Mani Iyer walked into our life when we moved to Bopal, a suburb of Ahmedabad, where I had built my house. He was the CEO of a pharmaceutical company and was instrumental in setting up Amrutha Blood Centre, the first commercial blood bank in Ahmedabad. Despite being a hardcore businessman, he had a wide spectrum of interests, and we found resonance in many; books, films, Kerala, people and their idiocies and idiosyncrasies and above all, food. He would occasionally drop in for a chat. The return visits invariably ended with a homage to Dionysus. Mani excelled in propitiating that god with many-splendored offerings.
Mani’s wife Prema is also a person of many talents: a maker of exotic food, a collector of antiques and a person interested in books and art. Our families have spent many hours in some exotic eateries of Ahmedabad. I remember her joy when I presented her with prints of Gustav Klimt when I returned from a year-long stay in Vienna.
We had children, and we spent many hours discussing them. When my son, Thomas working at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego sent me a copy of their paper describing their work on solving one of biology’s neatest little tricks — how a cell’s outer membrane pinches a little pouch from itself to bring molecules outside the cell inside without making holes that leak fluid from either side of the membrane — I showed it to Mani who got as much excited as I was. He immediately sent it to Dr. Rustom Modi who headed their strategic research to look for an application. I watched their children’s academic growth with a great deal of interest. When Ivan, their elder one joined a course in JNU on Art History, I was delighted.
He shared Ivan’s poem, An Ode to a Tabla: Life and death are just like wings…. They have but in sight a new place… They are birds, they are travellers In search of a new solace… We are but homes giving them shelter, When the rain dies out they will go on their ways…
When Mani floated his venture capital company, InCube Ventures, which was the first company to be recognized by SEBI as a social venture fund, he insisted on my becoming one of the directors. I was reluctant to do this because of my earlier unhappy experience with Indian Plasma Systems, a company to which the Institute for Plasma Research had transferred know how on Plasma Nitriding. The complexities of the financial structure of the venture capital business that he tried to make me understand also played some role in my reluctance to take up the task. Finally, we agreed on my being a Mentor to the company to advise them on the technological viability of some of their ventures. We also talked on many occasions of inducting FCIPT, the technology centre which I had set up in IPR, into the start-up incubation system. This never took off because I had already retired from IPR and had left for Kerala. One of our pet ideas was to set up a think-tank in Ahmedabad.
Incube Ventures set up an incubation centre in Ahmedabad where a dozen ideas led by young and committed entrepreneurs are nurtured, seed funded and guided through their maturity. They are provided the right platform to explore new business ideas, validating and strengthening the ideas & resources thanks to legal/secretarial, financial (seed / angel funding) and marketing professionals available under one roof. An incubatee could use extensive mentoring using the network resources. This would also serve as a space to evolve new businesses, through concept testing, commercialization and performance testing leading to accelerated commercialization of new technologies.
After I returned to Kerala, I used to meet him off and on during my periodic visits to Ahmedabad in connection with my consultancy work with IPR. Finally, he insisted on sponsoring a trip for my wife and me when they planned a celebration of the success of the startup village, sponsored by his company. I was to give a keynote talk and I talked on how technology evolves and what we can learn from that. He had arranged a luxurious stay at the Mani Mansions, an exotic heritage hotel in Paldi with old world charms owned by our common friend Tushar Dalal. True to his nature, Mani found great happiness in giving.
Another project on which we invested considerable intellectual capital was C-NET; Centre for Non-destructive Evaluation Technologies. We thought that the time was appropriate considering the growth of Ahmedabad as an industrial centre, with companies like Tata automobiles invested there. The framework is similar to FCIPT, IPR’s industry outreach centre. It was to be a self-financing organization, where it earns its income primarily through commercial exploitation of its NET hardware, expertise, and facilities to provide service to industries. The knowhow and facilities coupled with formal courses are used to provide skill enhancement to deserving students in the field of NET services. The quality of training and service is enhanced by linking in-house research and development activity in emerging areas of NDT. R&D generates additional income and makes sure that the training faculty is innovation-driven and intellectually stimulating and competent. R&D skills are also used in synthesis and development of special NET systems for commercial use. This internal linkage, which strengthens each limb, is the unique advantage of C-NET.
Our mutual friend Rajasekharan once told me that Mani was a pure soul untarnished by the cankers and corruptions of the real world. It is perhaps this otherworldliness that caused his unexpected and early departure from this world.