From problem to product: entrepreneur insights from winners of the Marico Innovation Foundation 2020 awards

By Madanmohan Rao|17th Oct 2020
Four successful founders share insights on traction, resilience during the pandemic, ecosystem support, and mindsets for entrepreneurs.
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Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF), the not-for-profit arm of FMCG giant Marico, recently announced the winners for its biannual Innovation for India awards. See our interviews with Marico Chairman Harsh Mariwala and MIF head Priya Kapadia, as well as coverage of the 2018 awards edition.


Since 2006, more than 60 organisations have won MIF awards in the categories of startup, business, social, global gamechanger, and public services. This year’s innovation winners include Agatsa Software, Genrobotic Innovations, and Innaumation Medical Devices.


Goonj and Olympic Gold Quest were declared winners in the Global Game Changers Category. Indian School of Development Management (ISDM) won a special mention, as well as one of its pedagogies for creating social impact leaders.

Problem and opportunity identification

“Necessity is truly the mother of invention. When we faced a cardiac care emergency in our family, we realised there is no tool to recognise a heart problem quickly,” said Neha Rastogi, Founder of Agatsa Software, in a chat with YourStory.


Existing methods were too cumbersome, complex, and time taking. “We needed a tool to not just help in detecting the problem on time but also help in monitoring and managing the diseases,” she recalls.


The ‘Eureka’ moment came when she and her husband Rahul made a makeshift lab at home and started developing a simple Internet of Things (IoT)-based ECG device. It was portable and could connect to a basic smartphone.

“Since then, there has been no looking back, and as a company, we are evolving towards simplifying healthcare for all,” Neha proudly says.

 The device integrates with the cloud and is useful for personal usage, small clinics, and in rural areas. The company’s products can measure heart fitness and conditions like stress.

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Neha Rastogi, Agatsa Software

“A throat cancer patient who had come to us had not spoken for a very long time as he could not afford the expensive imported prosthesis available in the market. That is when I had this moment of conviction that I should be working towards making a speaking device for these patients,” recalls Dr Vishal Rao, inventor of the Aum Voice Prosthesis, Innaumation Medical Devices.


Vishal and his co-founder Shashank Mahesh were of the firm belief that speech and communication are not a privilege but are everyone’s right. “This has been the guide for me throughout this journey,” he affirms.


The Bengaluru-based medical device startup’s award-winning innovation helps with voice restoration for throat cancer patients via affordable, affable, and accessible devices. Surgical removal of the voice box due to cancer therefore need not mean complete loss of speech.


“Way back in 2016, we came across an article that led to the birth of our idea. The article was titled Braveheart Kozhikode auto driver dies after jumping into the sewer to rescue sewage workers,” recalls Rashid K, Co-founder of Genrobotic Innovations, which makes robots to clean manholes.


Unfortunately, the two sewage workers also died in the reported incident. “This newspaper heading shook us all and we collectively decided that we will develop a technology that completely eliminates manual scavenging from our society,” Rashid affirms.


He cites shocking evidence that at least 110 workers were killed last year while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. “Manual scavenging is strictly prohibited by the Supreme Court of India and is a punishable offense,” Rashid adds.


To tackle this harsh reality, he founded the Thiruvananthapuram-headquartered company, which creates a robot called Bandicoot to clean manholes using computer vision and advanced robotics.


“We realised there was a huge gap in learning, practicing, and understanding of ‘development management’ in social purpose organisations (SPOs),” explains Ravi Sreedharan, Founder, Indian School of Development Management (ISDM). Existing business and management practices have not been able to solve problems in the social development sector.


Ravi cites data, which shows India has 3.3 million Non-Profit Institutions (NPIs) employing over 18.2 million people, supported by funders, enabling organisations, the government, and businesses.  


ISDM has come up with “a new lens and approach” to groom leaders for the development sector. “The aha moment for seizing an opportunity came when we saw students from over 20 states across the country joining the first batch in 2017,” Ravi recalls. Since then, more than 200 development managers have graduated.


ISDM was founded in 2016, and its Knowledge and Research Centre is working to create a Body of Knowledge for Development Management. Ravi was earlier at HSBC and former lead of the Education and Leadership Management at Azim Premji Foundation.

Traction and impact

The founders also shared market activities, traction, and impact of their offerings.


“We have sold more than 10,000 devices since launching our first beta product in 2017. It is available on all ecommerce platforms including our own webstore,” says Neha Rastogi of Agatsa Software. The medical-grade devices are also used by state governments in their initiatives of improving rural health.


“Having gathered huge data in our cloud databases, we are working on improving the outcomes of our products by continuously implementing our patented AI algorithms and making the devices more intelligent,” she adds. Hospitals, diagnostic labs and tele-healthcare companies are integrating these services to improve judgment and diagnosis.


“We have already reached out to more than 400 patients who have been able to speak with Aum Voice Prosthesis,” says Vishal Rao of Innaumation Medical Devices. The company has also set up the Aum Voice Chain to help rehabilitate poor patients who cannot afford the device.


“We are on a mission called #MissionRobohole, which is about converting manholes into 'Roboholes' and replacing manual labour with robots. Moreover, we are upskilling manual scavengers to become robot operators,” says Rashid K of Genrobotic Innovations.


The Bandicoot robots have been deployed in 11 states with more than 40 implementations. “Hundreds of manual scavengers have gone through our rehabilitation program to become robot operators and make a change to their life,” Rashid proudly says.


Over the last four years, ISDM has developed a unique curriculum and pedagogy, and over 200 students have graduated across three batches since 2017, according to founder Ravi Sreedharan.


The approach resonates well with CSR groups under Hindustan Unilever Foundation, Srijan, Dasra, and Azizji Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, among others. Faculty collaborations have been formed with the IIMs, Wharton, Oxford, HBS and INSEAD.

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Winners: Genrobotic Innovations (L), Innaumation Medical Devices (R)

Resilience during the pandemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic has turned life upside down for societies and businesses around the world. But despite the challenges, resolute entrepreneurs have ploughed on.


“The worldwide pandemic has been a very unfortunate event and slowed down many business activities from design to supply. The lockdowns posed manufacturing and logistic challenges,” Neha Rastogi of Agatsa Software recalls.


But the company changed track to more of R&D and innovation. “We shifted our focus towards understanding the need for user-friendly, portable, and connected devices during the COVID-19 pandemic, considering health concerns, social distancing, and quick screening,” she explains.


The company launched a multi-parameter device, SanketLife Multi-Vital that is capable of taking blood pressure, SpO2, temperature, and ECG all with one single device.


Due to the pandemic, many cancer hospitals have been converted to COVID centres and are not seeing laryngectomy patients, according to Vishal Rao of Innaumation Medical Devices. “Most of the patients are not visiting these hospitals due to the fear of contracting COVID-19. This has impacted sales negatively,” he adds.


But the company has utilised this time to set up the distribution network for India, and reach out to patients and surgeons using digital media. “We have used this time to develop a breathable bib made from Dupont Tyvek to help patients stay protected,” Vishal adds.


Recent studies show the presence of COVID-19 RNA in sewage, and there is a risk that sewage-related activities can be the next source for spreading the virus, cautions Rashid K of Genrobotic Innovations. Medical waste from quarantine periods has also increased.


“Sanitation services cannot be postponed or locked down, hence the life of sanitation workers became riskier,” he adds. This became a challenge and an opportunity for his company.


“I am happy to share that the Bandicoot robot is helping sanitation workers clean manholes without any direct contact with sewage. Thus, it avoids the chance of getting the virus from sewage,” Rashid proudly says.


The shutdown of all educational institutes to curb the spread of COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the entire education sector of India, laments Ravi Sreedharan of ISDM. The batch this year has been the smallest, and the institute had to adopt to online activities.


“However, the pandemic and the humanitarian crisis has not been able to dampen the spirit or resolve at ISDM. We see the present crisis as requiring, more than ever before, strategically equipped and trained development managers who are able to navigate challenges with critical innovations,” he emphasies.


A Learning Management System (LMS) helps students access all academic and research resources without barriers. “We have also strengthened our subscription to journals and resources to ensure that all learning continues for students without any interruptions,” Ravi adds.

Support from MIF

MIF has helped the winners with support and handholding in their journeys to sustain and scale ahead.


“Being recognised by MIF is a very important and prestigious event in the world of startups. They also work very closely with the winners to guide and steer them through various challenges,” Neha Rastogi of Agatsa Software explains.


MIF has helped in areas like digital marketing activities and factory set-up in Bengaluru, says Vishal Rao of Innaumation Medical Devices. “We are certain that this will lay a strong foundation for our activities and help us scale up our operations in the near future,” he adds.


MIF has given great support and guidance as well as an excellent platform to spread #MissionRobohole and help make India free of manual scavenging, according to Rashid K of Genrobotic Innovations.


“We hope that being recognised for our work on the prestigious MIF platform will help open new doors for us and give us the opportunity to collaborate on building a pool of knowledge, wisdom and new ideas,” adds Ravi Sreedharan of ISDM.

Founder advice

MIF and the award-winning founders shared tips and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, ranging from mindset to skillsets.

 

“Everyone looking to be an entrepreneur should believe in the problem they are solving. And there are a lot of problems to be solved in our country,” says Neha Rastogi of Agatsa Software.


“Your own belief will compel others to believe in your idea, and that’s where the magic starts. Other than that, perseverance is the key – it takes time to progress and succeed,” she adds.

“Always start with what you have and move where you want to reach. The journey itself is more thrilling than reaching the destination,” Neha enthuses.

“Always keep identifying the problems and study its root cause, then get into the process of solving it. This will help you to develop the best solution for the customer,” advises Rashid K of Genrobotic Innovations.


Founders should not lose focus or patience. “Just put your heart and soul into the process completely,” he adds. The combination of dream, passion and hard work will bring the best output.


Innovators should believe in themselves, and begin with an innovation for a single user. “Markets will develop around the innovation. Leverage the power of uncommon collaborations,” recommends Vishal Rao of Innaumation Medical Devices.


“I notice angels, VCs, PEs, and impact investors are now beginning to direct their investments towards the value of organisations, and not their valuation only,” observes Priya Kapadia, Head of MIF. She views this as a healthy shift and hopes it continues.

 

“Most of our winners in this cohort acknowledged that the sheer size and diversity of our country makes for a great testing ground and launch pad for new, game-changing ideas. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to hold on to the knowledge that India is a land of opportunity as they navigate the challenges to scale,” Priya adds.


She advises aspiring founders to focus on being truly innovative and different from existing solutions, not just incrementally different. “Stay away from creating a ‘me-too’ product,” she suggests.


“Build a product relevant to consumers, focus on creating an efficient business model, and find relevant mentors who will support your entrepreneurial journey. These will ensure that you are able to achieve the impact and scale that you wish to achieve,” Priya recommends.


“To all aspiring entrepreneurs, we would like to say please continue to dream enormous and audacious dreams much as we have at ISDM. We would encourage people to become social entrepreneurs, treading the balance between helping society and finding adventure in what you pursue,” advises Ravi Sreedharan of ISDM.


As alumni examples, he cites those working on waste recycling and management in urban areas (HaritGriha in Meerut), helping the elderly (Grey Shades), and creating fellowships for social purpose (Kayantar Foundation).

The present situation has underlined the need to revise and rejig the relationship between samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar (society, governance and markets), he adds.

“Entrepreneurs now shoulder the responsibility equally, alongside policy makers and decision makers, to attain a syncretic relationship where each grows without impeding on the other,” Ravi signs off.


Edited by Megha Reddy

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