The story of Ganindu Nanayakkara

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The helmet. A device used to protect one’s head from bumps and bruises. It is more often than not seen as a tool where functionality precedes form. Enter Ganindu, a fresh young mind out to make his mark on the world. Ganindu saw the world from a different view behind a visor. Drawing inspiration from the Marvel blockbuster “Ironman”, Ganindu set out on a bold initiative. This bold initiative would take him go from being a student at SLIIT to one of Asia’s greatest innovators in the Forbes 30 under 30 list. This is the story of iHelmet.

Giving birth to the original iHelmet

It all started in 2013 after watching the original Ironman movie. Seeing Tony Stark’s amazing gadgets, Ganindu was inspired to build something equally awesome. Thus, the idea for the original iHelmet was born. Ganindu had a clear vision to build a next-generation military helmet and was confident he could actually do it. He drew his plans on a whiteboard inside his room and began work to make his idea a reality.

The messy work desk as the original iHelmet was being built (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)
The messy work desk as the original iHelmet was being built (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)

At first glance, iHelmet looks like a massive electronic project but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ganindu only used a few simple electronics which can be easily found in Pettah. The only exception was a YoYo board which he had to get from eBay. Integrating the electronics into the helmet wasn’t very hard either. The lessons he learned during O/L were enough and Ganindu already had years of experience tinkering with various electronics around the house. His only challenge here was his perfectionism for design, which followed the philosophy of Steve Jobs.

Designing the companion app in Powerpoint was a lot easier (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)
Designing the companion app in Powerpoint was a lot easier (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)

The real challenge was building the companion app. Ganindu had absolutely no knowledge of Android app development. However, this wasn’t about to stop him. He began learning Android from scratch and built the iHelmet companion app alongside the helmet itself. Writing the code wasn’t the only challenge, designing the app with traditional tools such as Photoshop didn’t work out either. Instead, Ganindu opted to use an unorthodox approach by using Paint and PowerPoint.

You don’t see the big picture at once. If you understand the fundamentals then it’s easy to build things. – Ganindu Nanayakkara

Day and night, Ganindu was hard at work breathing life into the original iHelmet when he wasn’t busy attending lectures. As he took the bus to his lectures, the design began to evolve with ideas for many new features coming to him – which resulted in missing a few bus stops.

The original iHelmet (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)
The original iHelmet (Image credits: Ganindu Nanayakkara)

Finally, after 2 weeks of sleepless days it was done. He had developed his first Android app. His room was no longer littered with circuits and wires. Ganindu had finished building the very first iHelmet.

Expositions and feedback

After building the original iHelmet, Ganindu represented SLIIT in the Tertiary Student Project (Technology) category at NBQSA 2013. Here he snatched the gold award and became eligible for the APICTA awards in 2013. Before heading off to APICTA which was scheduled to happen in Hong Kong, Ganindu had a chance to present the original iHelmet at Infotel 2013.

Ganindu at Infotel 2013
Ganindu at Infotel 2013

Infotel 2013 was where we first met Ganindu. Back then, we found a military helmet which we thought was really cool. The actual representatives from the military that were at Infotel 2013 didn’t seem to share the same thoughts. If the military were to ever use the original iHelmet, then it would have to survive the harshest of conditions. This meant incorporating military grade hardware, which definitely wasn’t going to be found in Pettah.

Ganindu at the 2013 APICTA awards (Image credits: SLIIT)
Ganindu at the 2013 APICTA awards (Image credits: SLIIT)

Throughout the course of Infotel and at APICTA, Ganindu met a lot of people. The feedback they gave taught him that trying to sell iHelmet to the military would be a very tough challenge. At the same time, many of them were also asking if it was available for general use as a motorcycle. Seeing a clear demand in front of him and after some careful research, Ganindu took the decision to transform iHelmet into the form we know it for today.

The transformation and developing a business plan

Once again, the easy part of the transformation was the hardware and the challenging part was the software. Much of the hardware already integrated into the helmet was still applicable as a motor cycle helmet. However, the software for the app needed to be revamped completely. The hardest part when revamping the software was deleting lines of code which Ganindu had invested hours of effort into that was now unnecessary. Soon after, the transformation was complete and the iHelmet we know today was born.

Ganindu winning at the 2014 e-Swabhimani Awards (Image credits: ICTA/e-Swabhimani)
Ganindu accepting the 1st place Science & Technology award at the 2014 e-Swabhimani Awards (Image credits: ICTA/e-Swabhimani)

After making the transformation, Ganindu decided to apply for the e-Swabhimani in 2014. It was here he faced a challenge he had never encountered before: building a business model. For the e-Swabhimani award, he was asked many questions regarding his business model. To win the award Ganindu had to write essay length answers to each questions. As challenging as it might seem, these tough questions helped boost Ganindu’s confidence. They were tough reality checks that were telling him that he was heading in the right direction.

After answering pages worth of questions relating to his business model, Ganindu walked away with 1st place in the Science & Technology Category. His business plan was validated and he went to India, representing Sri Lanka at the prestigious Manthan South Asian ICT Awards held in India. He returned home, proudly carrying a Jury Distinction Award.

Shining on the world stage

After he returned from India, Ganindu decided to take a break and focus on his studies. Once his exams were done, Ganindu once again returned to promoting iHelmet. This time he took part in the Global Impact Challenge 2015.

As the name suggests, this is a competition that takes place across the globe. In Sri Lanka the competition was organized by Incentiwise with the support of Google. The aim of the competition is to find ideas that will make a positive impact on cities across the word. These ideas need to promote economic value creation harnessing technology. Ganindu won the Global Impact Challenge in May 2015 and went on to represent Sri Lanka at the Singularity University which was held at the NASA Aimes Research Park.

Ganindu making his pitch at the Singularity University (Image credits: Nadeesha Chandrasena)
Ganindu making his pitch at the Singularity University (Image credits: Nadeesha Chandrasena)

The Singularity University was a 10 week program aimed at helping the winners of the Global Impact Challenge improve their ideas to make a positive impact on at least 1 billion people. The first 5 weeks of this program was focused on learning about various sciences such as biology, Artificial Intelligence, etc. The second set of 5 weeks was the practical half of the program where participants could improve their ideas from the Global Impact Challenge or work on a completely new idea. Ganindu chose to work on iHelmet

With the feedback from some top industry leaders such as Google, iHelmet would become one of the top 5 projects of the Singularity University. However, Ganindu wasn’t feeling great at the awards ceremony. A few days earlier, he had applied for the Verizon Powerful Answers program. Today, we know he would walk away as a winner with a $500,000 prize. But back then, things were still a mystery. The 1st round of the program involved submitting various documents. Thankfully for Ganindu, his essay length answers for the e-Swabhimani award were still valid so he saved a lot of time here.

Initially, Ganindu didn’t take the Powerful Answers Award seriously. However, when the clock struck noon at the time Verizon said they would announce the chosen few going into the second round, his inbox was empty. Slowly a sense of defeat started to sink in. 4 hours later, the sense of defeat was gone. The email from Verizon had arrived. Ganindu was accepted into the second round. He would learn that the delay was due to the rigorous selection process Verizon employed to select the few startups that would progress to the second round. Ganindu was now serious about winning the Verizon Powerful Answers award, no matter what.

The second round saw the number of contenders drop to 1000, all of whom had to submit their business plans. This sounds simple at first and when you remember the previous round, it sounds redundant. Then you hear the catch: all the contestants had to submit these plans in one page. If you’ve ever written a business plan, then you know that it’s no easy task to summarize it into a single page. It was no different for Ganindu who had spent his time at e-Swabhimani writing giant essays on each component of a business plan. But after much thought, he was able to cut out the fluff, summarize his business plan into a single page and win the second round. He was now a finalist.

Ganindu at the Verizon Powerful Answers Award (Image credits: Verizon)
Ganindu at the Verizon Powerful Answers Award (Image credits: Verizon)

From the 1000 startups in the second round, Ganindu joined the handful 35 that made their way into the final third round. Having arrived in California, Ganinudu met his international competitors in the transportation category: the ride-sharing service Pogo, electric scooter maker Swiftmile and Israeli startup i4drive.

Each of these startups would face a challenging time in front of Verizon’s judging panel. This wasn’t your average panel, it was made up of industry veterans that knew the industry. As Ganindu describes, “It was like Shark Tank. You need to know the jargon they use.” Thankfully for Ganindu he had spent hours watching Shark Tank and was well versed with the jargon. With this mastery of the jargon, he sold iHelmet to the panel and walked away with a cheque for $500,000 as the second-runner up in the Transportation category of the Verizon Powerful Answers Award.

The future

Having won at the global stage, Ganindu has now validated iHelmet as an innovative product people want and he has secured funding. So what’s next for this inventor? For starter’s he plans to look at mass producing iHelmet.

Ganindu and the iHelmet today (Image credits: Arshad Najudeen)
Ganindu and the iHelmet today (Image credits: Arshad Najudeen)

Today, he is part of the 99X Technology team and is listed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in Asia as one of the greatest innovators on the continent. Currently he’s looking at options of manufacturing it locally in Sri Lanka on his own. This presents a bunch of challenges such as establishing supply lines and ensuring it gets stocked at retailers. Should the options prove to be not viable, Ganindu will be licensing iHelmet out to existing helmet manufacturers who have approached him with offers of producing and selling it. Going forward, Ganindu hopes to build a holding company that will invest in startups. Initially, this will not be a tech company he says, but in the long-run he hopes it will be and change the world.

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