What’s common between Mark Zuckerberg, Malala Yousafzai, Michael Phelps and Evan Spiegel? They have all been featured in the annual Forbes 30 Under 30List, which recognises young entrepreneurs, innovators and game changers. Add to the listDelhi boy Tirthak Saha, who was chosen this year from a select 600 culled from nearly 15,000 nominations.
Chosen in the energy category, it is largely the 25-year-old’s research work on power generation and distribution that has brought him the Forbes recognition. “It’s a wonderful honour and I’m still coming to terms with it,” Tirthak told TOI over phone. “The recognition is based on one’s entire career trajectory and is given to those who have the potential to disrupt the industries they look at. It’s like a lifetime achievement award but under the age of 30.”
With a government school teacher for a father and a postal department employee for a mother, the Dwarka resident studied in St Columba’s in Delhi and Manipal in Karnataka before moving to the US in 2013. The whiz kid now lives in Indiana, US, and works for American Electric Power (AEP), which provides electricity to 5.4 million people in 11 American states.
Just a few years ago, an achievement like this did not even seem remotely possible for Tirthak. He had wanted to study astrophysics rather than electrical engineering, but the high cut-off marks for admission to the physics (honours) programme in marks-conscious Delhi University meant the youngster could not get into any of the colleges of his choice.
“He didn’t get the right guidance after Class X,” explained Enakshi Saha. “After his Class XII results, we even considered if he should re-sit the exams.” She recalled that the parents were unable to gauge what was going on in their son’s mind but wondered if he would ever flourish in life.
Though Tirthak couldn’t get the course or college of his choice, the Sahas ruled out trying for a place in IIT-Delhi. “We decided that IIT was not the only avenue and there were other institutions offering similar standards of learning,” said Pradip Saha, who teaches Bengali in Vinay Nagar Bengali Senior Secondary School at Sarojini Nagar.
Accordingly, Tirthak enrolled for a course in electrical engineering at Manipal University’s International Centre for Applied Science. He then received a scholarship to study in Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he completed his Bachelor of Science. During this time, he also worked with NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant to design an origami-based modular solar panel array for mini satellites.
On the lookout for someone to innovate its power grid system, AEP recruited Tirthak from the campus itself. “It was out of the blue. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” the young man said. The post Tirthak was employed for — Grid Modernisation Engineer — didn’t exist then and was specially created for him.
Tirthak remembered the electricity blackout in Delhi and most of north India in July 2012. “It was a tipping point, I guess. I believe power should not be a luxury but a basic right of life,” he said. Explaining his work, he said that the ageing electric grids in US were nearly a century old and hadn’t seen much innovation and he was incorporating smart grid technology to make AEP’s grid safer and more reliable.
In a recent innovation challenge held by AEP, Saha’s project was ranked second among 600 entries and will be implemented by the company across its network. “The aim is to create a virtual power plant-like linked network of behind-the-meter energy storage units in order to realise benefits of energy aggregation,” he said. It was this project, apart from Saha’s work on energy efficiency in systems, reliable electric delivery and a fossil fuel independent future that propelled him into the Forbes list.
Tirthak misses the city of his birth. “Apart from close friends and family, I miss the food the most. We get north Indian food here in Indiana but it’s expensive,” he laughed.