Inside The Mind of A Prodigy: Praveen Kumar Gorakavi on Introspection, Intuition, and Education
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
Praveen Kumar Gorakavi is a prodigy, a polymath, a national sensation. He’s also a man who has intimately understood the weight of these labels.
A 30-year old scientist who changed the face of social innovation through disruptive technology building, Gorakavi has been contributing to Indian science since he was a child. He developed the math for a perpetual calendar at 13 and had created award winning ammunition technology, low-cost artificial limbs, and ionization radiation food processing technology by 15. His research, impactful and varied, has spanned themes from nuclear physics to bio-energy, and he has developed what is potentially the world’s lowest-cost fully functional mechanical brailler. A lover of innovation and a doer, he has created low-cost water purification technology, polymer degraders, solar power tech, and more.
Having received more than 100 international, national, state and other awards, participated in over 30 international symposia, served 13 international journals as a distinguished reviewer and 10 companies including two fortune 500s as a consultant, Gorakavi has done it all, and gained recognition for his doing.
Today, he speaks to Gifted India about life beyond facts and figures. He discusses aspects of his life seldom published by mainstream media, from growing up ‘different’ and his understanding of intuition to his hope for the future of science education in India.
Sukhnidh: Hi Praveen, it’s an honor to have you. Apart from your contribution to Indian science and your many accomplishments, what interests me is your public keenness on acknowledging brilliant minds and innovators of the past and present.
Growing up, you too were labeled a ‘prodigy’ by the mainstream media. Do you consider yourself as such, or perhaps even gifted?
Praveen: If you ask me if I have ever considered myself prodigious, my answer is yes. If you ask me if I have ever considered myself gifted, no.
A prodigy is defined as a person with exceptional qualities or abilities. Some people start early in their area of work, some catch up later. I simply started early, so I qualify as a prodigy.
‘Gifted’ is a word that is strongly against my perception of who I am. It creates a divide and implies that since a few people are gifted and a few are not, the latter cannot compete with the former. That breeds discrimination.
Sukhnidh: The ethics of the word gifted have indeed been a point of much debate. What was it like growing up as a prodigy – intellectually and emotionally?
Praveen: Ever since I was a child, I’ve felt that there’s a sharp deviation between my thoughts and those of people of my age. The same stands today. The kind of impressions and perceptions I have, have caused a lot of intensity in my life, and perhaps bothered a lot of people. This intensity created a distance between me and people around me as I grew up. It’s also the reason I never had too many friends. Even today, I don’t. That’s one of the biggest vacuums – biggest losses – in my personality, today and for the rest of my life.
The benefits? Media acknowledgement of my work, receiving awards from people like Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, getting recognized by people like Yashpal sir, impacting lives, and so on – it’s been a brilliant experience.
To answer your question, I think I started feeling like an adult right from my childhood. That’s how I convinced myself that whatever I’m doing is right, and that I’m going in the right direction.
Sukhnidh: How has this impacted your perception of yourself as a scientist today?
Praveen: If I’m being honest, I do dissect my own personality. I ask myself, ‘What am I doing? Why am I so different?’ Sometimes, even, ‘am I really different or not?’.
I question myself.
You hear about innovators all over the world, but you seldom hear of Indian scientists. There are a lot of us here, working ground-up on impactful technology. I consider being a prodigious scientist a responsibility, and this responsibility, a privilege. I feel like I have to do something to take Indian science forward.
I often think: ‘I have to do more than what I’m doing’. Sometimes, when I accomplish something, I wonder – ‘What did I really even do?’.
In terms of my perception being impacted, I think of science as a duty I’ve carried out so far, and I ponder over how there’s so much more still to do. It’s the only reason I seek for myself.
Sukhnidh: One of the things you’re known for is being a polymath. Your abilities span different fields, and in the world of giftedness, we call this multipotentiality. Can you tell me a little about that?
Praveen: Life’s not easy: you can’t hop onto one boat and ride the entire journey on it. You have to shift and you have to adapt. In order to adapt, you need intuition. Apart from intuition, when you’re in a creative field like I am and you want to contribute to society, it’s important not just to learn, but to unlearn.
When I was young, I wanted to be a problem-solver. I realized that whatever domain or discipline I pursue has to be looked at from the perspective of the problem that needs solving. If I decided that I was a chemical engineer who could not explore electronics, I would not have been able to reduce the parts of the braille typewriter I made from Rs. 600 to Rs. 28-32. This didn’t require me to be a mechanical engineer who has a PhD – just logic and common sense.
Innovation is possible as long as you have the willpower to solve a problem, your intuition, and the ability to learn and unlearn. For example, I unlearned the idea that since I am a chemical engineer, the only way I can make a product cost-effective is through the lens of chemistry.
This is also something we have to introduce in the academic system – learning, unlearning, and intuition.
Sukhnidh: You’re widely regarded as a gifted or prodigious person. We consider such precocity or giftedness a rarity. Do you believe that there are more young children capable of such exceptionality? If yes, how can we find and nurture them?
Praveen: Well, absolutely.
There are n number of people who have a similar set of skills as I do, and there are people who have or can hone a number of skills at different levels of mastery.
However, in my personal opinion, a supportive childhood environment is crucial. An individual’s personality will develop when they are still a child.
By adolescence, the way the child is treated will directly or indirectly influence the ideas and intuitions that they will carry for the rest of their life.
I was blessed to have parents and teachers who encouraged me. They were always supportive of what I was doing. This gave me the unique opportunity to explore my skills. It’s the reason I am what I am right now and, and the reason you’re asking me this question.
There are several people like me who are not fortunate enough to have support around them. It’s not just India, either – on a global platform, we see a lot of people pushed into one field or another on the basis of what society accepts. Instead, we need to create environments wherein whatever one does is fine as long as the intuition and intention surrounding it are right.
Sukhnidh: Very true! There are so many Indian children who are gifted and/or prodigious, but not given the proper nurturing and/or avenues and opportunities for development. These children are not given the autonomy and space for creativity that is crucial to their holistic development.
Praveen: One of my friends has a 12-year old son. He reported to me, one day, that this child spent most of his time creating paper toys and wanted to meet me because I also started my professional career when I was 12.
It felt like this invitation was only a part of why he had come to me: the other part seemed like a complaint, an implication that this boy was doing something unworthy by nurturing interests that weren’t geared towards a lucrative profession.
I told him: your son is innovating instead of buying toys available in the market. The very idea of customizing something to his needs and creating something new – regardless of field in terms of education– should make you happy, because your son is doing what he wants, and he’s doing it perfectly.
Social enterprise matters, and it has to be nurtured properly. As a child, my innovation model was ‘best from the waste’. The first project I worked on was a machine that could draw 32 different types of cartoons. Its technology wasn’t evolved, and it didn’t involve software, but it did the job and I would sell these cartoons to my friends for 2 rupees. I was commercializing my inventions.
There is nothing fancy about what I did, but I utilized my surroundings – and it’s what I have done since. Socio-economic conditions never stopped me because of the encouraging interactions I had with my parents, brother, and teachers.
If someone had slapped me and told me that I should not create, I would not be what I am now.
Sukhnidh: So, you made the best of what you had, and given a supportive environment, you were allowed to flourish.
Sukhnidh: What has been your proudest accomplishment?
Praveen: My proudest accomplishment hasn’t come yet.
I’m proud of everything I’ve created because my innovations are like my babies. I’ve commercialized 28 technologies, and 2 more are underway. Almost all of them have had a positive impact on people in terms of number of beneficiaries.
It’s been good, but I’m still in the pursuit of perfection. So, what accomplishment am I proudest of? All, as well as none.
Sukhnidh: Your work impacts more than one million people every day. Everything you have innovated has been geared towards social good. Why?
Praveen: In my laboratory, I observe a problem and then try to solve it, independent of the outcome. The outcome itself is completely independent of the expertise required for its solving. Almost all inventions that I have made have come from problems that we observe on a day-to-day basis.
An example: when you use post-it notes, you only use one side of the paper, and not the other. I solved this simple problem by making dual adhesive paper, and sold it to a major giant.
There will always be commercial aspects, but at the end of the day, every innovation is a social problem.
Sukhnidh: You’ve previously spoken about being eager to help children pursue science. How can we encourage children to develop scientific curiosity at a young age?
Praveen: Pursuing science requires two things – first, the aptitude to solve problems and second (I admire Kalam sir for recognizing this), curiosity. When we inculcate this hunger in kids, we can have innovators.
A casual observation: many of my colleagues from different research institutes and universities are professors, but they don’t possess empathy towards people. I think empathy also qualifies as essential for problem-solving.
So, curiosity, empathy and a problem-solving nature are important values to nurture in children from a young age if we want them to develop scientific curiosity.
Sukhnidh: Gifted India’s readership consists of educators, stakeholders, parents, and students. What’s one thing that you would like to tell them, perhaps rooted in a lesson you have learnt in your own life?
Praveen: If it’s about giftedness, I would like to say something to the parents reading this.
I’ve been through different selection competitions when I was a kid, and I’ve seen several children being forced to perform beyond their caliber - often because parents feel like their children are prodigies. I have also seen talented kids not receiving the encouragement that they deserve because their parents don’t believe in them.
As long as a child is under the supervision of his or her parents or immediate society, they must provide leverage for him or her to decide whether he or she is a prodigy or not.
I’ve seen people being pushed towards the direction of Bharatnatyam when they’re fantastic painters, and being pushed into singing when their interest and aptitude lies in acting. I have friends who have been forced to pursue academia instead of their passions and eventually pushed to parentification: playing the role of a parent. These things are detrimental to an individual.
Two things should be avoided – you should not think of someone as a prodigy, and you should not ignore or dismiss them if they are.
We must work ethically and morally as a society, and we can do that simply by being encouraging and supportive of children and their individual needs.
Praveen Kumar Gorakavi, Indian scientist and innovator, has most recently appeared in 2019’s Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list. He currently works as a Managing Partner at The Phi Factory, a multidimensional innovation platform.