A Conversation with Richa Shrivastava of Maker’s Asylum, the #M-19 Initiative & Solving India’s #Oxygen Crisis

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Richa Shrivastava of Maker's Asylum, the #M-19 Initiative & Solving India's #Oxygen Crisis


Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She is a dynamic, fearless, and strong woman. She’s your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment.

Soniya Gokhale (00:35):
I am stone Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman. Hello, welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman podcast. I’m your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today we are so excited to be joined by Richa Shrivastava. Richa drives strategic collaborations and partnerships from Maker’s Asylum. Maker’s Asylum offers a community space that fosters innovation and hands-on learning.

Soniya Gokhale (01:02):
Richa and her team at Maker’s Asylum launched the M-19 Initiative in March, 2020 when India was hit by COVID-19. Since the pandemic started, the initiative has made millions of face shields, active respirators, rebreathers, sanitizers, and intubation boxes. The M-19 Collective is founded upon the principle of a centralized open source design philosophy with de-centralized manufacturing so that the best minds can gather to solve the pressing challenges of the country and execute with agility.

Soniya Gokhale (01:40):
Solving problems requires a multidisciplinary approach, and that’s what makes the M-19 Collective so special. Richa was honored as a Vogue India Woman of the Year in 2020. And Maker’s Asylum and the M-19 Collective continue to gain global prominence for their innovation, platform, and lifesaving efforts. Richa, welcome to the show.

Richa Shrivastava (02:06):
Thank you so much for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (02:08):
We are so delighted to have you here today and talk to you about how your life saving work via Maker’s Asylum whereby you and your team were able to produce about a million protective face shields in 49 days and then went on to launch the M-19 Initiative in March, 2020 when India was hit by COVID-19. And while you started on face shields to support the frontline workers, you quickly realized that you could only make a few in your lab and the situation demanded a lot more.

Soniya Gokhale (02:42):
And this was the beginning of the M-19 Collective, makers fighting COVID-19. And the M-19 Collective came together with basically a centralized open source design philosophy, but with decentralized manufacturing, so that you could gather the best minds to solve the pressing challenges of the country and execute with agility. And so I want you to speak to me a bit more about this. It’s just truly ingenious and-

Richa Shrivastava (03:12):
Thank you so much. It’s actually been quite an exciting journey for us since 2020. The whole thought around M-19 initiative and all of that sort of started at the time when, like you mentioned, that we went into lockdown. So the interesting part is that Maker’s Asylum actually started back in 2013. So since then, my partner [inaudible 00:03:31] who was the founder of the space, he came back to India from Boston. He started the space more from personal need to make things. And slowly, slowly, it sort of built, grew into a much larger community of makers and individuals who want to look at making things, right?

Richa Shrivastava (03:48):
Over the years we’ve been working on laying down a lot of groundwork on how communities can get together, local problem solve for them. How do you sort of think about going from ideation to creation and making and actually implementing it on the ground for community level impact? So a lot of it sort of started back in the day in a garage and then over the years sort of grew into a really beautiful community of people.

Richa Shrivastava (04:14):
But incidentally, 2020 gave us a very crazy opportunity to really harness the power of that community because all of us had a very common goal of being helpful during the pandemic and how we could create impact and things like that. The funny thing was that when India went into lockdown, all our team members, we all decided to stay back at our space. Maker’s Asylum is a community maker space. By that, I mean that it has a lot of physical infrastructure, which is a lot of tools and equipments like 3D printers, laser cutters, wood shop, metal shop, all kinds of tools that you can imagine. All of that is sort of there at the space.

Richa Shrivastava (04:53):
And for us, it was like a very apocalyptic scenario. And we were like, “You know, we might as well be here at the lab and potentially use our tools to do something more creative rather than going back home”. So we actually quarantined at the Asylum. And then at that time actually, a lot of things were happening in the United States because COVID was a little early on over there. So the open-source community was very active at the time, and we’ve been part of the whole open-source culture of the community. And the whole thought around sort of sharing knowledge is very inherent to Maker’s Asylum. While we were on those conversations just before the lockdown, one of the first things that we chanced upon was to walk around with face shields.

Richa Shrivastava (05:35):
A lot of people were doing a lot of really exciting work across the world. And people were using 3D printers, they were using different kinds of tools, you don’t actually need these, and support the frontline workers. And that’s when we made a very basic prototype using materials that we had available to us at the lab, put it out there on social media, and suddenly started realizing that the situation is actually pretty grave outside. And a lot of healthcare workers started reaching out to us like doctors, nurses, and we were little … We did not really think that that’s going to be the kind of reaction. And post that is when we started realizing that we have to make a lot, many of these. And slowly, slowly, you started building on those.

Richa Shrivastava (06:18):
And in the beginning, actually you were spending hours and hours making these physically with our own hands. Some volunteers came over, about 10-15 of them. And I mean if you remember at the time when the first lockdown was announced in, I think, most countries, the entire scenario outside was pretty different. It was absolutely no one on the streets. There was no transport, there’s no supply chain, and things like that. And in the middle of that, we’re making these, and we’re getting so many requests. It was a very overwhelming scenario, I would say. And at the same time, it was also exciting because we were able to sort of make something that was of use for people and they would want to wear it, and especially healthcare workers.

Richa Shrivastava (07:00):
It was a very interesting place that we were at. And this is when we started realizing there’s a lot of demand that we made the face shields and we open-sourced the designs. And we activated over 42 cities, towns and villages in the country to actually start making them using laser cutters, which is actually an already established sort of a small scale business in India of these laser cutting machines. They’re much more faster than 3D printing, and because the kind of sheer volumes that you need in India, we started using that.

Richa Shrivastava (07:30):
And it became a really … And people from all across the country, they started gathering in and making them. And these were not just engineers and makers. These were also like filmmakers, children. So it sort of caught on because this design was open source and it allowed us to share and innovate very quickly and rapidly during the time. And yeah, that’s how it sort of all started.

Soniya Gokhale (07:54):
It’s so inspiring, really. I just get chills listening to it because you really are creating a life saving solution. And since April, 2021, the Collective has reunited to work on the oxygen problem of a country. And in the last couple of several months, you said you went from knowing very little about oxygen concentrators to making them and improving design to suit the local needs using locally available materials. And I want to hear more about that because it is absolutely revolutionary. And while the Collective has been making these in your lab, garages, and factory, you haven’t lost sight of the quality assurance and quality checks that are needed for this. And so the collective innovation and social entrepreneurship is really the core tenant of what you’re doing, so if you could speak to that a bit.

Richa Shrivastava (08:48):
Yeah. So last year, of course, we were able to go from making ideating to creating impact and doing a million shields. And it was done with the whole core principle of having an open source design format, but enabling more and more local communities to actually make them locally and give it to their local health healthcare workers. Because one of the biggest challenges that COVID sort of, I think, across the world has brought in is the movement of material, the time that it takes for any kind of equipment to reach somebody who is in need of it, right?

Richa Shrivastava (09:25):
Just localized manufacturing and distributed manufacturing is something that has been a conversation for a very long time. But I think COVID, and the work, especially around the whole maker culture and the maker community across the world that has been doing sort of came together to really demonstrate that that is actually the possibility and could be, potentially, something that could be the future of how we are manufacturing across the world.

Richa Shrivastava (09:51):
Using the same principles, honestly, we did a bunch of other things before we came to the concept of oxygen concentrators. We made a lot of these face shields for babies. We made active respirators for senior citizens in ICU environments. These active respirators are like these hood masks, but they have like an active inflow of air going inside your hood. These are generally used in high risk environments and things like that.

Richa Shrivastava (10:16):
And we did a bunch of stuff around sort of having rebreather masks for senior citizens and a bunch of different healthcare product over the year. And in December we were actually researching a lot about the oxygen problem because there was an indicator report that, potentially, oxygen could be an issue in most countries. And we chanced upon that through the larger community as well. And we thought that it could be a good idea for us to actually start thinking about it and actually start seeing what we could do potentially if there was a scenario. But in December, last year in January in India, it was actually practically a very different scenario because people were like, “We’re done with the first wave, the COVID is gone”, so everybody was very relaxed and nobody was really anticipating such a crazy second wave that was impending.

Richa Shrivastava (11:04):
So in April, when the oxygen problem came together, we had already created a large community of makers and people that we knew. We’ve been doing that over the years now, but during COVID-19 as well, last year, we accelerated a lot of things. So the first thing that we thought about was that let’s just start making oxygen concentrators using locally available materials because it’s just the same principles of what we did last year as well. And we will work with open sourcing the design and enabling more and more people to actually make them locally.

Richa Shrivastava (11:35):
We were researching some of the various designs across boards, a lot of people in the open source community across the world were looking at oxygen concentrators. We looked at many designs. We also sort of ordered some materials to come in from the United States, which unfortunately did not reach us even now. So all of was going on. And in the meantime, an oxygen concentrator is not as simple as a face shield. It’s obviously a very complex device. It also requires a lot of attention in terms of the making process, but also the testing process and the output of it. Because at the end of the day, it is something that’s going onto the patients to save their lives.

Richa Shrivastava (12:12):
There’s a lot that is inside the oxygen concentrator that is fairly complex. But what we were working with is the larger Collective, which is, they’re not only just makers, but they were also small scale manufacturers, large scale manufacturers, they were fabricators. They were different kinds of people who were part of the Collective, individuals who wanted to offer their skills. And the way that we were looking at it is that the Collective together was sort of working on different prototypes across the country, right? There were about 20,30 of these oxygen concentrators getting made now in different parts of the country. And all of us were sharing knowledge. So whatever we were learning, whatever was failing and was not working was shed.

Richa Shrivastava (12:52):
And in this whole process of sharing knowledge and actually knowing what not to do and doing that parallelly, sort of really enabled us to really move quickly from developing, not only just one prototype for the concentrator, but we now had four. After about two months of Collective work, we did about four different versions of it. And the final prototype and the device, which is a high capacity device, which by that, I mean that it can be in ICU settings and things like that. It is gone for engineering certification, which we’re hoping to get, because going from open sourcing to actually certifying it, putting it out there for people to use, I think that in itself is a very exciting sort of case study.

Richa Shrivastava (13:36):
And last year, Cambridge University had done a bunch of papers around how we activated the M-19 Initiative and how we did the whole distributed manufacturing. And this year they actually came on board officially to help us research around the QA and the QC process, which is like the quality assurance and quality check process where they’re coming in, and their researchers are helping us out sort of work around how do you create that information, distribute it, and even if somebody else is making the same device somewhere else, how can they keep check of these quality assurance and quality checks processes?

Richa Shrivastava (14:10):
Because at the end of the day, it is high-end medical equipment. So even though you’re making it locally, how can you use this knowledge base of distinguishing between parts, how do you source, where do you source from, how do you put it together? The design is also very modular, so that enables people to quickly put it together, but at the same time allows them to inspect and see if there are any issues and things like that.

Richa Shrivastava (14:33):
So Cambridge has come on board officially to help us with that part. And of course, there a bunch of other really amazing organizations that are supporting the initiative, like the Schmitz Futures Foundation in the United States, the Fab Foundation. We’ve also been working with the open-source medical supplies over there. So it’s been a very exciting collective journey, I would say. And I think it’s going to be really exciting to see this come through from being an open source project, to actually getting certified, and more and more people hopefully making it. Yeah. That’s where we’re at.

Soniya Gokhale (15:06):
Absolutely incredible. And what strikes me is that you embarked on this career and from a young age, you were creatively inclined. And to quote you, you stated, “We’re all makers”. And you’re obviously the managing partner of Maker’s Asylum, but you really have created a technological foundation using the building blocks of an engineering degree and obviously your relevant work experience. But what’s amazing is that, obviously, the pandemic created sort of the perfect storm for this community space to develop. And part of the culture of Maker’s Asylum is that is a community space that fosters innovation and hands-on learning.

Soniya Gokhale (15:48):
And boy, this is an embodiment of it, what’s transpired as a result of not only the oxygen, but also the masks. And so I want to know what’s next. I mean, with your experience in engineering and obviously a superbly resilient entrepreneurial spirit, what is next? I know that expanding STEM fields for women and girls is of vast importance to you. And I guess, have you been seeing that in real action through this initiative?

Richa Shrivastava (16:19):
I mean, actually incidentally Maker’s Asylum, as in a large part of what we do on a normal day is all focused around education and teaching people how to use these tools: How do you sort of utilize them? How do you go from ideation to creation? How do you use concepts like design thinking, frugal innovation, and prototyping together? And a lot of it over the years as well, most of our programs do also focus on how do you really solve for the sustainable development goals, for example, right?

Richa Shrivastava (16:51):
A lot of it is focused around creating social entrepreneurship and the social impact piece and putting making at the heart of it. So I think for us, the future also will be focused around a lot to do with how do you really make experiential learning available digitally as well? A lot of our next piece of conversation is around … because a lot of things … The pandemic has really accelerated the whole digital learning piece. Online learning in India, especially, has gone to a very exciting level. Everyone is definitely online now. so how do you sort of create the hands-on experience online? How do you integrate physical learning tools, but also have the interaction online? How do you make that more exciting for people to really interact with each other?

Richa Shrivastava (17:43):
So we’ve been doing that with our programs now since 2020, where we’ve made a lot of these online hybrid kind modern square where we are doing the same principles of teaching and reaching out to more and more people and sharing knowledge. But we’re also sort of giving them a lot of physical hardware that can go to their homes and they can use that to actually create hands-on learning experience at home. And what we do envision ourselves is also to have a lot of the digital community, because now that a lot of the access to the network of global makers, and we’ve been part of it over the years, and we want to share that with and integrate that to the grassroots level.

Richa Shrivastava (18:22):
How do you sort of learn about something absolutely exciting from somebody who’s sitting maybe in France or in the United States, but at the same time, you’re also able to work together on the same projects. You can share skills, you can share various things on it. How do you sort of convene all of this digitally now is one piece of the conversation that we’re sort of really focused on. And a lot of it and a lot of our work is now going on sort of creating that experiential platform from that perspective. So it does, of course, include STEM and steam as the core elements of it. But a lot of our focus is also on the STGs, social entrepreneurship, social impact, and how do you really sort of use your skillsets to really contribute to your community around you and become globally conscious problem solvers, all of us?

Soniya Gokhale (19:08):
Absolutely. And to quote you in another interview, you indicated that quote, “The idea is not to be intimidated. The idea is to believe that you can break all personal barriers. As women, we’ve all been conditioned to prioritize family and society over ourselves, but that’s one gender wall we need to break if we want to do something professionally”. And that really strikes me in hearing from you. You’re looking for solutions, it’s not a question of, can you do this? It’s how do we do it together collaboratively? And so I know your mom is a big influence in your life. Any other mentors or women? Or certainly speak to your mother. I would love to hear about your inspiration.

Richa Shrivastava (19:50):
I mean, I think there have been wonderful women leaders across board that have been really inspiring. I think there’s so many of them that now that being in digital age we get to see even more. So I think growing up as well, I mean, I think just having the freedom of sort of really being able to be given that freedom as a woman or a girl child, that you know that you can do whatever that you feel like, you don’t have to worry about that you can’t do something, I think that was a very important sort of piece of at least my growing up. Because we did have that liberty. My sister, she’s also a girl, she’s a woman. And we both had that liberty to not really just be in that whole cage of you can’t do, and versus you can do kind of a thing.

Richa Shrivastava (20:33):
That was, I think, from the very beginning, sort of been a very great piece on how we’ve thought about our lives and how we don’t have to be in certain boundaries and cages. But I think there’s significantly so many women entrepreneurs today. And I feel that women are doing such amazing work in the sense that when a woman, when you see startups and new companies that women are creating, the empathy in those companies is much higher, I feel, sometimes than that you see generally around startups. And I think that’s really inspiring because they really try to connect with the problem statement. They really empathize with their user. And that, I feel, definitely sort of puts a lot of women entrepreneurs apart. And I think that’s really inspiring.

Richa Shrivastava (21:16):
So I don’t want to name anybody in particular, but I think overall just the rise of seeing more and more women around you who are just so … They just know what they want, they’re going for it, and they’re pursuing their passion. It’s, I think, a very heartening feeling, especially sitting here in India and seeing so many more of [inaudible 00:21:35] and even older generation of women actually breaking their barriers in all their ages and categories, I think it’s just very inspiring.

Soniya Gokhale (21:45):
I totally agree with you, and you certainly are a torchbearer in regards to that. It’s just so inspiring to speak with you and to know you now. And I will have links in the podcast notes to Maker’s Asylum. Anything else you want to offer? Can people who are listening get involved when they go on the links, and what do you need most right now from the community at large, the global community?

Richa Shrivastava (22:09):
I think one large piece of what we want to do is definitely sort of direct people’s attention around how they can support open innovation. The more we support more communities and ideas that are openly innovating and sharing, I think the more amazing it’s going to be in the way of the way technology moves forward, especially in developing nations where that there’s a need to be faster, better, and possibly affordable in terms of the solutions that we offer. And I think open innovation in that respect really supports and will be the potential sort of future of hopefully solving for various things, not only just in a crisis, but we’re going to face many more crises in the future. But hopefully we will be resilient if we try to support open innovation, try to help sort of build skills and capacity building in the areas of tech, because I think that’s going to be really prominent in tackling all of these problems.

Richa Shrivastava (23:09):
I think one of the biggest things is that we are still sort of working on the M-19 initiative, and it’s just not going to be about oxygen concentrators. But anyone who’s listening to this can support it from perspective of offering skills, knowledge, or funding, any kind of support to the initiative, amplifying it, all of that can really sort of help us achieve the largest vision around how we can sort of integrate making, skilling people around technology areas and driving them towards open innovation and supporting their local communities. All of that is welcome. And that would be really helpful for whoever is listening to this podcast.

Soniya Gokhale (23:44):
Well, I will have all of the information, as I stated, in the podcast notes, but I hope to have you back again. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re done with the COVID-19 virus, but as you’ve stated, sadly, there will be future issues that come up globally. And the framework that you’ve laid out is a great start to solving some of those issues that you’ve indicated collaboratively. So we cannot thank you enough, Richa Shrivastava, for joining us today. Thank you so much.

Richa Shrivastava (24:12):
Thank you so much Soniya for having me.

Soniya Gokhale (24:15):
Thank you.



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