PHD, BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, 2000
MADHURI SINHA CHAIR PROFESSOR AT THE DEPARTMENT OF BIOSCIENCES & BIOENGINEERING AT IIT BOMBAY
Doctors gave Rinti a 1% chance of survival at birth. Her mother was hospitalised for surgery in the 26th week of pregnancy, when Rinti decided she could wait no longer and arrived in this world. For several weeks she fought hard for survival in the neonatal Intensive Care Unit and triumphed. She grew up in Mumbai in a typical Bengali family which greatly valued education. Rinti’s father was an eminent economist while her mother held a PhD in addition to being a homemaker. A class topper and National Talent Scholar, Rinti set very high standards for herself. One day, she returned from school crying profusely after results were announced. Her parents got worried and wondered whether she had failed in one of the subjects. Her brother, who was studying in the same school, informed smilingly that Rinti was crying because she had scored 98% and not 100% in one of the subjects! But Rinti was not just focused on marks. The outside-the-box thinking, which was to become her hallmark, was kindled in her school days by Mrs Vasanta Subramanian, a teacher at Mumbai’s Cathedral and John Connon School. “Her methods and ideas were my first exposure to innovative thinking,” Rinti had posted in a Facebook tribute to Mrs Subramanian in 2013. With two elder brothers doing their B.Tech. at IIT Bombay, Rinti chose to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, a doctor. So, although she qualified for both engineering and medicine after 12th, Rinti chose to pursue MBBS at B. J. Medical College, Pune.
One of Rinti’s MBBS classmates recalls Rinti being brilliant at diagnosing patients. “Classmates used to approach Rinti for their doubts and she was always kind to students who needed help. She never displayed a sense of superiority.” And Rinti extended the same kindness to her patients. “In second year of MBBS, Rinti was late to a class... She had spent the morning standing in queue to purchase medicines for a young cardiac patient. On the previous day, she had learnt that the patient did not have money to buy medicines. Rinti took money from her father for the treatment, without telling him the reason. The patient recovered and returned a month later, specifically to thank Rinti, even though she was not a qualified doctor.” Another MBBS classmate remembers Rinti as a very cheerful, lively, talkative person. “We always used to sit nearby for our lectures and clinical tutorials. I remember during our 2nd year [MBBS], Rinti was absent for a few days. She suddenly turned quiet and withdrawn and was not talking to anyone. We tried to talk to her but without success. A week later, she revealed that there was a miscarriage [in the family] and she was upset and shaken because of that. She cried a lot that day.” This sensitive nature was put to the test when she went to Rajasthan to pursue MD in General Medicine. Having grown up in Mumbai and Pune, Rinti found that people in Rajasthan were orthodox, especially in their treatment towards women. As a doctor, she saw cases of abused and suppressed women in her wards. As a professional too, she felt that her male colleagues did not respect her abilities as an equal because she was a woman. After about 2 months, she just left Rajasthan and came home to Pune, without informing her parents or anyone else, about her decision to quit MD. That was the beginning of Rinti’s journey outside clinical practice.
Working in the clinical setting during MD had made Rinti realize, that in a hospital, she would not be able to do any research or develop innovative products. So, she decided to pursue PhD at IIT Bombay in the school of biomedical engineering on development of novel lung surfactants, a topic that was dear to her heart. Being born pre-term, Rinti was determined to improve chances of survival of pre-term babies. Lack of lung surfactants in pre-term babies was a known, leading cause of mortality and Rinti developed novel lung surfactants during her PhD. She completed her work in a record time of 2.5 years. She continued to research on lung surfactants for the first 15 years of her career and published more than 30 research papers and filed several patents. Rinti joined IIT Bombay as one of the youngest faculty members in 2001. She got promoted to Associate Professor in 2005 and Professor in 2009. But her journey as a medico in a technology institute was not easy. Her family says, “Very few people understood her unique strengths of being a translational researcher with a medical degree in a technology institute. She did not fit the compartmentalized definition of a traditional engineer or doctor and many failed to see that she was both.” As an innovator, Rinti wanted the benefits of her work to reach the masses and worked hard for inclusive healthcare. And here lay the real challenge. To commercialise lung surfactants, a pharma company would need to conduct clinical trials which could cost up to US$1 billion and no company was ready to invest in trials of innovative products. Most of her initial innovations never reached the commercial stage due to lack of such investment in clinical trials. Disheartened, she shifted focus to applying her technologies from drug delivery to other domains like nutraceuticals and smart materials, which had shorter regulatory cycles. Delivering nutrition through cosmetics (henna, bindi, lipstick, multani mitti, moisturizer, skin lotion etc) became one of her new passions. Her idea was to reduce non-compliance to medication in traditional formulations like tablets, capsule and syrups. Because her ideas were unconventional, often, the funding agencies did not support her work. Rinti had to seek out unconventional sources of funding. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) gave her several grants to take some of her ideas forward. In fact, in 2018 Rinti and her team won the BMGF Grand Challenges grant to develop a microneedle patch for contraceptive delivery. With a single application on the skin, the contraceptive would be effective for 6 months and eliminate the need of taking an oral contraceptive on a daily basis. The grant was given to only 3-4 other scientists in the world. Rinti’s was one of the rare Indian labs which was well-staffed, well-funded and focused on commercialising its technologies.
When Rinti joined IIT Bombay for her PhD, her to-be husband was a fellow student. They did not interact much during her first year, as both were introverts by nature. Being a medico, Rinti was not much familiar with computers and he helped out and both became friends later. “She was intelligent, hardworking, focused, warm, emotionally intelligent, wonderful orator, ambitious, and beautiful!” Rinti’s husband recalls fondly. “She made me a better person and she was my hero.” After her unpleasant stint in Rajasthan during MD, Rinti never imagined that she would one day be comfortable to marry her husband who is from Rajasthan. A transformative point for Rinti was the birth of her son Pulak in March 2007. She did not slow down during her pregnancy. She worked until the 9th month of pregnancy and resumed work 6 months after her son’s birth. In fact, Rinti published 26 research papers between 2007 to 2009. Additionally, in 2008, she was felicitated by the Society for Cancer Research and Communication for research achievements. “Rinti balanced work and personal life extremely well,” says her husband. “Rinti was very close to her parents and Pulak.” Rinti and Pulak had similar personalities and similar likings for food, weather, vacations, entertainment etc. Rinti’s life revolved around her son. Like any other doting mother, she would pack his tiffin, water bottle, school bag, pick him up from school, and have lunch with him in the middle of her work-day. In the evening, she would help him with studies and projects regularly. She ensured that he was ahead in studies and never missed any of Pulak’s extra- curricular events at school. With family, Rinti often watched serials like Madam Secretary, Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Grey’s Anatomy, Friends, Castle, Suits, and Bones. She liked playing cards and board games like Sorry, Sequence, Apples to Apples, Scrabble, Monopoly and carrom. Listening to pop songs by Enrique Iglesias, Bono, Richard Marx, Backstreet Boys, One Direction, Ed Sheeran and watching SRK movies were stress busters for her. In her spare time, she watched TED talks and YouTube videos by prominent scientists. Despite her numerous degrees and vast experience, Rinti spent a lot of time on learning on online platforms. She was certified in areas of global health, social entrepreneurship, intellectual property law and business strategies for social impact.
Rinti was probably the only person in her department who did not take coffee/tea breaks. She nearly had double the output in half the lifetime. During Covid lockdown, she was all the more energized and came up with numerous covid-relevant innovations. Among them are, Duraprot wash resistant antiviral coated masks, Duraprot plus coated N95 masks (free of plastics) and alcohol free, natural ingredient derived, childsafe, skin-friendly disinfectant sprays. She also developed an immunity boosting nutraceutical drink. Rinti’s technologies had been licensed to 26 companies/ organizations. Few were not commercialized even after technology transfer. Hence, she decided to start her own company, which would give her complete freedom to commercialize any product she wanted. PicoVie Innovations LLP was registered in the third week of May 2021. A week later, Rinti was hospitalized after contracting Covid. She was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for the second time in her life. As earlier, for 6 weeks she fought very hard for survival but this time she succumbed to post-covid complications. Deeply mourned by her family, friends, colleagues and students, Rinti Banerjee led a bold and brilliant life - she arrived in this world early and departed from this world early. Her life continues to inspire others and her journey towards inclusive healthcare continues through her students, alumni and family.