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Photo: Mint

Govt support, market visibility key for assistive tech to scale up

  • Philanthropy can only go thus far in facilitating sustainable, scalable assistive tech innovations
  • Apart from lack of awareness and affordability, the biggest challenge is reaching people when a product is available for them

Innovision is a Thane-based startup that has come up with a multilingual refreshable braille device that’s more affordable than imported ones. Refreshable brai-lle enables the visually impaired to read digital text by hooking up the device to a smartphone or laptop. It has a line of 20 six-dot braille cells which gets refreshed with the next set of characters as the user moves an up-and-down key.

Bleetech is a Pune-based startup with an app with learning content in Indian sign language for the deaf. It also has a Blee TV channel with accessible content. What started as a college project now helps deaf children attend school remotely after covid.

True Consultancy is a Bengaluru-based startup that has developed a swivel seat mechanism that enables people with arthritis, knee and back problems easily enter and exit cars. It has also designed portable ramps that people with locomotor disabilities can carry to places that are not accessible.

These are a few of the assistive tech innovations supported by Social Alpha, a non-profit startup incubator funded by Tata Trusts and others. Digital tech and smartphones have increased the scope for interventions that can help persons with disabilities lead inde-pendent, productive lives. But there are significant gaps in the ecosystem to nurture such innovations and deliver them at scale.

MARKET ACCESS

“The challenge for our startups is to get market access and make their products available at even more affordable prices. But there’s a limit to how much you can bring down the cost. We are trying to convince our donors to create a pool of capital that can provide market access support for one-two years until a promising startup gets some traction," says Manoj Kumar, founder of Social Alpha.

Philanthropy can only go thus far in facilitating sustainable, scalable assistive tech innovations. The government has a big role to play, but assistive tech being clubbed under healthcare for various grants doesn’t help.

For example, the market for a cancer tech startup is a lot bigger, which also attracts investor interest, whereas the assistive tech startup ecosystem is in its infancy.

“Subsidy is in general considered a bad word, but sometimes you need it to create a market for something that can make a social or environmental impact. Central and state governments have subsidies for so many products, such as solar panels. So, I think assistive technologies also need much more support to raise their adoption levels," says Kumar.

Venture capital investors are still waiting in the wings to see the business potential in this space. One form of validation would come from startups gaining significant traction in global markets. This is starting to happen.

For example, Cogniable is launching its app for early intervention in autism in the US next month after gaining traction in India and Bangladesh. The three-year-old Gurugram-based startup was initially bootstrapped by a founder couple who have an autistic son. It won awards that helped get grants from the government apart from Social Alpha’s support.

But it will need to attract mainstream investors to compete in global markets with much better funded rivals. For example, Silicon Valley startup Cognoa, which is also working on solutions to diagnose and treat children with autism, has raised $54 million so far, according to Crunchbase.

One of the first assistive tech hardware devices from India to get global exposure was a smartcane developed at IIT Delhi. Visually impaired people can sense obstacles on the ground with a cane but are vulnerable to protruding objects like a tree branch, signboards or open windows. The smartcane uses ultrasonic sensing to alert the user to obstacles in their path between knee and head. It is now being distributed in Japan, West Asia and Africa.

IIT-D has an Assistech lab co-founded by a professor in mechanical engineering, P.V.M. Rao, and a professor in computer science, M. Balakrishnan. “We identify unmet needs for specific technologies, do prototypes through student projects, and once a concept is demonstrated, we bring in social organizations and manufacturers to make a market-ready product," says Rao.

HELPING HAND

Rao feels assistive tech needs multiple layers of support from philanthropy and government apart from business models that can become profitable. “Assistive technologies are becoming increasingly available and affordable, but only one out of 10 people who need it get access. So, the gap is pretty huge," says Rao.

Apart from lack of awareness and affordability, the biggest challenge is reaching people when a product is available for them. “If you want to buy a thermometer, you go to a pharmacy. That kind of marketplace doesn’t exist for most assistive tech products," he says.

It underlines the need for collaboration between multiple entities and catching the interest of investors. “There was a time when nobody invested in agritech in India, but now they do. I’m hopeful that what has happened in agritech will happen in assistive tech too," says Kumar.

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