“If not us, then who?” Why startups are the best bet to ACT and solve some of India’s biggest problems

At a roundtable discussion during TechSparks 2021, founders and investors rewind to how they came together to put a struggling India back on its feet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and speak about how they aim to use new ideas, innovations, and technologies to bring change.
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“If not us, then who?”

Mohit Bhatnagar, Investment Advisor, Sequoia India, set the stage by asking this question during a roundtable discussion at TechSparks 2021 on how startups can come together to problem-solve, make a difference, and drive societal impact at scale

The roundtable included Deepinder Goyal, Founder and CEO, Zomato; Prashanth Prakash, Partner, Accel Partners; Neetha Joy, Head, Healthcare Initiatives ACT Grants; and Sandeep Singhal, Managing Director, Nexus Venture Partners, and was moderated by YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma. 

“I want to use an anecdote of what happened in March-April-May of this year. And it will bring back the ‘why’? I think startups are very good at one thing: problem solving. They find quick ways to solve a problem, they iterate solutions in the market to see what works, and double down on what works and try to scale it up. That is how startups think every day.” 

Indeed, COVID-19 brought businesses, companies, startups, and founders together with one aim: to make a difference. 

In March 2020, founders and VCs joined hands to launch Act Against COVID (ACT), a Rs 100 crore grant to power startups building and deploying solutions to combat COVID-19. Since then, ACT has transformed into a social change movement that aims to bring in innovation and provide support in four key areas - health, education, environment, and gender issues. 

When the second wave struck, there was one word ruling all WhatsApp conversations: oxygen. 

“At ACT, we had broken up the short term and medium term. The short term was oxygen concentrators; you needed to get them into the country and at people’s bedsides rapidly. There wasn't much else you could do and the mid and longer-term solutions were things like PSA plants etc; they were more scalable but would take time,” he said.

The startups immediately rallied together to help get over tens of thousands of concentrators into India. While ACT was raising donation capital, the startups stepped up to contact vendors all over the world, place orders, and get  into the right lines so that oxygen concentrators would reach the country in the next two to three weeks. 

Logistics startups like Delhivery came to the fore at this crucial time. 

“All the pieces and parts of the startup world being used for commercial benefit came together in a streamlined way to deliver something the country needed. That hustle, that focus on problem solving is what we saw in COVID – it can be replicated in many other areas going forward,” Mohit said. 

The four pillars of ACT 

Today, ACT has scaled its focus beyond COVID-19 to healthcare, education, environment, and women’s participation in the workforce, and aims to bring in innovation, grants, and support in these four key areas.

Sandeep Singhal, Managing Director, Nexus Venture Partners, said they have seen that the government, primary healthcare workers, institutions, doctors, and workers, are all open to new ideas, innovations, and technologies.

“I see them becoming more prevalent as we see successful cases emerge. Some of the work that has happened in the period of urgency, when there was crisis and people were open to new ideas, has created a roadmap and playbook that can be replicated going forward,” he said. 

Focus on climate tech 

Prashant said the ecosystem is also looking at climate tech closely. 

“I think climate tech is at a very important juncture; it is one area where the business world and the social world are more intertwined than any other space that we can think of. In fact, the next couple of venture capital cycles may actually be more focused on climate tech,” Prashanth said. 

He added that disruptions in this space are going to be “big”. 

“The TAM is so huge and ACT can play a catalytic role to seed solutions that are scientific and based on core IP and technology. There is a business cost of being efficient and planet-friendly at the same time. So there is a strong need of technology, and ACT’s role will be to seed some of these through grants, and in some cases co-opt the funding to accelerate solutions.” 

The idea is to leverage the learning to work with the government - for while businesses play a big role so do regulations.

“It was Mohit’s idea to get a climate pledge. Folks like Deepinder know the value of the ESG journey of a company and what it means in the stock markets. So, can we get our early-stage startups to get started in the journey through a climate pledge? This can be of varying degrees for startups at different stages. This whole climate and environment pledge from startups at large scale can accelerate change,” Prashanth said. 

Understanding the impact 

The ACT team is effectively facilitating innovation by drawing the attention of startups to public issues. 

“Impact assessment has been a very key focus for us from the start. We delivered critical oxygen equipment and installed PSA plants and so on, and had set up a remote monitoring facility to evaluate all these activities, listen to stakeholders and healthcare facilities where we deployed these devices, and iterate and learn from that. That’s been a priority from day one,” Neetha said. 

The organisation is also working with a team of researchers  for an academic impact assessment exercise. 

“That’ll be ready very soon. We will be publishing the results, which will also show the impact of our work during COVID,” said Neetha, adding that the idea and focus is to understand capacity building.

Mohit said  ACT and startups are good at speed and disrupting status quo, but “what we are not good at is scaling it to the smallest towns and villages”. But this can change. One of the results of ACT’s work is that the stage is set for impact. 

“If a startup approaches me and says, ‘Sandeep, I have this tuberculosis test, I want to see if it’s actually usable’, ACT today has a bunch of district hospitals, doctors in those hospitals, and the ability to send out a questionnaire and ask if we had something like this available, would you see this being used in your district? It’s immensely powerful for an early-stage startup to get that information and define how to move forward,” Sandeep said. 


ACT is looking to give grants to innovations in the area of education , healthcare, environment, and sustainability. If you are a startup, entrepreneur, or an innovative solution that will help the bottom 75% of India's population and create an impact along these critical areas, please do apply at https://actgrants.in/as-a-grantee/


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Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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