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Business News/ Opinion / The curation of insights at incubators

The world seems awash in ideas. Whether you access your information individually glued to your mobility device or tête-à-tête with like-minded souls, or consume it through video, audio or old-fashioned text, the challenge for a curious person is just sorting through what’s relevant.

A related trend, of course, is the growth of specialization over the years; we have the occasional polymath—the Leonardo da Vincis of today—but by and large, such individuals have been eclipsed by experts, who live in their own specialized disciplinary silos, becoming increasingly steeped in a single topic, and perhaps inevitably losing the ability to relate to other branches of human knowledge.

One audacious Axilor experiment is predicated on the common assertion that insight often comes from the interstices of such knowledge silos. Perhaps it’s because these gaps are relatively underexplored and looking in these neglected places is especially fruitful. Perhaps it’s because those with different backgrounds, when confronted with the same complex situation, see different parts of the proverbial elephant and have different takes on it, thereby increasing the odds of a novel combination of insights.

Axilor wants to explore these interstices proactively. Of course, as a professionally run incubator, we are already in the thick of mentoring existing teams that come to us. But we aspire to curate ventures as well by bringing relevant expertise bases together that might normally fumble in their attempt to collaborate.

Why might they fumble? There are several reasons, especially in a developing country like India. It’s harder still to find the right experts than it might be in my own backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a thick ecosystem of knowledge investments and providers. The quality of self-styled experts in India is not always easy to ascertain. Here, our own networks help substitute for the absence of credible information in this regard.

Such collaboration, in the best of circumstances, is difficult to engineer. It also has its share of missteps and misunderstandings. In these circumstances, one also needs some ex-post adjudication of disagreements. We lack the expertise base in such renegotiations in India. Axilor can provide that.

Once experts come together, we will work with the ensemble to create a go-to-market plan for the curated ideas. Our notion is that we will sharply identify problem areas that need attention and suggest a few directions that would-be entrepreneurs can then embark upon.

The bet is that there is a lot of underutilized talent that might not be able or willing—perhaps because of lack of access to the supporting infrastructure we provide—to sharply define problem areas on its own. But, when shown a potential path, there are probably a large number of folks who would be willing to give it a shot.

Think about the millions of white-collar workers in their late 20s to early 40s, say, with some experience in the business world, stuck in corporate hierarchies, perhaps encumbered by normal obligations of life. They can take some risk, but not too much. Think of us as unlocking this talent pool and helping defray or underwrite the risk to some extent to bring these new would-be entrepreneurs into India’s mainstream.

Take healthcare. Consider diabetes, in particular. Everyone who reads the newspaper knows that it’s a chronic problem worldwide, and India has emerged as one of the diabetes capitals of the world. But it’s a far cry to go from recognition of this problem, at the so-called 50,000-ft level, and to identify concrete problems to solve.

Recently, Axilor convened leading experts in Bengaluru—general physicians, endocrinologists, medical device experts and psychologists who deal with helping patients manage chronic diseases, scientists from government laboratories, and healthcare financing experts—to brainstorm particular problems.

This convening has resulted in specific problem statements, for example, along the lines of identification and care of pre-diabetics, matching patients experiencing diabetic complications to specific experts, education and financing of care for diabetics, mobile diagnostic solutions for ongoing monitoring of the disease, and providing patients with strategies and incentives for ongoing long-term containment of the afflictions of a chronic condition.

These problem statements are now being made public by Axilor. This includes through partnerships with healthcare networks, conventions and competitions. Those well-formed teams who choose to address some of these problems credibly, either along the lines laid out in the detailed statements or with other creative solutions, can be funded by Axilor and its partners, and can also avail of ongoing advice from the advisory committee we have set up for this purpose.

Let me illustrate the sorts of ventures we hope to create with a concrete example. Some years ago, I co-founded Janacare, a Boston- and Bengaluru-based diabetes-management company. Janacare has developed a device that, when attached to any smartphone in the world, provides instant diagnoses of a variety of indicators relevant to diabetics.

Some of these metrics are available in conventional glucose-monitoring-meters, though our solution is a lot cheaper, but, more importantly, we provide cheap and instant diagnostic data that even today otherwise needs patients to go to healthcare facilities and wait several hours, if not days, for the result. In Boston, for instance, getting an HbA1c indicator takes between a few hours and two days, depending on the labs; whereas we deliver it in a few seconds, on your phone.

Janacare is the product of a medley of discipline bases. It brings together computer scientists, medical device engineers, biologists with years of laboratory experience, nursing and counselling experts, and experts in designing visual user interfaces for the devices. This is the kind of coming together that Axilor will try to offer in a box.

The same curation method, when debugged at Axilor, will be used in other areas of healthcare, of course, but also in edtech, cleantech, security and privacy protection, and so on.

As chair of a recently convened government panel (committee on entrepreneurship and innovation, NITI Aayog), I had an opportunity to study the plethora of incubators in India today. Based on this, and on my experience with incubators in about a dozen Latin American and African incubators, it’s clear to me that society has made great progress in learning how to invest in existing teams of would-be entrepreneurs.

At Axilor, we hope that our attempt at curation of insights now goes further in a new, ambitious and socially productive direction aimed at the explicit curation of ideas.

Tarun Khanna is the co-founder of Axilor Ventures; director of the South Asia Institute, Harvard University; and the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School.

Axilor Ventures is a new-generation platform to increase the odds of success for early-stage entrepreneurs. This is part of the anniversary series from Axilor founders sharing their reflections. The next column will discuss the science of incubation.

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Updated: 23 Dec 2015, 01:16 AM IST
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