By: Neelam Jhangiani
Technology offers different ways to help people with disabilities lead more normal lives. With an estimate of 4-8 crore disabled people in the country, there is a huge shortage of quality solutions that cater to persons with disabilities at an affordable price point.
Assistive technology, as put forth by the British Institution, is “any device or system that allows an individual to complete a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed”. Assistive technology has benefits for people who suffer from a wide range of differing disabilities. It can help promote independence and autonomy, manage potential risks around the home, and aid memory and recall – ultimately improving a disabled person’s quality of life.
Social Alpha is a step ahead in this direction. An initiative of Tata Trusts, along with Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and IT firm Mphasis, it has announced an accelerator programme that will focus on developing assistive technology for persons with disabilities and has already incubated four start-ups in this segment, including Bionic Yantra. This joint programme is designed to validate the product-market fit, help with clinical trials where required and bridge the gaps that exist in the distribution and service channels. A corpus of about Rs. 5 crore has been identified for investing in start-ups working on assistive technologies with a similar amount coming in through partners. Factors like affordability and user experience are key to large-scale adoption of such solutions.
The team at Social Alpha believes that science and technology innovations and entrepreneurship has the potential to bring about a positive change in the life of masses. It searches for entrepreneurs and innovators who are on a ‘mission to create social, economic and environmental impact’ and support them through their ‘lab to market’ journey, as they create compelling solutions to fight poverty and address India’s intractable developmental challenges. Social Alpha’s architecture is built around a not-for-profit platform, Foundation for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (FISE) and operates through a nationwide network of technology and business incubation infrastructure, sponsored and enabled by Tata Trusts, Government of India and a number of academic, philanthropic and corporate partnerships.
Let us take a closer look at the accelerator programme with Portfolio and Program Managers at Social Alpha – Pulkit Aggarwal and Devakshi Dhawan – who speak in detail about why their focus is in this field, the challenges faced and other projects in pipeline for the differently abled.
Why the focus on assistive technologies?
People with disabilities are amongst the biggest sections of society that go neglected by multiple stakeholders due to low literacy levels, social stigma and lack of opportunities. Sadly, as a result, this section still remains to be one of the most excluded and an unidentified part of the Indian society.
Estimates suggests that there are anywhere between 40-80 million disabled people in India and we believe that one of the most important ways to solve the problems of affordability, accessibility, quality and user experience for this section of society is by supporting entrepreneurs who are developing assistive technologies and inclusive solutions for Persons with Disability (PwDs). Such solutions, when combined with scalable business models, can sustainably assist PwDs in their learning and living an independent life.
Currently, there is no concerted industry effort to create an ecosystem level intervention, which can address these issues at scale. Social Alpha wants to be the driving force behind reducing these inefficiencies by bringing the customer, the beneficiary, the innovator and funding agencies together in an open, collaborative framework and create an enabling ecosystem.
What are the current challenges in this sector in India?
The sector faces challenges in attracting innovators and entrepreneurs. Our interactions with 30+ entrepreneurs in this space made us realise that even solutions in advanced stages of commercialisation are not able to scale due to several ecosystem challenges such as highly fragmented and small captive markets as well as weak economic status of the end users. These factors result in patchy and unpredictable demand, due to which other stakeholders in the supply chain shy away from entering the sector.
As a result, the assistive technology domain remains at the level of a cottage industry with limited distribution channels. The absence of a viable addressable target market with no precedence of successful, demonstrable and scalable models also keeps commercial capital and investors away from the sector.
How will your initiative work on removing these hurdles?
This initiative is aimed at introducing game changing innovations to the market. Affordability and user experience are the key to large scale adoption of such solutions and our program is designed to validate the product-market fit, generate objective clinical evidence and bridge gaps that exist in the distribution and service channels.
These technologies will work with non-governmental implementation agencies within the Social Alpha-Tata Trusts network, and interact directly with potential users to gain feedback for improvement of the product along with gaining exposure to other funding agencies, buyers and CSRs. This cohesive ecosystem with critical organisations will significantly fast-track the lab-to-market journey of innovators and will move the needle towards inclusion.
As a unique feature, these winning start-ups will also be supported with up to INR 20 lakh each to fulfil the work orders for kick-starting their journey. In addition, the start-ups will also have the opportunity to work closely with experts on price discovery, cost optimisation, market validation, and marketing and sales.
How does your partnerships with various organisations work?
A unique public private partnership has been fostered with every partner that is bringing in specific and complementary skill sets. BIRAC’s understanding and network in healthcare brings support for technologies to navigate the regulatory pathways and get clinically validated with strong user feedback. Mphasis’ role in working for PwDs enables technologies to reach the right end-users, understand the right problem statements, and build a strong ecosystem in the space.
Social Alpha has also partnered with several anchor organisations working for inclusivity across disabilities including Enable India, ARTILAB, Jaipur Foot, Saksham Trust, Xavier’s Resource Center for the visually challenged, The Association of People with Disability, National Institute of Speech and Hearing, and AssisTech at IIT-Delhi.
Which was the most advanced & impactful innovation seen by you till date in this category in India?
Social Alpha has nurtured and advanced some of the most impactful start-ups in this space, such as:
- Bionic Yantra – The team has developed an affordable, wearable robotic exoskeleton that is easy to use in Indian conditions, and allows for rehabilitation for persons with spinal cord injury
- Tactopus – They provide multi-sensory learning resources to enable children with vision loss to participate in mainstream education
- Bleetech – Inclusion and accessibility for the hearing impaired through hardware solution and software platforms
- Innaumation – A $1 medical device that helps throat cancer patients get back their voice
Also, the need for innovations in this space has been globally acknowledged with significant investments from Marquee Technology players in products for persons with visual impairment. Technologies such as ‘Seeing AI’ are amongst the milestone names in the global innovation landscape for inclusive technologies.
How exactly will/are you be helping these organisations?
Social Alpha has launched a nation-wide challenge to identify and incubate 10 start-ups that offer disruptive assistive technology solutions for long-term sustainable impact. The winners will undergo a 3-month rigorous accelerator programme designed by business and sector experts to fast-track the journey to gain market access for the start-ups.
Unlike conventional funding, the winning start-ups will be given implementation support of up to INR 20 lakh in the form of work orders helping them kick-start their journey.
Additionally, we shall also provide –
- Need-based clinical validation, engineering, manufacturing, and licensing support of up to INR 30 lakh
- Delivery channel identification and implementation of distribution strategies
- Advisory support and strategic mentoring from three institutes with complementary expertise
- Marketing support and community building
- Opportunity to avail follow-on funding of up to INR 50 lakh
- Access to Open Innovation platform
Any case study that you would like to share?
Yes.Founded in 2015 by industrial designers Janhavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar, Bleetech Innovations is a start-up supported and incubated by Social Alpha that works for the deaf community by providing inclusive solutions. They started out by building a wearable band (Bleewatch) that connects with the user’s smartphone and coverts sound signals to vibrations and visual notifications. In July 2018, Blee also launched a digital platform—BleeTV, built to increase access to information and learning-based content in Indian Sign Language (ISL).
With immense passion to work for a better future, Blee aims to break barriers between the deaf and hearing communities by focusing on human-centric design solutions. Within 4 years, Bleetech has been able to grow from an idea to actually touching the lives of 10,000+ hearing-impaired individuals across 15 states in India.
The Bleewatch has the potential to lead to a safer environment for the user and empowers him/her to become more independent. BleeTV crossed 10,000 download mark on Google playstore in the month of May 2019 and is listed at number 21 among world’s top Youtube channels for disabilities by Feedspot (https://blog.feedspot.com/disability_youtube_channels/).
What should the Indian government do to support this sector?
The government is providing support to the ecosystem through public private partnerships such as the launch of the ‘BIRAC-Social Alpha Quest for Assistive Technologies’. As a part of its ongoing support, policy initiatives towards assistive devices and technologies will help bring in accessibility and scale. The government is already putting emphasis on inclusive infrastructure and design. Some of the other measures that the government is already looking at is inclusive jobs for PwDs. Plus, government is also funding initiatives like Blee (it had raised Rs. 50 lakh from the government).
How can the private industry or other stakeholders play a part?
Private sector stakeholders need to make larger investmentsfortechnology development and innovation of affordable and accessible solutions and assistive technologies. There also needs to be a larger focus on the importance of Universal Design, for better adoption of technologies across all sections of society. On a larger scale, stakeholders can come together to create a database about the availability of appropriate assistive devices and technologies, which is being attempted by Social Alpha too and is being created through the Open Innovation Platform.
How do you think this will help in enhancing the overall healthcare stature of India?
The World Bank estimated anywhere between 40-80 million people in India suffering from one or the other type of disability. There is a very high correlation of disability with poverty, illiteracy and unemployment as per the World Bank, the impact of this being felt on both the society and the economy, all of which in turn affects the healthcare outcomes and ability to afford quality healthcare for PwDs. Widespread social stigma also make PwDs the most excluded population in India, directly impacting their access to general healthcare as well.
By working directly with start-ups and innovations aimed to improve access to affordable and accessible solutions, Social Alpha aims to create long term impact in the lives of PwDs. With the correct technologies reaching the hands of the right users, we are positive that more PwDs would be enabled, uplifting the overall healthcare stature of our country.
Are you also doing anything for the mental health of people with disabilities?
Two start-ups in the mental health space, TalkaDoc and Trust Circle, are currently incubated at Social Alpha and we regularly scout for more enterprises trying to help improve access to quality mental health care, which is currently a challenge in terms of cost & time, especially for the poor. Both our incubatees have curated a platform targeting different stakeholders including patients, caregivers and even doctors, thus also resolving the issue of users being fragmented and spread across different parts of the country.