A start-up challenge to develop assistive tech for the differently abled

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on October 01, 2020 Published on October 01, 2020

Aileen O’Toole, Chief People Officer at Prosus

Assistive tech can provide major business opportunity for entrepreneurs, says Aileen O’Toole of Prosus

There are not too many options when it comes to applications that aid people with disabilities. What is available is neither accessible or affordable, says Chumki Datta, who is a successful entrepreneur and a paraplegic.

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This could change soon. Prosus, the global consumer internet group of Naspers, in collaboration with Invest India, Startup India and Social Alpha, is launching the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility. It is a social impact investing challenge where start-ups with the most innovative solutions in the assistive technology space will compete for an annual grant.

The need for assistive technology to aid people with disabilities is a customer issue which can provide a major business opportunity for entrepreneurs, according to Aileen O’Toole, Chief People Officer at Prosus.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology, especially in healthcare, it has also accelerated the need for focussed efforts and innovative tech solutions to aid people with disabilities.

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Defining the need as a customer issue can capture the interest of budding entrepreneurs, according to the Prosus executive.

‘Right thing to do’

“Entrepreneurs really like to solve customer problems. It is really about providing great customer experiences and seamless products to everybody and not just to those who are able bodied,” O’Toole told BusinessLine.

“By defining it as a customer issue, and actually a business opportunity, if we go back to the amount of people who actually need this assistive technology, then it's smart business in addition to being the right thing to do. This will really capture the imagination of entrepreneurs,” she added.

Prosus, in collaboration with Invest India, the national investment promotion and facilitation agency, and Social Alpha, has launched the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (Prosus SICA). The challenge calls on start-ups to compete with innovative solutions in the assistive technology space for an annual grant.

As part of the initiative supported by Tata Trusts, Prosus is committing ₹16,500,000 over three years to Prosus SICA, and each year will award grants to the top three start-ups.

Need for solutions accelerated by Covid-19

“The global pandemic has demonstrated how technology can play an even greater role accelerating innovation and providing much needed solutions across key sectors like healthcare," said Sehraj Singh, Director, Public Policy and Corporate Affairs, Prosus."

The present environment has highlighted how people with disabilities have suffered and the acute need for a robust support system. This brought to the surface a great need for investments in the space and a focussed effort to develop solutions for people with disabilities”,  Singh added.


Funding issues

According to Singh, there has been a renewed focus on sectors that provide societal benefits in the Indian start-up ecosystem over the past decade. With the pandemic accelerating the need for such solutions, this is the ‘right time' for start-ups to build solutions in these sectors.

Talking about the challenges that start-ups in this space face, especially in terms of capital, Singh said: “We need to be a lot more focussed on the value of the sector. And that will bring in more capital,” said Singh.

“It comes down to redefining the problem and providing the capital and the know-how to accelerate these entrepreneurial projects,” said O’Toole.

The winning start-ups will also be inducted into the Prosus SICA mentorship programme where Prosus will help them in terms of providing expertise and guidance.

Inclusive approach

The challenge will be open to Indian start-ups that are less than 10 years old and recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade/Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Applications for the challenge are open until October 12, 2020.

“We really want to focus on potential and focus on the future on what these innovations can bring,” said O’Toole when asked about what start-ups can bring to the table as part of the challenge.

“It opens things up to first time entrepreneurs to female entrepreneurs to entrepreneurs who may require assistance technologies themselves. The only thing that we do ask is that it should be a developed prototype, and having completed user testing, so don't be afraid to make it broad, so that we can have as many start-ups and be very inclusive,” she added.


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Published on October 01, 2020
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