Let’s make India the assistive technology startup hub of the world

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2021 has been a milestone year for India’s startup ecosystem. It took a decade to create the first 30 unicorns and just eight months for the next 25. The pace of activity in the local startup ecosystem is so frenetic that globally one in every 10 unicorns is Indian. And there’s no sign of a let up because India’s young and ambitious innovators are hungrier than ever. Under the government’s ‘Startup India’ initiative, more than 55,000 registered startups from 628 districts across the nation have created more than 5.8 lakh jobs.

In an interesting sign of the plural character of this activity, of the 2 lakh queries Startup India has answered over Twitter, emails, and calls, more than 65 percent are in Hindi and other vernacular languages. The entrepreneurial spirit is breaking the threshold of urban India, addressing societal challenges in Bharat, including access to financial services and education.

This feels like an opportune moment to channel the spirit of innovation for the benefit of people with disabilities. That was the consensus of some key enabling agencies that interacted with applicants for the second edition of the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (SICA) 2021. Prosus — the global consumer internet unit of Naspers — has partnered with Invest India, Social Alpha, and the World Health Organisation to host the leading industry platform for entrepreneurs to ‘moon-shot’ their ideas on accessibility.

Recognising the need and opportunity

As a long-term investor in India, Prosus recognises “the massive need and an equally big opportunity in this field,” says Aileen O’Toole, Chief People Officer, Prosus. “In some small way, Prosus SICA helps to realise both, matching Digital India with accessibility. While startups usually have the right idea about their product and how to bring it to the market, they lack capital to get moving and the mentorship to jump from the minimal viable product stage to a self-sustaining business. That’s where Prosus hopes to make a difference. First, by bringing important agencies together. Second, by offering participants more than grants; by bringing our global perspective and multi-functional expertise,” she explains.

She adds, emphatically, “that’s how we invest.”

George Sebastian, head of eiLabs, EnAble India, a non-profit body that views technology as pivotal in this enabling system, says partnering with Prosus was a no-brainer. Prosus SICA is designed to support talented Indian entrepreneurs and aspires to build a business case to drive more investments and innovation to India’s accessibility sector. As Sebastian says, these collaborations help “catalyse communities for assistive tech.”

EnAble India connects these ends of the spectrum. One of its key initiatives is to forge these connections through ‘Project Discovery,’ a novel effort in chronicling the assistive solutions people with disabilities have engineered for themselves. The project showcases these ideas to startups interested in scaling up. “It is both an ode to those who have taken charge of their lives and a way of sharing this repository with others,” says Sebastian. Prosus SICA enables these startups to interact with these innovators and determine a way forward.

Nikita Gupta, Assistant Manager, Startup India, hopes that partnering with Prosus SICA 2.0 will spur a manifold rise in investments in accessibility.

The community perspective

The session invited questions from audience members who were both inquisitive and enthusiastic about learning and contributing to the discussion.

Are you willing to invest the amount required to build the business as planned or do you have set amounts, asked an entrepreneur. Pulkit Aggarwal, Investment Director, Assistive Technology at Social Alpha, shares, “For Prosus SICA, the grants are set amounts for the top three. However, Social Alpha with its 250+ network of investors will be considering financial assistance to the top 20 startups.”

Pulkit also guided prospective participants on their applications, advising them to not only detail the impact their solution would have but also elucidate how exactly it would work and how they would approach the market. “Be as articulate as possible. This will help the jury understand if the solution is sustainable and scalable,” he advises.

While the jurors are looking for an understanding of revenue - how the product would sell - they do not expect a comprehensive strategy in place. It will help build conviction if the products have gone through a few rounds of user testing.

Applications are open until October 19 and the top startups will be announced in December to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To know more about the application process, login to https://www.startupindia.gov.in/


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