A 26-year-old engineering school dropout who designed a robotic arm for those without limbs and a team of fresh-of-out-college students who developed from scratch cheap Braille printers took the top honours at the first-ever Aarohan Social Innovation Awards, instituted by Infosys Foundation, on Tuesday. 

As many as 906 innovators in the social sector had applied for the awards. The field was narrowed down to 12 finalists, who were awarded ₹1.7 crore in cash prizes cumulatively. 

When Prashant Gade, a resident of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, encountered a person without limbs, he knew he had to use his passion for robotics to come up with a solution to help out. He dropped out of college, and by 2015 had started the Inali Foundation to develop a robotic prosthetic arm. 

Three years of research and eight iterations later, his myoelectric arm costs barely ₹50,000. “It can lift up to 10 kg and can clasp and unclasp at a thought. It senses the pulses in the nerves and activates the fingers,” said Mr. Gade, who was one of the two winners of the platinum Aarohan award of ₹30 lakh. 

Khushwant Rai, 23, was in college when he saw the difficulties of a visually-challenged teacher. Braille printers were expensive, costing up to ₹1.5 lakh, and so even question papers were manually written in Braille for students. While he worked on creating a Braille printer, his batchmate from Punjab Engineering College Anjali Khurana, 22, coded a software to convert multiple languages into Braille for printing. “We built the printer from scratch to reduce the number of expensive solenoids. This way, we reduced the printer cost to ₹30,000. [We] have already tried it in four schools,” said Mr. Rai. 

The awards were handed in four other categories, recognising people who have worked to find solutions to various social problems. 

Sudha Murty, chairperson of Infosys Foundation, said: “There are also those who left offers of cushy jobs abroad to come to work for solutions here. They fit the criteria of being able to scale up and have tremendous impact,” she said, adding that the awards would now become an annual feature.