The Flexmo crutch can be used on all terrains, including snow and wet surfaces. Its foot-like design ensures that the user can use it on all kinds of surfaces without the fear of slipping and falling.Ramarko Sengupta
Srinivas Adepu from Godavarikhani, Telangana, was in his first semester at IIT-Delhi pursuing a Masters in mechanical design when his friend injured his ankle while playing basketball.
“He was facing a lot of difficulty in using regular crutches. He had serious trouble climbing stairs and was even struggling to walk with them,” reminisces 25-year-old Srinivas.
The entrepreneur wanted to help his friend as well as solve a problem faced by many people. “How can we change the tip (of the crutches) with something that works like a foot is what I started brainstorming over. I thought why not use the design you see in prosthetic legs, especially used by runners and mountaineers, and put it in a crutch to see how it works,” he recollects.
This motivated Srinivas to set up Flexmotiv in 2017, along with his friend from college, Arvind Suresh Ambalapuzha (28).
The product - Flexmo crutch - is a one-of-a-kind crutch that can be used on all terrains, including snow and wet surfaces. The foot-like design of the crutches ensure they can be used without the fear of slipping and falling on any kind of surface, says Srinivas.
The startup is a part of IIT Delhi’s incubation centre - the Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer.
Explaining the technology behind the crutches, Arvind says, “Usually, the (crutch) tips available in the market are almost rigid and prone to slippage. Flexmo draws inspiration from the human foot. When taking a step, the heel part grips the surface and absorbs the shock. The toe part gives you extra grip while you are in the air and gives you a soft landing. This heel-toe combination gives rise to ultra-stability and zero-slippage for a user.”
At present, Flexmotiv has a manufacturing facility in collaboration with a strategic partner in Indore, and has completed one level of clinical trials. Till now, 120 users have tested the product, which is due to be launched in August this year.
Interestingly, it was through another accident, albeit a happy one, that brought Srinivas and Arvind together. Arvind almost did not make it to IIT Delhi initially. However, Sudipto Mukherjee, a professor at IIT-D, who was also Srinivas’ guide, liked Arvind's work and hired him as a project associate. Incidentally, Arvind made it to IIT in his second attempt.
But Arvind and Srinivas had already met much before this - during one of the treks Arvind used to organise. The coming together of Srinivas and Arvind was serendipitous in many ways. The two also shared the same lab. The first time they worked together - for an in-house competition - made them realise they were a good fit as a team. This is when Arvind came to know of Srinivas’ 'crutch project'.
The very day, the duo saw a poster from Tech4Raj in the campus that read:
“Present your idea (in the health or any other impact sector), and win Rs 50,000,” recalls Srinivas.
Tech4Raj is an event organised by INVENT, a social entrepreneurship programme initiated by Technology Development Board (TDB), Government of India, in partnership with the Department for International Development (DFID), the UK and Villgro.
In January 2017 - a red-letter day for the two friends - they happened to spot another notice from the IRD (Industrial Research Department) that promised to provide Rs 1 lakh for the development of a promising product. They applied for this as well and happened to win both the competitions.
Flexmotiv’s third and youngest Co-founder, Girish Yadav (23), also a BTech at IIT Delhi, met the two through Prof Jitendra Khatait, a professor in the Mechanical Department. Girish joined Flexmotiv in January 2018.
Currently, Flexmotiv has an eight-member team comprising tech and content interns along with dedicated marketing personnel.
With Rs 1.5 lakh in their kitty, they bought a 3D printer and started making prototypes of the crutch. They took the prototype to AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), Delhi, where their product was praised by the doctors, who shared their views and inputs, says Arvind. “We decided to go ahead. But when something new comes, people are hesitant. Because with a new untested product, an already injured person can get more hurt,” says Srinivas.
Fortunately, they met 15-year-old Indukumari at AIIMS who was ready to test of the product. She had come from Bihar for cancer treatment, and was amputated till above the knee.
“She was slipping and having trouble with regular crutches, and was thinking of using a walker. After using our prototype for a month, she came back with critical inputs. She thought the suspension was too much and the springiness was exaggerated. Then, we fixed that,” says Arvind.
Indu shunned the regular crutches after a week’s use. She was given the first prototype by June 2017, and the improved one a month later in July. Indu says, “The best thing about Flexmo is that the crutch tip has two rubber grips - front and back. If one slips, the other one catches and grips. It gives me the little push needed to raise the crutch for my next step, making it easier to walk.”
The regular crutches that are available in India are mostly imported from China and Taiwan, says Srinivas. They retail between Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,400. In terms of competition, companies such as Karma, Vissco, and Tynor within the country. While some have manufacturing capability, most of them import the products, adds Arvind. There is also a government body, under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment called ALIMCO (Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India) that makes basic crutches.
Srinivas adds that regular crutches simply do not have the ability to tackle all Indian terrains.
“That is why most people move on to walkers and wheelchairs. And if it is a polio-stricken person, regular crutches can make the other leg weaker as it ends up taking a lot of pressure,” he says.
Due to be launched this year, Flexmo will retail at Rs 2,999 in the market, and will be made available to NGOs at a much lower cost. Arvind says, they are also in talks with the armed forces to work together.
The August launch will be for NGOs, followed by another launch on December 3, which is the International Day of Disabled Persons. After which, it will be available in the retail market. The startup has filed both national and international design patents.
In February 2018, the founders applied to BIRAC (Biotechnology Industrial Research Assistance Council) for its flagship programme called BIG (Biotechnology Ignition Grant). As part of this scheme, the government grants “successful BIG Innovators” up to Rs 50 lakh for research projects with commercialisation potential with a duration of up to 18 months.
Flexmotiv won the grant. Arvind says, “Had we gone on for two more months without any money, we would have had to shut down.” After this, the company also got approval for three independent grants to the tune of Rs 45 lakh each.
Flexmotiv expects revenue to start flowing in immediately after the launch.
“CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects are ready to fund us for more than 2,000 crutches. We just need to identify beneficiaries through NGOs. A Jaipur-based NGO is already interested in the supply of 25,000 crutches annually,” says Arvind.
Without any additional funding, the Delhi-startup hopes to break-even in 18 months, and in the best case scenario, the timeline would be nine months.
Till July 2017, Flexmotiv planned to be a non-profit company. But after coercion from their professors, the founders decided to set up a for-profit company.
Arvind recalls, “Our professors told us that if you want to help people, pass on the product at subsidised rates to NGOs, and as far as the retail market is concerned, people can and will pay.”