Interview by Varun Shetty in Bangalore


(Anupama and Pavan were mentors in the 25Under25 Summit, before which this interview was done)

Tell us a little about your backgrounds.

Anupama: I’m largely trained in the arts and also have Master’s in Business and Gallery Studies. But I think most of my education just told me about the things I didn’t want to do. So I was inclined towards the education sector. I worked very briefly in London before coming back to India in 2009 to head the Arts Education Program with India Foundation for the Arts (IFA).

Pavan: My history is pretty straightforward. I’m a mechanical engineer who was forced into the engineering field like most of us. I followed the routine in which the next step was MORE engineering, so I did a Master’s in the US. That’s when I realized I didn’t know anything.

How did your paths meet?

Anupama: My deeper interest was in how arts can integrate with mainstream schooling. So in that journey, I got introduced to a bunch of geeks who had started an organization called Brain Stars, focused on Math and Science learning in mainstream schooling. The interesting crossover was that with IFA, I worked largely with government teachers, whereas in this company we were developing products to market within mainstream schools. So at that point we were looking to build something for math and I spearheaded a project called Number Nagar. Pavan came into that organization at some point and brought a sensibility of the functionality of the product we were selling, which was hardcore prototyping of the product and then taking it to the market. That was when our journey began.

Pavan: After my Master’s, I worked with a company that made 3D printers. After 3-4 years at the company, the American economy was going down and they said they wanted to cut out on research and focus on production and sales. I decided that if they had no research, I didn’t want to be with them. I figured USA had nothing to offer and came back to India to write a book – I hope I finish it someday – but ended up doing literally nothing for two months!

I’d also had a bad break up at the time and tried to fill that void by reading about spirituality and mythology. My family was getting frustrated with me, so my sister said that if I’m really passionate education – because I was talking so much about mythology and gurukuls – then I should check out this company called Brain Stars where she had interned before. She said I’d like the place. And I did. And that’s where I met Anu, and a lot of other people who had the same kind of thought process as me and a lot of interesting things began to take shape.

How did Workbench Projects come into the picture?

Anupama: At Brain Stars, Pavan brought in a fine concept and understanding of the pain of prototyping. At that point we understood that there was no prototyping centre in Bangalore. People who had ideas did not know where to go, and even if they did, they were limited to the attitudes and permissions of people who offered the service. They also didn’t have any mentorship. Pavan recognized that as a need and that’s when we took a white paper and ideated this.

Pavan: Yes, we felt that our larger need was towards plugging gaps in the maker ecosystem. Bangalore was thriving with interesting people, but there was no watering hole for such people – a meeting place for them to bounce off ideas, to build things and to come together and work on something. In fact, when we were building Number Nagar, the process itself was difficult, specifically because there wasn’t such a space. For example, we couldn’t explore designs much before going into production. So we said that if it doesn’t exist, then we might as well create it. So we started in December 2013. We didn’t want to waste any time. We said: here’s the company, here’s the vision. Let’s begin.

Describe that process.

P: We started off in her dad’s garage, Silicon Valley style. A lot of traction came our way but people were concerned that we were too far away, because we were set up in an isolated gated community on the outskirts of the city. We knew we should move to the centre of the city.

While at Brain Stars, we had worked on something with BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited) for Number Nagar. They invited us to do something with them again, but we told them we’d exited that company and started Workbench Projects, and would be willing to pitch if they wanted to listen. When we did, they were impressed and said why don’t you put [it] up in the [Ulsoor] Metro station? It was just what we needed. So then we had to go through a whole bunch of paperwork and a government process – applying, competing, bidding, the whole deal…

A: …and we had to make a strong case for something as exclusive as this. That’s what gained the attention of the government and we were awarded this space.

P: …yeah. There was true merit in this. They [government] saw that even the Metro has a lot to gain from giving opportunity to a startup like this because we are not just doing work. We are trying to change a mindset. We were saying – hey, anyone can collaborate, anybody can innovate. We are here to provide you [with] the power of innovation. Literally anyone could come here – students, entrepreneurs, investors, innovator, academicians – add something to the ecosystem, take something from it and be part of a larger picture.

And so, work began last year. In August 2014, we officially announced this space and did a bunch of projects in the run up to the opening and launched the during the Construkt Festival earlier this year.

So this space is not even a year old?

A (laughs): Yeah, because we were awarded the bid in November last year. We took a record-breaking 3 months!

P: Record-breaking for the world to see, but we wanted to do it in 2 months!

You said this was important to the ecosystem, but let’s step out of the ecosystem for a bit. In the context of the world today, why is WBP important?

P: The whole world is running on disruptive innovation. This has created a ripple, but not in the categories we are talking about. Take for example, Uber or AirBnB. They’ve revolutionized the way we look at transport and housing by using new devices.

Now look at some of the things that are scary but very utilitarian. Robots, for example. No matter how hard people run in the opposite direction saying robots aren’t good, we cannot deny their usefulness. Mankind is getting lazier by the day and only robots can take up things that mankind does not want to take up. Who wants to be a sewage cleaner, for example? No one grows up dreaming of such a job. And from the humanitarian point of view, no one should ever do such a job. So people are using engineering and technology to solve such problems. A space like this will help in building these things.

This space is also necessary because the jobs being created these days are not one-dimensional, they’re multi-disciplinary. For example, you can’t be a hardcore mechanical engineer in the modern times. You have to know a bit of embedded systems, a bit of coding and other such skills. Here an electrical engineer is not just an electrical engineer – he or she also operates hand tools and other equipment. People create niche profiles here. We’re relevant because we enable everybody to become innovators for the existing conditions.

But if automation is the way forward, won’t this project become surplus some day when machines will be enough?

A: I believe automation is also going to be redundant some day. But even then, the human race will have to have hands-on skills and thinking. The simplicity of design is the man himself doing work.

P: Yeah, you will always have two sides to the coin. Our space caters to both – the rebels and the ones who run with the system.

If you were to make your case to the people you are going to mentor, what would you say?

P: This space is not for everyone. We’re only appealing to those who want to do responsible innovation. We’ve always stressed on responsible innovation. You may come here and learn glass-cutting, for example. How are you going to apply that skill set? Are you going to make glass prosthetics? Are you going to make art out of this skill?

So our case is that we provide people with both skills and the knowledge of how to apply those to solve problems. Anybody can innovate with apps, but not everybody. So we’re appealing to responsible makers and innovators. Our belief is simple – we will never be a billion dollar company, because this model is not meant for that. We might become a million dollar company. But impact matters more to us. Money should be a by-product of impact. We don’t have flashy RoIs, but we’re doing a lot of innovation. Anybody from the CD network who is really passionate about making impact – this is the space for you.

What would you say are your achievements?

A: The first achievement was winning the confidence of the government. We should have never had it with the approach we took – without paying a single rupee to the supposedly corrupt system. We’re also proud with the different types of projects we’ve undertaken. We’ve achieved great social diversity – medical technology, renewable resources, computer education for rural girls, to name some.

P: Another achievement is that in a short time, we’ve attained sustainability as well. We’re not generating great profits, but we are self-sustainable. We’re extending space, we’re buying more machines, we’re sending people to conferences – all within the small budgets we have. That is great for a young company.

What would you say your project is going to give to the world in the next few years?

A: We are going to create starting points for people who will be better-equipped to then take their passions forward from there . So I expect a lot of innovation to come out of using our concept and journey as an example. A lot of people said Bangalore could never have accommodated a project like ours. So our very existence will give courage to thousands of others to enhance this maker space over the next few years.

P: We know that it will take a few years for this entity to become completely self-sustainable even in our absence. So we don’t talk about scalability or expansions in our immediate future. We will continue doing things this way for a while and then we know that more of the world will eventually want our concept. We’re confident of that. We will have an impact over a much larger space.

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