Prosus SICA challenge showed why collaboration is central to assistive tech in India

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Even its most ardent advocates will concede that ‘assistive technology’ has niche stamped all over it.

The Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility has chipped away at that image, says Pulkit Aggarwal, project director, Social Alpha, who played a central role in the rollout of the Prosus SICA contest to find the most promising assistive technology startup in India.

“Five years ago, the assistive technology sector was a lonely space. Prosus SICA marks not only an emerging trend of businesses taking on more risk in assistive technology development; it also demonstrates faith in the quality of Indian entrepreneurship,” says Aggarwal.

Prosus SICA itself is an initiative of Prosus, the global consumer internet group of Naspers, to identify and support talented entrepreneurs working on assistive technology. It has committed INR 16,500,000 over three years to the initiative, and the selected recipients in the inaugural event were unveiled on December 3, coinciding with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The three selected entries were Sohum Innovation Labs, NeoMotion Assistive Solutions and Stamurai from Demosthenes Technologies, all early-stage Indian ventures developing technology-based solutions to aid persons with disabilities. Beyond the grants, the selected startups will receive expert product and business development mentoring from the Prosus universe. In addition, the association with Prosus SICA will also throw up opportunities for collaboration with public sector entities and other innovators to ensure that the most genuinely disruptive ideas reach the marketplace.

In effect, Prosus SICA will be seeding an eco-system for disruptive technologies.

As Aggarwal says, Prosus SICA’s existing partners such as WHO, YourStory, Startup India, and Social Alpha, a long- standing initiative to bring entrepreneurship to development challenges, “have already introduced an air of much needed excitement for young innovators. There are few entrepreneurship challenges designed specifically for assistive tech in India. So, a private player doing just that on a national scale is an encouraging sign.”

Participation

The top startups were selected by an expert jury which evaluated a range of attributes, such as the underlying issue being addressed by each startup, product scalability, market feasibility, outcomes of clinical trials and accessibility for the ultimate beneficiaries.

Interestingly, from the 200 entries, several were early-stage innovators from design and engineering colleges, says Aggarwal. This suggests that Prosus SICA generated more attention from innovators, who need time and resources to simply develop an idea, than from those further along the development cycle. As for the innovators keen on applying next year, Aggarwal says, “When developing your product, also identify your market strategy and the stakeholders needed to make your product accessible.”

Evaluation

The evaluation process moved through four rounds of rigorous scrutiny, guided by a unifying principle of “encouragement, not elimination,” says Aggarwal. Prosus was not involved in any stage of the process.

In the first round, Social Alpha’s specialised portfolio managers scanned and evaluated the written submissions. The second round was managed by experts from organisations such as XRCVC, Enable India, Mobility India, Jaipur Foot, NISH and others, focusing on the immediacy of need - whether the product or service is required by the market. The third round saw multiple reference calls - with the users, clinicians, researchers, mentors, and the entrepreneurs themselves - to determine the development progress of the product and whether it had been validated.

“It is hard to judge a startup stage without seeing it. The middle ground is to interview their references to give us an idea of where they are on providing the services, how the assistive tech is fairing with customers, and what are they expecting in terms of pricing and services,” he says.

The final round was conducted in person, with jury members from ten different organizations of diverse backgrounds in the disability and the assistive tech environment including investors as well as entrepreneurs. The jury was designed to contribute to cross-functional learning.

At each stage, the jury refrained from immediately scoring the idea and instead debated the merits and faults of every product to reduce any biases that may have emerged, giving the entire process a more democratic character. The Prosus SICA initiative will take place over the next two years.

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