Three Indian startups get grants from Prosus to build assistive tech for differently-abled

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on December 02, 2020

The grant received from SICA will help these start-ups - Sohum, NeoMotion and Stamurai - to further their vision.

Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Nitin Sisodia wanted to build a simple technology that can detect hearing impairment amongst infants and small children and “prevent a disability for a lifetime.”

Sisodia can now invest further in scaling up this solution and creating awareness about hearing disabilities in developing countries with new funding received as part of the inaugural Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (Prosus SICA).

Sisodia’s Sohum Innovation Labs and two other Indian start-ups have secured a combined grant of ₹55 lakhs to scale up their solutions to assist the differently-abled as part of the Prosus SICA.

Prosus, the global consumer internet group of Naspers, in collaboration with Invest India, Startup India and Social Alpha had launched SICA in August. It is a social impact investing challenge where start-ups with the most innovative solutions in the assistive technology space had competed for an annual grant.

Prosus has committed ₹16,500,000 over three years to the initiative. It had announced the winners on December 2 ahead of the International Day of People with Disabilities.

The first prize has been awarded to Sohum Innovation Labs. Founded by Swostik Sourav Dash, Chennai-based NeoMotion, which makes bespoke wheelchairs has grabbed the second spot in the challenge, followed by New-Delhi based Stamurai. Stamurai is a mobile app which addresses speech and language disabilities. It has been co-founded by Meet Singhal, Anshul Agarwal and Harsh Tyagi.

The ideas that won big

Sisodia, who started his journey in healthcare with the Stanford India by design program had observed an "unmet clinical need" while working at AIIMS.

“I came across this particular need when I was in a child development clinic. A parent walked in with their five-year-old child from Hisar, in Haryana. And they said, “Humara Baccha Bolta Nahi Hai, he's not able to speak” and as the doctor examined the child, he said, “He's not able to hear that's why he's not able to speak. Ye Sunta Nahi Hai Isliye Bolta Nahi Hai, and it's already too late to do any intervention,” explained Sisodia.

“I went through the information and realized that close to 8 lakh such babies are born all over the world, and 90 per cent of them are born in the developing world. And they remain without hearing screening any further intervention early on, and they lose their speech for a lifetime,” he added.

From this experience was born the idea of a simple technology which can screen infants and small children for hearing disabilities. The technology is based on capturing brainwaves to detect a signal and screen children for hearing disabilities.

“This is the gold standard technology which is used in the US or UK. This is based on the same principles, but we have innovated to make it work in noisy environments. Any healthcare worker can use it with minimal training; it does not require expensive disposables. It is very affordable for any rural or Primary Health Care Centre,” he said.

The primary challenges faced by Sisodia and his team were in terms of hiring the right talent within India to build the technology along with funding.

“Our mandate is to screen every baby no matter where she or he is born, and make sure that they get early intervention and support so that we can avoid the disability from the society,” he said.

Dash, an alumnus of IIT Madras and a mechanical engineer by training, started his journey in 2015. The solution that took the second spot was based on two critical observations made by the founder while working with his alma mater on a project.

“Our first observation was that every year close to three lakh wheelchairs are sold in India, 95 per cent of them will be of the concept of one size fits all,” said Dash explaining how this impacts their ability to move around and their posture.

The second issue was minimal outdoor mobility.

“If you need to decide to go out, you just simply walk out. But for a wheelchair user, it's a planned activity,” Dash added.

Neofly and Neobolt

Born out of these key problems were Neofly and Neobolt. Neofly is a customized wheelchair which is built based on the health and lifestyle of the user. There are 18 customizations available.

“It is easy to cover three to five times more distance for every push. It's 30 per cent compact, which means without doing any infrastructural changes, things are accessible, narrow lifts, narrow bathrooms, they become accessible,” Dash further said.

The solution follows the eight-step guidelines set by WHO.

The second product is called Neobolt. It's an attachment unit, which converts the wheelchair into a bike. It is powered by a battery and travels 30 kilometres per charge.

The product “can be taken on all sorts of Indian roads, has suspensions and all the features that are that in a bike,” said Dash.

The products have so far assisted users in completing half marathons, enabled another user in bettering her posture and overcoming her back pain to participate in sports events and has helped a quadriplegic user travel to the United States and manage his trip by himself.

“We started our commercial sales in November 2019. As of today, we have delivered 220 units across 24 states in India,” said Das.

While Sisodia and Dash’s innovations are born out of exploring the world of healthcare, Stamurai has born out of the founders' personal experience.

“We are three co-founders; all three of us are IIT Delhi graduates. And two of us stutter ourselves, including me,” Singhal explained.

“I've been stuttering since I was a child. And it has had a great impact on my personal life, my social life, my career choices, and I never had access to good speech therapy. So is the case with Anshul, the other co-founder,” he added.

“Around two and a half, three years back, I was helping Anshul with his speech, when we came up with this idea that maybe we could codify the entire experience, making speech therapy, accessible, affordable and high quality. And so, we started on this journey,” Singhal detailed Stamurai’s journey.

The app is live on Android and iOS. It is made up of instructional videos to teach speech therapy exercises, tools to help people practice those exercises, and a community of users which acts as a self-help group for other users. So far, the app has over 30,000 installs from across the globe. Stamurai follows a subscription-based business model.

The initial learning material on the app was based on Singhal’s learnings.

“ I have been practising self-therapy on myself for the past seven, eight years.

When we started off, it was me and my reading of the speech therapy books, to which we created the initial training plan. But over time we arrived, we have hired consultants, both in India and the US. And now we also have full-time speech therapists on board,” added Singhal.

The way ahead

The grant received from SICA will help these start-ups further their vision. Sohum, NeoMotion and Stamurai will receive grants of ₹2,500,000, ₹1,800,000 and ₹1,200,000, respectively.

Sohum plans to invest the grant in “different gamuts apart from the product” to ensure that more babies are screened. The entrepreneur is also planning to expand the technology to more developing countries outside of India.

“We want to provide this technology to the rest of the world. Starting from other developing countries, we have started operating in Africa, in Tanzania and Uganda. And we are looking to expand in Southeast Asia and also some of the other neighbouring countries,” Sisodia said.

Dash, like Sisodia, will invest the funds received by NetMotion in creating market awareness for the product.

“A large part of this fund would go into creating awareness in the market. These are intangible investments that we need to do so that the market is created, the awareness is there, and which gives us returns in the longer term,” he said.

Dash aims to reach close to one lakh users every year by 2025 and expand the product portfolio.

Stamurai’s goal is to expand further by going deep into stuttering itself and add more exercises apart from including other speech disorders as well into the app.

Apart from these three startups, in the fourth and fifth place are Cogniable and Thinkerbell Labs. All five startups will be inducted into a new Prosus SICA mentorship programme.

The challenge had witnessed participation from over 200 startups across the country. The top startups were selected by a specialist and expert jury which evaluated a range of attributes, such as the underlying issue being addressed by each startup, product scalability, market feasibility, outcomes of clinical trials and accessibility for the ultimate beneficiaries.

“It is actually a matter of pride for us, to have three top startups that are doing such great work. And it only reinforces and reiterates for us the idea behind this initiative, that there is a strong business case for supporting innovation entrepreneurs, and assistive technologies that need to go out into this world,” said Sehraj Singh, Director, Public Policy and Corporate Affairs, India, Prosus.

Published on December 02, 2020

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