Sowmya Narayanan Sadagopan, the founding director of IIIT-Bangalore, has made significant contributions to the e-governance ecosystem in India over the past three decades. Now retired, he continues to mentor startups in the Tech for Good space and advises universities in India. In a recent interview with indianexpress.com, Sadagopan shared insights into his journey as an educator, researcher, research manager, startup incubator, and advisor to various government initiatives in the tech-for-good sector.
One of Sadagopan’s notable interventions in the technology sphere was digitizing the Rig Veda during the 1990s. He discovered that the Rig Veda had not yet been digitized and collaborated with Professor RL Kashyap to build an improved Sanskrit font that captured intonations accurately. Together with the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), they successfully digitized and published the Rig Veda.
Sadagopan also played a crucial role in digitizing the Tirumala Tirupati temple, one of India’s most visited pilgrimage sites. The temple faced challenges with chaotic queues of pilgrims, so Sadagopan and his team computerized entry using barcode labels on pilgrims’ hands. They also developed online payment systems and computerized processes like tonsure (the act of shaving one’s head as an offering). The successful implementation at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam has become a model followed by several other pilgrim centers across India.
As the director of IIIT-Bangalore, Sadagopan supported numerous social impact startups. One such startup is Vision Empower Trust led by visually impaired student Y Vidhya. The trust developed a product that enables printing Braille books on tablets at almost zero cost and creates accessible content for children with visual impairments. Another impactful startup is Bionic Yantra, which built a wearable robotic exoskeleton for patients with spinal cord injuries. This exoskeleton helps them stand, walk, and carry out daily activities.
Sadagopan also mentored Zipdial, a startup that was later acquired by Twitter (now X). Zipdial capitalized on the concept of “missed calls” used by basic phone users in creative ways. They developed services like balance inquiry for banks using missed calls, which became widely adopted.
In the field of exam digitization, Sadagopan and his team at IIIT-Bangalore experimented with online testing models. They introduced e-pads or exam pads that allow digital writing while preserving the experience of writing an exam. These exam pads are used by universities across India.
In the fintech space, Sadagopan made significant policy and governance interventions. As a board member of NPCI (National Payments Corporation of India), he played a crucial role in simplifying and transforming IMPS into UPI (Unified Payments Interface). He also contributed to the development of RTGS (Real Time Gross Settlement) for Indian banks, enabling real-time fund transfers. Additionally, Sadagopan chaired the Regulatory Sandbox set up by IRDAI to monitor innovative insurance policies and served as Chairman of the Technology Advisory Committee of SEBI, where algorithmic trading was introduced.
Throughout his career, Sadagopan has been instrumental in leveraging technology for social impact and driving innovation in various sectors. His contributions have left a lasting legacy in India’s e-governance ecosystem and continue to inspire future generations.