Nature India | Indigenus

At 76, would you join a start-up? This scientist did

Remember the 2015 movie ‘The Intern’ where Robert De Niro plays a 70-year-old who discovers that ‘retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be’. In the movie, Niro joins an online fashion site as an intern, learning things he never did in his entire career.

Our guest blogger Tess Felder profiles an inspiring Indian scientist working in the US, who comes close – Yash Kamath, who has worked his way researching textiles and hair. Kamath, after retiring from active research, is now helping a start-up devise a hand held machine that straightens hair at the molecular level without heat or harsh chemicals.

Yash Kamath

Yash Kamath

Mirakel Technologies

It isn’t every day that you encounter a scientist in his mid-70s who works in a start-up but that is exactly where Yash Kamath finds himself these days. And while it is unusual to start in textile research and end up working around hair, with Kamath’s career it has somehow made sense.

A native of Karnataka in southern India, and now living in New Jersey, USA, Kamath was approached by technopreneur Suman Lal in July 2013 to do some work for his start-up called Mirakel Technologies, a company working on hair care technology using principles of dynamic electrochemistry.

Kamath’s innovative work in the field caught the company’s eye. The scientist had filed a couple of patents after retiring in 2006 from the Textile Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey– in 2012, he got a patent aimed at detangling hair and in 2015 another on the chemical reshaping of hair.

“I was intrigued,” Kamath says about being approached by a start-up. During his career at the institute, his team had looked into electrochemical applications in hair treatment. “But Mirakel had a product development approach for commercial use,” as opposed to doing research alone. Kamath found the company’s initial results promising, and decided to come on board. He now spends his days conducting research for Mirakel at his lab in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey and coordinating with teams in Singapore and New York. He also spends time at the company’s salon space in Manhattan, where the product is tested on models with varying hair types.

Kamath is helping the company develop a hand-held device that straightens hair at the molecular level. The team includes chemical and mechanical engineers, in addition to hair stylists, but until Kamath joined, it had no one with a background in biochemistry and hair science.

Kamath has a master’s degree in plastic technology from the University of Bombay and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Connecticut. He started his 34-year-long career at the Textile Research Institute as a postdoctoral fellow researching polymer science and textiles and eventually became the institute’s research director.

How did he get from fabric to hair? Interestingly, the institute turned away from textile research (as that industry shifted to Asia-Pacific) to hair care – a more logical step than it might seem, as wool and hair have similar chemical structures. And so Kamath and his team of researchers delved into the science behind everyday products like shampoos and conditioners, focusing on changes in the aesthetic appearance and durability of hair. Most of this work was done in collaboration with some of the world’s largest cosmetic and hair care companies. It also brought him significant recognition: in 2010, the Society of Cosmetic Chemists presented him with its top honour, the Maison G. de Navarre Medal Award, for technical contributions to cosmetic science.

After retirement, Kamath kept up his scientific pursuits setting up his own consulting firm, Kamath Consulting, Inc. “It is a different world from the 34 years of laboratory research,” Kamath says. “I am now getting an opportunity to be a part of a team which is developing a product for a real world application.” Starting up with a fresh mandate after decades of pure research has its challenges, such as frequent international travels, “But working in the lab trying to solve challenging problems is something I relish,” he says.


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