How founders get ideas: what these healthtech startups teach us about finding the right problem to solve
A recent healthtech startup meetup organised at Arbor Brewing Company in Bengaluru by Unitus Ventures, Villgro and Montane Venures, featured a range of founders, investors, mentors, and healthcare providers. In Part I of our analysis on their startup journeys, we feature how some of these founders came up with their initial ideas and identified which problem to solve.
Over the years of publishing more than 85,000 startup stories, YourStory has designed a storytelling tool for founders called the Changemaker Story Canvas. YourStory has also unearthed eight common clusters of ways in which founders come up with ideas for their startups (see figure above).
The ideation clusters and Story Canvas have been used at numerous workshops for TiE Bangalore, college Entrepreneurship Development Centres (EDCs) in states like Karnataka, and accelerator cohorts. In this article, teams from three startups share how they began their entrepreneurial journey, and where they are headed.
1. Ubiqare: palliative care platform and services
Ubiqare Health was founded by three technologists and two healthcare professionals. It offers specialised medical care to patients inside their homes via a combination of expertise in healthcare, embedded computing, and cloud platforms.
“My father had cancer and passed away in 2012. That drove me and my co-founders to get into technology and services for supporting palliative care patients. I have seen the side-effects of medication as well as episodes occurring frequently as the disease progresses,” recalls co-founder Pillalamarri Sridhar.
“My co-founder Sundar Srinivasan’s father too had prolonged multiple illnesses and co-morbidities, and finally passed away suffering from cancer metastasis,” he adds. Despite progress made in IT and tele-health over decades, the founders saw that a large number of families, whose near and dear ones go through debilitating illnesses, undergo a lot of trauma and face challenges in getting clinical attention and management of episodes at home.
Sridhar and Sundar contributed to creating a PoC for a telemedicine project in rural Karnataka in 2017. They also studied the rapidly growing home healthcare scene in India. “We saw first-hand what the real problems are with bridging the gap of access to specialised medical care at home,” explains Sridhar.
When they were looking at starting up, they decided to focus on extending the specialist’s care to patients at home during the follow-up period. This involves combining telepresence, trust, teamwork (collaboration) and (human) touch at the last-mile.
“We realised early on that the first problem to be cracked is establishing a successful collaborative business model that would enable a team of dispersed yet aligned medical personnel to deliver specialised care to a patient at home,” Sridhar says.
The initial solution, launched in 2017, involved a platform along with a full-fledged palliative medical collaborative care service. “We launched the MVP in July 2018, limiting it to Bengaluru. For our beachhead, we started with cancer patients needing palliative care at home,” he explains. Ubiqare partnered with five palliative care specialists who extended their care to their own patients using the startup’s technology platform and collaboration model.
“We have logged close to 2,000 patient-days of specialised supportive care, clinically managed 130 episodes at home, and have seen 78 percent of patients renewing their subscription month after month,” Sridhar claims. Future steps include attracting more specialists and patients, and addressing other serious illnesses like strokes, chronic respiratory diseasess, and chronic kidney diseases.
2. Biomoneta Research
Biomoneta Research was spun out of the antibiotics discovery startup Bugworks. Many of the people leading Biomoneta today were a part of Bugworks’ initial journey, and previously spent many years working on discovery of novel antibiotics as part of AstraZeneca’s R&D.
“The personal connect to the problem is the strongest possible in the case of our startup. We love to spend as little time as possible being ill. Imagine people who are already vulnerable to picking up infections because they are undergoing chemotherapy, or have undergone transplants, or been previously ill. This is where the idea for the product comes from,” explains Arindam Ghatak, Co-founder, Biomoneta Research.
There is an increasing number of infections that are drug resistant. He asks: “If we could kill those microbes before they can infect someone, wouldn’t we want to?” The long experience with infections, and the realisation that every new antibiotic drug will be closely followed by the onset of resistance, made the founders focus on technologies that could prevent the transmission of infections.
“We remember a friend who got a cut on her leg at home and discovered after weeks of treatment that she had been exposed to an infection that was resistant to over 14 antibiotics,” Arindam recalls.
The startup’s proprietary Z-Box technology is being tested with beta customers: protecting patients from infections and products from being contaminated in commercial laboratories. “We are working aggressively on setting up manufacturing to enable a launch in the next three to four months,” he says.
By 2050, WHO estimates there will be over 10 million deaths worldwide every year due to resistant infections. “We want our devices to be at the forefront of preventing these infections in hospitals and other public spaces, and to be the devices of choice to protect people, particularly those vulnerable to infections at home,” Arindam says. In the long term, they want to provide first responders to epidemics and even bio-terrorism with appropriate personal protection devices.
Bempu has developed a temperature monitoring bracelet used in tracking the health of premature and low birthweight babies. Founder Ratul Narain moved to India from the US to pursue his vision to improve health outcomes in low-resource parts of the world. While growing up, he had travelled to several low-income countries, including India, while his father was working at the World Bank.
“He saw first-hand the disparity that exists in the quality of life. Through this exposure, he developed a deep interest in health technologies, especially for children,” explains Annika Gage, International Key Account Manager, Bempu.
The startup has sold over 14,000 units of its flagship innovation, the BEMPU TempWatch, and is scaling commercially across the world. “We are also developing a portfolio of other lifesaving innovations for children and mothers. We are fortunate to be grant-funded by Grand Challenges Canada, the Saving Lives at Birth partners, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports our product development and commercialisation activities,” Annika adds.
In the long run, Bempu hopes to become a trusted partner for the world's children by creating products and services that empower health workers and parents to provide high-quality care to every child. “We aim to reach over 10 million children in the next five years,” Annika says.
Investors and mentors
The meetup also included investors, mentors, tech players, incubators, and healthcare providers. Indian startups have opportunities to tackle the many challenges of providing primary and secondary healthcare in low resource settings, according to Adam Walker, Growth Associate, Montane Ventures. He defines “low resource settings” as ones where there is lack of financial capital, electricity, medical technology, technical skills, and even patient volumes.
India’s ambitious universal health coverage programme, the rise of technology solutions, and the India Health Stack together provide enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs, according to Arun Patre, Incubation Lead for startups at Mazumdar Shaw Medical Foundation’s technology business incubator, InCite.
As notable examples, he cites two startups: Janacare and Docturnal. “Janacare has developed a means to transfer wet chemistry labs into dry chemistry test strips for blood tests, with accessibility and affordability in mind,” Arun explains.
At InCite, the founders came in with two IPs from the MIT Media Lab and undertook the journey of converting the IP to a proof of concept, clinical validation, and getting the regulatory approval along with commercial partnerships for roll-out, according to Arun.
“The more recent example is Docturnal, which has developed a voice-based algorithm to diagnose tuberculosis in a non-invasive manner,” he adds. The value propositions are attractive to global players in this space, who have evinced interest in their technology.
Startup mentor V Ramanathan sees opportunities for health-tech startups in PoC diagnostics, digital health, and analytics-enabled health solutions. “One startup is working on pathogen identification and anti-microbial resistance, which can save lives and expenses,” he explains.
Another startup he is mentoring is a digital platform for healthcare awareness for the public in Tier-II and Tier-III cities. A third startup is working on AR/VR-based simulation solutions for accelerating the learning curve of sophisticated surgeries and procedures.
“The underlying story for success is the clear identification of the pain point or need, and the convergence of all stakeholders in curating the solution,” Ramanathan sums up.
In Part II of this article, we dig deeper into the challenges faced by the above startups, and how they plan to overcome them – along with tips from the founders for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
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