On the side of a dusty road in central India, Prof. Anil Gupta stopped to offer a group of farmers an opportunity they'd never had before.
"If you have any new ideas or you have any new inventions, I'm here to promote you," he said.
For more than two decades, the 59-year-old management professor has traveled through grueling conditions to find India's unsung inventors. Gupta's mission hinges on his belief that the most powerful way to fight poverty and hardship is to enable the genius of ordinary people struggling to survive.
During his trips, Gupta has seen a washing machine mounted on a scooter for power, a bulletproof vest packed with herbs to absorb the force of a bullet, and an electric paintbrush that never needs to be dipped in a paint can.
"Solutions to our problems are not so scarce," Gupta said.
The creativity of the poor first seized Gupta in the 1980s when he worked with farmers in Bangladesh. When he returned to his home in India, Gupta lobbied the government to create the National Innovation Foundation, which provides financial and institutional support for inventors. Now, Gupta has made it his duty to discover India's hidden inventors.
Gupta's weeklong tours from village to village, also known as "Shodh Yatras," involve 12 mile hikes, sleeping in school courtyards and eating meals of watery lentils. In order to compassionately serve the people he encounters, Gupta recognizes that he must immerse himself in peasant life. Gupta said he's not looking for personal financial gain. Instead, he revels in the process of discovery itself.
"Every time we walk in a place we discover a solution that we would not have imagined," he said.
Gupta brings some inventions to the market, ensuring the innovator gets the credit and the profit. Recently, he linked up with one of India's largest retailers, Future Group, to bring some of the most promising finds to market.
Ashni Biyani, a top Future Group executive, said consumers will be attracted to the products--everything from all-natural cookies to a toothbrush that adds its own toothpaste--because the profits go to a good cause and because of the subtle simplicity of the inventions.
"These are ideas that are rooted within the context of India," she said.
With the help of his aides, Gupta has uncovered more than 25,000 inventions. Some, like Amrit Agrawat's pulley, are cheap and simple enough to forgo the market.
Agrawat watched women in his village struggle to pull heavy water buckets from a well for years. He responded by making a pulley with an automatic brake so the women could rest without the bucket plunging back down-all for just $7. Agrawat has sold 5,000 of his pulleys, but donated one to each village along the way and encouraged the farmers to copy it for themselves.
In villages where ingenuity is more scarce, Gupta introduces the people to a variety of feasible solutions to daily complications--many having to do with agriculture.
"Before he came, we never really thought about innovation," farmer Hari Singh, 85, said after Gupta presented ideas for harvesting rainwater and making a natural pesticide with local leaves that animals shy away from. Singh's son Kunwar said he was inspired to develop experiments of his own.
Gupta also routinely dispenses tiny grants, either from a government fund or his own web of organizations, to help poor innovators finish their projects. Nattubhai Vader, a farmer from the state of Gujarat, noticed the inefficient means of harvesting cotton in his village and designed his own cotton-picker-a massive apparatus of spinning rubber hoses and vacuums that fits over a tractor. His invention can pick as much cotton in one hour as 10 people can in two days, Vader said.
Vader invested more than $20,000 into the harvester before his wife threatened to divorce him if he didn't save the family's remaining money for their childrens' education. A few years later, Gupta found Vader, gave him the funding to restart and now plans to bring in a team of engineering students to refine the harvester.
Gupta documents other ideas in his database, waiting for some investor to spot their potential. In Dhaboti, Murali Dar, 80, hobbled over to Gupta on a cane, holding twigs from a tree. A powder made from these can cure a fever, he said. Kanhiaya Lal, 62, brought branches he uses to make an antidote for snake bites.
"If I die, the secret will die with me of how to cure people," he said.
Gupta's assistants documented the men's offerings. Then, in a simple ceremony that reduced its participants to silent awe, Gupta gave the men certificates and draped shawls on their shoulders to officially recognize their contributions.
Gupta has provided such validation for inventors throughout rural India who, much like the "mad" uncles tinkering away in garages around the world, are dismissed as nuts by their neighbors.
Out-of-the-box thinkers need to be encouraged, not insulted, Gupta said.
Gupta takes special pride in his most successful discovery-Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a once struggling potter who created a clay refrigerator that cools by evaporation. Today, Prajapati owns a kitchenware company employing 30 people.
But Gupta dreams his ideas will expand even beyond India's borders, with treks for knowledge spreading to the unexplored corners of the globe. For now, he presses on, jumping over a ditch in a dried up lake bed on his way to the next village.
"There's so much to see," he said. "You would need several lifetimes."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.