Start-ups use technology to give back to society
From a miniature tool to count blood cells to training rural healthcare workers, start-ups are coming up with affordable solutions to tough problems
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Having grown up in a family of doctors, Prakhar Jain never felt the need to visit a hospital for consultations. He did not study medicine, but always wanted to contribute to the field. His dream took shape when he met Usama Abbasi and Prabhat Kumar, and founded MicroXlabs in early 2013, under the guidance of professor V. Kumaran from the department of chemical engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
The Bangalore-based firm developed a miniature testing tool to count blood cells. It weighs less than 2kg and costs around Rs.12,000. It is based on the lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technology and micro-electro-mechanical-systems (MEMS). An LOC device integrates one or several laboratory functions on a single chip. LOC is a subset of MEMS, which involves the integration of a number of micro components on a single chip.
MicroXlabs’ mobile tool is loaded with necessary blood testing reagents (substance or compound added to see if a reaction occurs) and built to test blood in under a minute. Costing less than Rs.20 per test, the affordable option for rural healthcare won this year’s Tata Social Enterprise Challenge—a contest for social impact ideas that enrich the quality of life across rural India. The contest was organized by the Tata group and the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.
Jain, chief executive and co-founder of MicroXlabs, was reluctant to share much information about the product due to a non-disclosure agreement, but said: “This is not my first start-up. My previous venture was to do with tablet education, but I wanted to do something in this space because we (the founding team) have a common goal to give back to society...basically to the rural population in the form of affordable healthcare.”
The competition was tough. Of the 165 applications, only 10 ideas made it to the final round and three won prizes. While MicroXlabs got the winner’s prize of Rs.1.75 lakh, the runners-up—Bodhi Health Care and Green Agrevolution—were awarded Rs.1.25 lakh and Rs.1 lakh, respectively.
Gurgaon-based start-up Bodhi Health Care was founded by a couple—Abhinav and Shrutika Girdhar—in April 2013. It focuses on training rural health workers and midwives with the help of videos on low-cost mobiles and tablets.
“We always wanted to build something, and soon realized that there was no adequate standardized training provided to primary healthcare workers in rural areas. These guys were taking care of pregnant women, malaria and dengue patients every day without proper training. That is how Bodhi Health Care was born,” said Abhinav Girdhar.
Present in Haryana, and with plans to set up base soon in Madhya Pradesh, the company has training videos for 100 healthcare topics in two languages—Hindi and Marathi—with more regional languages in development. The goal is to train more than 15,000 rural healthcare workers in the next two years.
Patna-based start-up Green Agrevolution Pvt. Ltd wants to bridge the gap between farmers and institutional buyers of farm produce, to maximize benefits to the BoP (bottom of the pyramid) segment. The company was set up by three Indian Institute of Technology graduates—Shashank Kumar, Shyam Sundar Singh and Manish Kumar—in 2012 as a marketing arm of their existing start-up venture Farms and Farmers.
“There is a link missing between these farmers and large buyers in Bihar and other states. We wanted to fix this problem and make sure farmers’ produce reach the right people without shifting too many hands in the process,” said Singh.
Green Agrevolution has an active network in Bihar, serving more than five dehaats. (Each dehaat is a catchment area of 8km comprising 500-700 farmers and headed by a local entrepreneur, trained by the company.)
ESwaraj, based in Delhi and Bangalore, was founded by two teams–one in Bangalore and the other in Delhi—who were frustrated with the disorganized system of complaints management in India, and had worked independently on different platforms to address the situation. The teams, founded by Tony Mukherjee (in Delhi) and Rakesh Singh (in Bangalore), eventually merged ideas to build eSwaraj in October 2013.
They built a mobile app called eSwaraj , available on both iOS and Android platforms, which works like a social media platform for complaints. Once the complaint is posted, the app tracks the location of the user, using GPS (global positioning system), and provides the contact details of the authorities—including members of legislative assemblies and government officials—responsible for the locality.
ERC Eye Care was set up by Dr Parveez Ubed, a Jorhat-based ophthalmologist, who has set up seven eye-care centres—six regional centres and a hospital—across Jorhat district in Assam, to provide eye check-ups and glasses to patients at nominal costs (starting from Rs.399), and hub hospitals to assist patients with bigger procedures such as cataract surgeries.
Mobile Harvest, another finalist, “...wanted to build technology that could eradicate barriers like literacy in the usage of mobile phone and applications. In other words, a 100% idiot-proof plan to connect a billion people”, said Sachin Gaur, one of the three founders of the company.
The most recent application they built is the “fake call” technique, where answering the phone works as a trigger to perform smart decisions—such as reading news or horoscopes daily—on the mobile phone. This product, called the Pink Army Initiative, was recently launched in Gujarat.
New Leaf Dynamic Technologies (Pvt.) Ltd is the brainchild of Anurag Agarwal, who as a child saw milkmen try to sell their leftover milk at throwaway prices, because of the lack of refrigeration. Today, after 30 years of experience in various companies, he is determined to make cooling systems available to such people at affordable prices through his company that was conceived as an idea four years ago. It develops cooling systems that run on farm waste, biogas and other organic leftovers. It is currently running its first pilot at a dairy in Hapur, near Delhi.
Another finalist, Pollinate Energy Pvt. Ltd, facilitates weekly instalment schemes to buy solar lights. The lights can be bought for around Rs.1,600 each and the sum repaid over five weeks. The company was founded by Monique Alfris, who studied at the London School of Economics and was on her way back to London after some research work in India when the 2012 blackout hit Delhi. “The city I had seen full of life, had become powerless (pun intended),” Alfris recounted to Dilip Kumar Reddy, head of operations at Pollinate Energy. Alfris then returned with four friends to start Pollinate in November 2012.
“They (people in rural areas) are like frogs in the well. They need to know that they deserve better lives,” Reddy said. The company now functions around Bangalore and will soon expand to areas near Chennai and Hyderabad.
Pragati Handicrafts was founded by Adam Iversen, a graduate from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, US. He built this online platform for artisan-made products sold in the US, with the help of two MBA graduates from India—Pradeep Sharma and Varun Karkhanis. The products available on this platform are handmade jewellery, jewellery boxes, urns made of papier mâché, tableware, and invitation and business cards made from palm leaves. Bulgaria-based Chipo Labs Ltd, built by Georgi Chipov was another finalist. The firm aims to provide affordable prosthetic hands in India and other developing countries through prosthetic centres. The founder was unavailable for comment.