample benefits to women researchers. I encourage other fellow women scientists to explore this opportunity.  

Q. What do you envision as the next big thing for you and your company?

Technology development will only positively impact people's lives when these technologies and products go beyond laboratories and are commercialized. We want to raise funds from external governmental and non-governmental sources to scale up. We have a lot of ideas and are looking forward to developing many products to address various healthcare challenges and make a difference where it is needed the most. The current ecosystem in India is favorable to the steady growth of an Indian-origin company developing solutions to challenges relevant to India. WRCB's support for commercialization is of great importance for the same. 

With the right resources and support, I envision indigenously developing efficient, affordable healthcare solutions and growing my company to great heights. I want to encourage young women, researchers, and entrepreneurs to take up more life challenges, and I look forward to contributing to their empowerment.

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