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June 18, 1999


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$40,000 for your thoughts: An interview with Murugavel Raju, worldwide winner of Texas Instrument's 'Analog Challenge'. Murugavel Raju is not famous yet. But he is getting there. The 37-year-old electronics engineer from Madras recently won $40,000 in prize money against 26,000 contestants from around the world.

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They were participating in an analog design competition organised by Texas Instruments, the microprocessor technology giant from United States.

Murugavel Raju's winning design is for a device that measures ECG parameters of a patient and relays it over radio waves to a monitoring station. This allows patients recovering from a heart illness to take short walks without being disconnected from any health monitoring equipment.

Winning comes naturally to this Annamalai University gold medallist. He was quite certain of success, at least in the Asian region.

His design was awarded for its originality, feasability, manufacturability and the extent to which it used TI products.

He joined Priya Ganapati for an online chat interview.

Excerpts from the transcript:

<priya> Could you tell us about your device that has won the analog design contest?

<murugavel> It is a computer based ECG monitoring system with RF telemetry.

<priya> What is RF telemetry?

<murugavel> Well, telemetry means measuring from a distance and RF is radio frequency. This design incorporates RF for the wireless transmission of ECG signals from a, person/patient.

<priya> ok

<priya> How does the device work? How does this wireless transmission between the patient and the monitor actually take place?

<murugavel> Basically, ECG is the medically accepted diagnostic tool for finding the exact condition of the heart and it's a vital parameter which will be monitored for a heart patient. Usually a patient is connected to an ECG monitoring device in the ICU when he/she is admitted soon after a heart ailment. Slowly the patient recovers and this is called the weaning phase. During the weaning phase, the patient is allowed to take a short walk, during which time he/she would not be connected to the ECG monitor which is quite risky.

My device allows him/her to be monitored on the move too because of its wireless transmission and keeps the patient constantly monitored by the medical persons.

The ECG signals (technically called as the analog signals) are first amplified and then it is made to modulate a VHF (very high frequency) carrier wave, which in turn is transmitted by a tiny antenna connected to it. This circuit is powered by a lithium battery and could be made in the size of a pager. The frequency used here for transmission is 315 MHz which is selected in such a way that other medical devices do not interfere with the system and vice versa.

<priya> How does the amplification and modulation actually take place?

<murugavel> The amplification is done by a circuitry based upon TI (Texas Instruments)'s integrated circuits and low amplitude signals from the person is picked up by ECG electrodes. I'd used low noise op-amps (they are TI's analog devices) in my design which gives the desired amplification. This amplified signal is pulse width modulated (PWM ) with a sub carrier of 25KHz and this pulse width modulated signal is actually transmitted by the transmitting circuit.

<priya> Why did u choose the particular freq of 315K or a freq of 25K for ur PWM?

<murugavel> Well there are certain allocated frequencies for these kinds of communication called low range communication. Typically, it is 315, 433.92, 915 MHz etc depending upon which country you are (in). In India, 315 MHz is the approved frequency for this kind of short-range communication. As far as the PWM freq. is concerned it is selected by the design here it has to take care of modulating the ECG freq. without any distortion or loss.

For this any frequency above 20K would be fine and the upper limit is determined by the transmitting circuit. These kind of low-cost designs can transmit up to 25 KBPS.

<priya> Can these circuits be built using chips other than that of TI's?

<murugavel> It could be certainly done.

<priya> How did you think of building such a system?

<murugavel> The contest goes like this - termed as ANALOG CHALLENGE the caption said 'convert analog to cash' . The participants were free to do design in any area, which should be inventive and practically feasible. The criteria for a prize consideration was a design which uses TI parts to the maximum and is innovative with complete design details...

<priya> Ok...

<murugavel> I thought of several designs which would put to use of TI's special function chips rather than the general line-up and this made me choose this winning design. This incorporates two special function chips of TI 1) an A/D converter and 2) RF VHF receiver and demodulator.

<priya> Where do u see the applications of ur device?

<murugavel> I would like to metion here that I have been associated with some hospitals in design and development of certain computerised monitoring equipment and this is also a reason for me to choose the medical equipment for the submission.

<priya> Which hospitals have u been involved with and for wht kind of equipment?

<murugavel> Hospitals like Trinity Hospital, Devaki Hospital and similar hospitals where modern life saving equipment are widely used for diagnosis and treatment. These life saving equips are typically a microcomputer based designs and most of them are imported from the US. I have designed and developed some computer based diagnostic equips like PC based Spirometer which measures and diagnoses the lungs, bedside ECG monitoring systems which monitor the ECG of the patients etc...

During the instance of failure of some of the imported equips I have designed and developed an alternative arrangement and made some of these equips to function as before and that is where I had the edge.

<priya> :))

<priya> How did you build it? Did you do it alone or was anyone else involved?

<murugavel> Firstly, my line of activity calls for absolute confidentiality which could never be maintained by a group and secondly I'd be needing people up to my expectations in which I've not succeeded till today. So, for all reasons I am the sole person behind this work. But certain strategic work like fabrication of PCB's, making of the cabinets etc were given to some external people who could do it.

<priya> Why is this degree of confidentiality essential in ur projects?

<murugavel> Good question :) In any of the design and ideas, the most important thing is the concept. And whoever has the concept can somehow get the solution. So, if u have a group or share the concept, it gets lost and I have a lot of experience with such happenings.

<priya> Could you tell us one of ur experiences?

<murugavel> I'd not exactly specify the event but I could tell you of one incident where a customer discussed with me about a specific problem. I proposed a solution but out of over enthusiasm thought aloud with him the course of action and that was it. He never came back. Later I found that he'd implemented my solution by utilising his staff and group.

<priya> But did you not get back to him about this?

<murugavel> Well this is not one incident and this in quite common with lots of people like me in various fields here in India. Lack of funds may be one reason; I suppose. Anyway those kind of people never come back to us for the second time because they'd know that we wouldn't oblige :))

<priya> :)) You mentioned that you haven't found people who match ur expectations. What expectations do u have from them?

<murugavel> Good, I look for honest / sincere people who could follow my instructions and not only that I'd be needing who could understand what's exactly in my mind and that's very difficult requirement I suppose :)

<priya> Oh! are honest, sincere, obedient and intelligent people sooooo difficult to find? :)

<murugavel> Well you may know better u are a journalist :)

<priya> What do u thnk is the solution then?

<murugavel> Well the thing is that people have high expectations about their lifestyle, pay etc and they are easily getting this in places like Singapore and the US. So those who are left out are a whole lot who are mixed up. There are excellent people here too, but u know I'd not be able to pay them to their expectation and they could easily get into some big corporation.

The solution is miles away. That's where most industries and innovative ideas suffer in India. This is a subject of debate and the end result is that it is always hung.

<priya> Ok... coming back to ur design, how long did it take for you to build the device?

<murugavel> The Analog Challenge was put up on the Net sometime in Nov98 ( I'm not very sure ) and the last date for requisition of the contest forms was 15Jan99.

I was fortunate to bump into it in the end of the second week of Jan, on 9th if I remember, and received the entry forms in the 1st week of Feb (postal delay).

I had very little time as the entries were supposed to be submitted before 1st of March! I took time to think about what design I should do so that I could find a place in the prize winning slot and the moment I decided on the project it hardly took me a couple of days to complete the design.

<priya> So, you were aiming for the prize winning slot right from the begining :))

<murugavel> Definitely yes and I was confident that I'd fall into at least the regional slot :)

<priya> Do you hold the patent for the device?

<murugavel> No, not yet.

<priya> When do u plan to get it? Have u applied for it yet?

<murugavel> Well, I really have to find out about how to patent a product as I have the least experience in it. Nevertheless I waited/waiting for someone who's got the potential to manufacture the product to whom I could transfer/sell the know-how.

<priya> Has anyone from the country approached you yet abt the device?

<murugavel> No one yet. In fact except for my friends and people in TI and the reporters organised from TI and of course you, no one else knows that the winner is from India/Chennai : )

<priya> :((.. Do you think this is a reflection on the industry's poor faith in Indian technology?

<murugavel> I dunno for sure. But one thing I could tell is people here give more recognition to top cine personalities and top sportsmen/cricketers rather than skilled doctors/surgeons, good design engineers in various fields like electronics, mechanical, civil etc.

<priya> Do you plan to manufacture your design yourself?

<murugavel> NO. This kind of product requires a big investment and a big setup. Otherwise these kinds of products get buried. I don't have any idea about manufacturing this because I don't have an infrastructure which could meet this.

<priya> How big an investment and setup do you think is required? A rough estimate would do...

<murugavel> Well, if it has to work out it's not possible to say just like that. But it would need a setup that takes care of production, R&D and marketing.

<priya> How much would each of the device designed by u cost?

<murugavel> I'm sorry I'm not able to tell u the rough estimate and also one more point is that these kind of similar medical equipment manufacturers are not very successful commercially and a whole lot of equips from the US are into ur market. The important aspect is that these equips are trusted better by the medical officers.

Well may be to have my design as a finished product, say with 8-bed option, would cost something around 5 lacs (Rs 500, 000). But the work that I'd sent for the competition is just a single bed device that could be expanded.

<priya> Ok.. but don't you think such technologies are more useful for developed Western countries rather than developing ones like India where basic health care itself is not available?

<murugavel> You are right. Maybe I should try and get in touch with some of them and find out of anyone is interested.

<priya> Do you plan to do so?

<murugavel> Yes.

<priya> Which countries would you be talking to?

<murugavel> There are more than a dozen companies in the US who make these kind of equipments and I'm trying to locate them and the person concerned whom I could talk with about this. But my restriction is I'm thousands of miles away from them and also firstly I'll have to make them aware of my achievement in the TI contest etc...

<priya> But don't you think that the Web has changed all this? The location does not matter anymore...

<murugavel> I'm indeed trying thru the Web (no other better option !) but the few companies I'd contacted have not yet responded.

<priya> What difficulties are you facing?

<murugavel> I think these kind of companies must be receiving 100s & 1000s of mailers everyday and probably that's why the delay.

<priya> But don't you think that you have an edge in the sense that ur design has already been evaluated and declared a winner?

<murugavel> Well, they could know it only if they actually happen to read my mail!

<priya> How can your device be utilised and optimised for Indian conditions? Have you approached any Indian institutions/hospitals?

<murugavel> It is already a design which is optimised for our conditions and well the utilisation depends on the users/medical officers who could appreciate its importance.

Well, I'm making a slow move but a steady one because I feel that medical equip manufacturers abroad would be the best people to implement it.

<priya> Ok. So, how does it feel to have won $40,000? :))

<murugavel> Well I feel greatly honoured mainly for the recognition TI & CMPnet have given me, more than the money.

Of course, I am very excited about winning the $s too :))

<priya> Do you recollect what you were doing at the exact moment when you heard that you have won the contest?

<murugavel> I was at my office when the MD of TI India called me and broke the news. Even before he spoke to me when the secretary told that its a call from TI, I expected some news but when I learnt that I'm the overall winner I was feeling on top of the world and excited :)

<priya> So, what was ur reaction?

<murugavel> Well, it was a 'thank u and glad to hear that ...

<priya> Wowie.. that must have been tough *grins*

<murugavel> Honestly it wasn't very tough, though I was feeling excited, maybe I would have been very upset if I'd not received any prize. I was very much prepared in my mind that I'd be receiving at least the regional prize.

<priya> What was the first thing that u did after THE CALL?? :)

<murugavel> I called up my wife and conveyed the news because she too was expecting a positive result : )) She was the one who really got excited on hearing the news.

<priya> How do you plan to use the money?

<murugavel> Well, I plan to utilise it for my business expansion. I'm starting a computer center soon which would coach final year and graduate engineers in the field of design and development of electronics systems like computer based equips similar to my winning project and design of microcontroller/microprocessor based systems

<priya> Have u already received the money? And how much of it?

<murugavel> Yes. The cheque was sent to me by TI a couple of weeks back.

<priya> How much have u actually received?

<murugavel> It's US $40,000.

<priya> And have u spent any of it yet?

<murugavel> Nothing yet it is safe :)

<priya> And how long do u plan to keep it safe *winks*?

<murugavel> It'll vanish soon ; ))

<priya> What are the other projects you are currently involved in?

<murugavel> Well, I plan to keep some money for travel to the US and the Far East and learn more about their needs and developments in electronics. US is far advanced in their working atmosphere and the resources they have are enormous and fascinates people like me. It's a great workplace to be in. I plan to find a place there, if possible, and update myself with these technologies and developments.

I will do any kind of development work in electronics systems like industrial automation, computerized instrumentation, microcontroller/microprocessor based equips, analog/digital systems, power electronics equips like motor drives/motion control etc.

<priya> Is there any particular project that u are currently working on?

<murugavel> Well, I'v recently completed design of a wireless data link between two PC's for a private college in Salem for their electronics and communications department.

<priya> Can u tell us more about ur company... how was it established?

<murugavel> I started off as soon as I completed my Bachelors degree in engineering in 1987. I named it Muteck Systems for two reasons 1) Muteck > Murugavel + Technology and 2) it also means mu = micro & teck ie microprocessor technology : ))

<priya> How big is ur company? How many employees do u have?

<murugavel> I was lucky to get a couple of development work as soon as I started. I have an assistant who solders and wires the PCBs for me and two people who do the routine office chores.

<priya> What are ur plans?

<murugavel> As I'd already told you, I'm looking for an opening in the US which could be challenging to me and suit me.

<priya> What do u think is the future of R&D in Indian technology?

<murugavel> Well, Indians are the major players in the R&D sector abroad too. Our people are brilliant, yet lack support from our people. Maybe our government recognises capable people and derives the best out of them for the country and that would be great for people like me. I'm sure there are quite some engineers out there who stand unrecognised due to various inabilities.

<priya> Do u think that is the fault of our system that doesn't reward creativity and enterpreneurship?

<murugavel> You may say so.

<priya> What is the reason for Indian industry's classic disbelief in Indian technology?

<murugavel> You can't spell it as disbelief but unfortunately it's the technology appreciation that is lacking. You know experts concerned are not sitting in the top positions like you cannot expect an electricity minister to know about the engineering of electricity : )

<priya> Recently, when I spoke to Rakesh Mathur of Junglee and Amazon fame, he compared the education system in the West and at IIT. He said that our system focuses more on analytical and numerical skills rather than creative skills. In ur field of design where a high degree of creativity is required how do u think creative skills can be encouraged?

<murugavel> It is true . Our system of education leaves out creative skills. That's why you can see from the same kind pf group, people have different concepts and ideas.

<priya> How do u think creativity among students can be encouraged?

<murugavel> Well, it is a hard question because today the system of education is getting more and more commercialized and ultimately this ends up in the survival of the fittest : )

Students in various disciplines are studying the same old syllabus, which is considered obsolete elsewhere. There is a need for a great change and there again our professors/tutors need to be updated.

To encourage creativity among students means additional financial implications for the management coz students need the latest tools for getting exposed to the recent technology and that costs a fortune here in India mainly because it has to be imported.

<priya> Mebbe this problem is due to the lack of the industry's involvement in the technical colleges?

<murugavel> It's either way and another reason is the increase in population of industries / colleges / students, totally the whole of Indian population : )

<priya> *smiles* Apart from technology, what are ur other interests?

<murugavel> Well, I listen to music, surf the Net almost daily, like to watch cricket , love to take long cross-country driving tours etc

<priya> B T W... do u know that Australia has just won the match and is now into the finals...

<murugavel> Thanks for the info.. u should have told me as soon as this happened coz I'd forgotten everything else around me in talking to you : ))

<priya> this just happenend 5 mins back :)))) So, who are u betting on in the finals?

<murugavel> No betting : ))

<priya> Why? *winks* Anyway... who do u think is gonna win? Let's call it guessing :))

<murugavel> Well, the best team will win and winning team deserves the CUP : )) Looks like Pak is in good form and keeping good humour and they have the chance to lift the cup : )

<priya> Thank you every much for the interview... it was very nice chatting...

<murugavel> Oh, thank you very much too...

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