India’s tech startup boom has been thrilling to witness.
What started with pioneering forays into a handful of nascent fintech ventures has now bloomed into a vibrant ecosystem. This coming-of-age has happened within a decade, aided and accelerated by a national mission to digitise public services, shifting geopolitics and its impact on investment flows, and a pandemic that kept people at home and online.
Where does this leave ‘assistive technology’? Regrettably, assistive tech remains laggard in the roll call of Indian tech innovation, way behind the scalable standard bearers in ride sharing, food delivery and education.
Sehraj Singh, India Managing Director, Prosus, recalls thinking about a year ago how assistive technology needed to be brought into the mainstream, so it could accrue the capital and growth opportunities that the startup sector was experiencing.
“I wanted to try and do something that can help the sector come under the umbrella of mainstream technology and policy ecosystem,” he says.
This is the premise for Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (SICA) initiated by Prosus, the global consumer internet group of Naspers, in partnership with Invest India, Social Alpha and the World Health Organisation.
The challenge that scouts for India’s most innovative assistive technology startups and offers them a platform to compete for an annual grant and access to the Prosus SICA mentorship programme recently entered its second edition. Prosus has committed Rs 16,500,000 to the initiative over three years and the grants will be awarded to three successful startups each year.
The first cohort of startups participating in SICA featured talented entrepreneurs anchored to a core idea: how to leverage technology and innovation for social progress.
In the past year, the top three startups of SICA 2020 gleaned invaluable learnings that they will pass on to the next batch. “The top startups have played a pivotal role in creating the groundswell and that will continue with their participation in the jury and mentorship program,” Singh said.
Keeping up with the top startups
Sohum Innovation Lab founded by Nitin Sisodia bagged the top spot and a grant of Rs 25 lakh for a unique device to detect hearing impairment in newborns and children via a 90-second non-invasive screening process. It has used this innovation to build training capacity, partnerships, and improving aftercare.
Sohum has sold over 200 devices across India, Tanzania, Uganda, and Guatemala. It aims to gain more partners and take installations to 600 in 2022, targeting 2,000 by 2024.
Led by Swostik Dash, NeoMotion in second spot received a grant of Rs 18 lakh for its customised wheelchair, known as NeoFly. Its bespoke technology stood out in a market crowded with ‘one size fits all’ offerings.
Shailesh Kumar, a 24-year-old from Gaya in Bihar and one of the 600 active users of NeoFly, swears by it. “I have recorded India’s fastest wheelchair half marathon time, reducing my previous best by 20 percent. I always knew I had it in me; the device helped unlock it.” With the right product and marketing visibility made possible by the grant, NeoMotion’s sales have since tripled. The company aims to touch the 2000-mark in terms of active users by the end of this year.
Stamurai, in the third place, impressed the jury with its cost-effective and accessible speech therapy app designed for those with speech and language disabilities. The company co-founded by Harsh Tyagi, Anshul Agrawal, and Meet Singhal used its Rs 12 lakh grant to make app enhancements that have doubled monthly app installs and increased revenue by 60 percent. Through SICA, Stamurai has received an opportunity to partner with a Fortune 100 company.
Top startups’ advice for SICA 2021 aspirants
While Sohum and Swostik stress on the importance of learning about the user’s environment, the Stamurai team believes that assistive tech needs to be pushed to the mainstream, inviting more investments from venture capital firms.
Swostik says, “SICA is the best sector-specific award and mentoring programme for assistive technology startups. Applicants should focus on showcasing appropriateness of the product in a market and its impact on the end user's life.”
Meanwhile, Nitin says, “An experienced set of judges makes great effort to understand the aspirant’s innovation and provides valuable feedback. This will help you to take it to the next stage.”
Stamurai’s Harsh, Anshul and Meet weigh in on what makes business click more broadly. “Build a business with strong fundamentals. Everything else will take care of itself,” they add.
The window for applications is now open and closes October 19. The top startups will be announced in December to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.