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Start-ups are shaking up the disability space even as investors lag

Shriya Mohan | Updated on August 12, 2021

Where there’s a will: A wheelchair user visits Jaisalmer with Planet Abled, a travel company for persons with disabilities   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PLANET ABLED

Why don’t Venture Capitalists and funders view those with disability as consumers with a wallet and a need? ask entrepreneurs who have built promising assistive solutions

* According to the ILO there are over 1 billion persons with disabilities in the world with an available disposable family income of USD 1.2 trillion

* Investment in the provision of four assistive products — hearing aids, prostheses, eyeglasses, and wheelchairs — will result in a return on investment of 9:1

* “Tech is a great enabler because it doesn’t discriminate and it’s easier to distribute,” says Prateek Madhav, co-founder and CEO of AssisTech Foundation (ATF) which works with a network of 350 start-ups working on disability tech

***

Neha Arora learned early how inaccessible the world was. Born to a mother who is a wheelchair user and a father who is blind, there were no family holidays. When she started working, more family income meant better travel facilities, and Arora would try to organise a family vacation but she only had to step out of home with her parents to be reminded that infrastructure was the least of all barriers. The biggest of them was society’s stigma against disabled people. She ended up making it her life’s mission to ensure that holidays could be possible for the disabled, and an inclusive ecosystem could be built within the travel industry.

Dreams come true: Neha Arora’s parents were her inspiration to start Planet Abled   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PLANET ABLED

 

Today she runs Planet Abled — a first of its kind travel sojourn of the planet where people with and without disabilities travel together. Since 2016, when she launched her start-up, Arora has taken disabled people for karaoke, shown them a musical jam in a moving metro train, given blind people the ski trip of their lifetime and wheelchair users a rafting adventure. They just have to ask for the experience and she puts in her might to make it happen by sending a team to audit the place, set up temporary arrangements, sensitise staff and storytellers, and create an authentic local travel experience. “People say, ‘you gave me the best day of my life’,” Delhi-based Arora says.

Arora used up her life’s savings to build her company. Today it is a profitable venture that has given 3,000 disabled people a travel experience taking them to various parts of India, and over 40 international destinations. From blind and deaf international cricket teams to global diversity conferences, Arora has had a range of clients from India and abroad. And yet, her few attempts at raising capital from Indian investors were met with scepticism. “People think it’s too niche. They don’t consider it as a scalable business because they don’t see disabled people as paying customers,” she says.

For a travel company like hers, while the pandemic threw in the spanner, it also gave her time to reinvent her business. Now, as destinations around the world are opening up partially, emboldened by the success of her venture, she is ready to pitch again. “Planet abled 2.0 with a bigger vision and bigger plan. Let’s see who is game,” she says.

According to the ministry of statistics and programme implementation of India (MOSPI) 2.21 per cent of the Indian population suffers from some form of disability. In absolute numbers that’s 2.68 crore people. A lack of awareness, especially in the vast hinterlands, means that disability is concealed and under reported, driving up real numbers.

The global figures are staggering. According to the International Labour Organisation there are over 1 billion persons with disabilities in the world with an available disposable family income of $1.2 trillion.

“They want to spend the money and we want to create products and services for them at scale. It’s time investors realise the untapped market potential,” Arora says.

But can investors share the chutzpah of Arora’s tribe?

Inclusion be thy name

“We have to see a person with disability as a consumer with a wallet and a need. The market creation hasn’t happened,” says Gita Dang who is on the governing council of TiE Delhi, a non-profit venture that has been supporting entrepreneurs through mentoring, networking, funding and incubation.

A few months ago, TiE Delhi had invited applications from entrepreneurs for start-up ideas in the disability space. Dang and her TiE team were on the lookout for sector agnostic start-ups who already had 1,000 users and clear potential for scale. They received 30 applications of which 12 were shortlisted in their Assistive Solutions Cohort. There were a range of promising ideas from the use of assistive tech to help autistic children communicate, speech to text eyewear for the hearing impaired to toilet assistance for wheelchair users and more. They also earned a chance to showcase themselves at Resurgence TiEcon 2021, TiE’s flagship annual event where they got great support and harboured interest from corporates.

Having worked with the entrepreneurs on their business pitch and marketing strategy Dang’s mantra to create a strong business plan is to look for a market beyond disability. “Don’t make your product’s use so narrow that it doesn’t have wider application,” she says.

Taking the example of television subtitles, Dang says that it was earlier meant only for those who were hearing impaired. Today there isn’t anyone who doesn’t gain from it. Similarly spectacles, hearing aids, walking sticks or wheel chairs are no longer only used by the disabled but also by geriatrics or anybody with poor hearing, eye sight or weak knees. Assistive technology for autistic children that involve picture word association can be useful to first generation learners too, Dang offers.

Perhaps with less segregated usage of such goods and services we also go some distance in removing much stigma around disability, creating a more inclusive world.

Creating a new market

The lens of inclusion is a sort of fulcrum to the disability sector.

“I need reading glasses in order to be able to read. That’s an assistive technology I rely upon. Yet, I’m not seen on par with someone who can’t walk. We look at people with disability with pity, hardly recognising that they have abilities in other areas,” says Manoj Kumar, founder of Social Alpha, a multistage innovation curation and venture development platform for science and technology start-ups. The firm also has a separate assistive technology vertical consisting of seven dedicated professionals located pan India, who work on innovation curation, incubation and venture development in the disability space. The Social Alpha team is on a mission to provide disabled people with world class technology so they can be productive, efficient, and economically and socially empowered. “It’s a large consumer space,” Kumar says, speaking on phone from Bengaluru.

Able team: The Assistive Technology team at Social Alpha, founded by Manoj Kumar (bottom centre), received applications from 454 AT start-ups this year   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SOCIAL ALPHA

 

Since its inception in 2016, Social Alpha has nurtured more than 150 start-ups including 50+ seed investments. In the disability space the firm has deployed more than ₹20 crore in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship supporting start-ups through a mix of grant and equity.

Kumar likes to believe that he is building a start-up ecosystem in an area where historically only governments and NGOs used to function. Has it been hard to attract investment?

“Investors are concerned with two pillars — risks and returns. Most investors are willing to take the risk if we can demonstrate returns. And that is yet to happen. But somebody has to build the core foundation and ecosystem for this sector so that entrepreneurs can build great products and create new markets. And that’s what we’re doing,” he says.

Kumar believes that products have to first be built before we can look at creating a market for it. Some of the successful products under Social Alpha’s assistive tech portfolio include Blee — a wearable band for people with hearing impairment that converts sound signals to vibrations and visual notifications; Tactopus — multi-sensory learning resource to enable children with vision loss to participate in mainstream education; Bionic Yantra — an affordable, wearable robotic exoskeleton, and XL Cinema — an application working towards making cinema theatres and movies accessible to people with various disabilities, among others.

If products are being built, there are others in the start-up ecosystem who enable growth strategies and market linkages to help such entrepreneurs scale. The Assistive Technology (AT) space is one such where all the action is centred.

According to a recent report by ATscale, a global partnership for assistive technology which was launched in 2018, investment in the provision of four assistive products — hearing aids, prostheses, eyeglasses, and wheelchairs — will result in a return on investment of 9:1.

“Having access to AT can make the difference between failure or success in school, between a job or unemployment, between a life of opportunity or a life of dependency,” the report states.

For a child in a low- or middle-income country, access to AT can make a difference of $100,000 in lifetime income and providing AT to all who need it would yield more than $10 trillion in economic benefits over the next 55 years.

Social Alpha observes that while there were only 56 AT start-ups who reached out to them in 2018, that number grew exponentially each year. In 2021 there are already 454 assistive tech products that are looking to scale.

“Tech is a great enabler because it doesn’t discriminate and it’s easier to distribute,” says Prateek Madhav, co-founder and CEO of AssisTech Foundation (ATF) which works with a network of 350 start-ups working on disability tech. A portfolio of 21 start-ups that Madhav’s team closely mentored and helped scale in three years, have built over 50 products which are used by 2.3 lakh people with disabilities in India and abroad. The entrepreneurs have 19 patents under their belt too.

Madhav says in a country where 70 per cent of disabled people live in rural India a B2C business model (where businesses sell directly to consumers) isn’t always a practical approach. In several cases, it is a B2B2C which is start-up to Corporate CSR or government to consumer which allows for scale.

Corporate support

Ever since the government made corporate CSR mandatory in 2014, India Inc has played a significant role by investing in the disability sector and powering innovations and start-ups. IT companies, in particular, have taken the lead.

Microsoft has also been supporting start-ups across the globe, including in India, through various initiatives. In particular, Microsoft’s global flagship programme called AI for Accessibility (AIA) that aims to empower people living with disabilities. The programme allows innovators to reimagine the digital landscape through AI and ensure global independence and inclusion for over 1 billion people living with disabilities across our four focus areas — education, employment, community and home.

Recently, an Indian start-up named AI4Bharat, founded in 2019 by two IIT Madras faculty members Mitesh Khapra and Pratyush Kumar, was selected for the Microsoft AIA global grant. Their start-up, called Project Assist, which is currently in a pre-product phase, aims to create an Indian Sign Language open dataset for employment scenarios. India is home to over five million persons with hearing disabilities and their primary means of communication is sign language.

Workplace is the dominant scenario where the Deaf community is challenged in communicating. Most employers do not have in-house sign language interpreters and thus almost all official communication happens in a written format making it harder for the Deaf employees to have free-flowing two-way interactions with their colleagues. “We aim to address this challenge by building sign language recognition models which can be used with video conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams for real-time communication. We believe that such AI-assisted tools would be particularly relevant as employment scenarios continue to be transformed with remote work and rise of freelancing,” says Pratyush Kumar in an e-mail interview.

Last year, Microsoft issued cash grants and mentorship to 11 winners in the nationwide challenge they put out called ‘Innovate for an Accessible India‘. Some of the winning projects include: Blink Foundation who developed AI enabled digital tools to identify severe learning disabilities in children; Kickstart Services Pvt. Ltd who developed electric rickshaws and personalised wheelchairs for persons with mobility issues; and Signable Communications that developed a SignAble App that provides a video relay service of Indian sign language to empower the Deaf community.

“We are observing an upward trend of startu-ps innovating for persons with disabilities. Many supporting organisations such as incubators and accelerators are also increasing, enabling cohorts of early-stage start-ups and providing them with mentorship support. There is a huge potential to bridge the disability divide by democratising affordable technology and removing language barriers,” says Rohini Srivathsa, national technology officer, Microsoft India, in an e-mail interview.

Not charity

Reaching out: Talk With Me, launched by Swati Gupta’s start-up Inclusys, is an app that helps children with autism have conversations and build relationships   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SWATI GUPTA

 

Even if there are signs of a supportive start-up ecosystem unfurling, change is slow and often deep set notions are the hardest to transform. Swati Gupta, a computer scientist turned entrepreneur, still remembers an incident from 2017 when she was at a pitching event in New Zealand, a country where she had worked for many years in the field of cognitive sciences. She was looking for investors who would spot her for creating an app for autistic children to make meaningful conversations. But when she talked to various investors about the start-up that she was in the process of building, she was repeatedly asked if it was actually an NGO. Tired of having to repeatedly explain herself she walked up to the podium, took the mike and said to a stunned audience that she was here to do social good and make a profit.

Since then her start-up, called Inclusys, has successfully put out an app called Talk With Me, available for free download on Google Playstore. Too much of our energy goes in getting children with autism to build motor skills and just get through a day but there’s nothing to help them bond with others, she believes. “Relationships build life. You need relationships for education, jobs and personal satisfaction. You need conversation at every level and a connection with people is important. This is what we want to enable,” she says. The app, using pictures, voice and text, helps them learn to express themselves. It is a useful aid for therapy sessions too.

Gupta has spent her time trying to perfect the product before she can scale it for wider use. At the moment Talk With Me users are located across US, India, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. But even with proven results and after an initial round of funding from investors in New Zealand, she got a cold response from Indian Venture Capitalists when she recently wanted to raise another round of funding in order to make the app available in Hindi and tailor fit it to suit a spectrum of cognitive disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“People don’t deeply understand what it takes to innovate. There is also the inability to see any social venture as profitable. Lastly, not all investors have links to the disability world. They make assumptions about what the needs of the sector are. They need to take a leap of faith in the founders,” Gupta says.

The leap is harder to take in the face of a prolonged pandemic that has only taken funds out of the disability sector, which already had little to begin with, and diverted it into Covid-19 relief. Entrepreneurs such as Gupta have already adapted their product to suit remote functioning. She hopes that with a new avatar over Zoom, it might now help Indian investors see new value.

Never give up

Kalyani Khona was 21 when she started Inclov — a match making site for people with disabilities. In 2016, two years after she started the venture, she raised her first ₹1 crore in a seed round of funding from investors such as Debjani Ghosh (Chairperson of Nasscom), Sarbvir Singh (CEO of PolicyBazaar.com) and media entrepreneur Raghav Bahl. In 2017, her team of 15 people raised another round of capital. By then she had acquired 50,000 active users and had organised several successful offline meet ups across various Indian cities. Many of these even converted into happy marriages. But Khona couldn’t bring more traffic. Data was poor and the vast majority had a negligible digital footprint making potential users impossible to reach. By 2019, unable to show investors a growth in users, investors started pulling out and Khona had to shut down.

“If I had access to more capital I’m pretty sure this would’ve been a global app right now,” Khona says speaking to BLink on phone from Mumbai where she now works as a product manager for a financial technology firm. She still recalls the time when she gave a keynote speech at the United Nations in Vienna, after which she was flooded with requests from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Dubai, Australia and other parts of the world to help set up a similar interface in their countries.

Although it has been two years since she closed shop, Khona still gets calls and messages from families and friends of disabled people seeking her help in finding them a good match. The pandemic and the isolation that came with it only deepened the need for a product like Inclov. “At some point the market has to help you out, it can’t be a single player game when you’re changing the world,” says the 29-year-old who still has dreams of relaunching it if she can get impact investors and focused mentoring. Are we listening?

Published on August 12, 2021

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