Let’s talk about those Indian startups which are trying to create value by solving
real, on-the-ground problems.
There is some concern that the pace of innovation has not quickened in India. This is alarming, because the global trade war is now presenting India with a unique opportunity to capture some of the manufacturing industry relocating from China.
Unfortunately, it appears as though the exodus has mostly benefited Vietnam and other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, which were ready with infrastructure and trained workers.
Similarly, the #MakeinIndia initiative and its once-ubiquitous lion emblem are not so visible any more. However, there is progress on the ground: the Vande Bharat semi highspeed train is an example. Besides, industrial policy initiatives may not always work well: eg, the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative, contrary to making China a technology power, ended up highlighting the level of its intellectual property theft. Furthermore, there is a lot of concern about the so-called ‘angel tax’. Over-zealous tax officials have, allegedly, been sending tax notices to startups demanding they pay taxes not on profits, but on early stage investments. If true, this is bloody minded, not to mention dumb. If there are laws that actually consider angel investment taxable, they are daft: investment is not profit, and it kills off growth to treat it as such.
As a result of all this, one must surely appreciate those startups that have managed to survive and even thrive. Every year, I ask my students to identify the most innovative young firms (preferably registered in 2017 or 2018) they can find in Asia, especially in India. These are then evaluated by Netexplo, a UNESCO affiliate, for their annual Grand Prix.
In the past few years, there has been a trend towards healthcare oriented startups. Quite possibly, this stems from a combination of supply and demand: the supply of new technologies, and the ongoing demand for improved health from the large population of people with unmet needs.
This trend is visible this year as well.
In a welcome indication that entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to serve the real needs of groups of consumers, this year saw a significant growth in agri-tech related firms.
Agriculture is one of India’s hidden core competences, but has been sadly neglected. The opportunity for productivity improvement is high. Most startups, my students found, are focusing on the supply chain and marketplaces, avoiding intermediaries. Consumer to consumer shared urban farming on rooftops may be an interesting new trend as well.
In addition, concern is high among urban consumers about the quality of the produce or meat they consume, partly because of frequent exposes about pesticides and harmful additives used. One way around this is to create mechanisms of disintermediation whereby farmers and end-users are able to connect up directly with each other. This has the positive externality of providing farmers with a predictable income, as well as allowing them to produce to order rather than plant and hope.
The interest in agriculture and food technology is coming at an appropriate time: food security is likely to be a major issue with climate change, increasing populations, and possible changes in consumption (for instance, the rise of ‘clean meat’ made from vegetable protein or grown in the lab). I was at a review of proposals for scholarly papers in agriculture-related areas, and I was glad to see a lot of interest in supply chain issues, marketing and farmer livelihood.
There will also be some startups applying Internet-of-Things (IoT) and drones to optimise water, fertiliser and pesticide use in farms. This is obviously only a fairly random sample of startups, but it is good to know that there are many small firms in India attempting to solve problems and make a living. Here, according to their domain, are some of the companies the class studied.
• Algosurg: develops 3D computer models out of 2D X-rays for (especially knee) surgery, including jigs and patient-specific instruments that can be 3D printed to assist the surgery.
• Empathy Design Labs: a non intrusive patch is placed on a pregnant
woman’s belly to provide information and alerts to avoid high risk deliveries. Personal health assistant, remote monitoring, IoT and wearable, to reduce neonatal mortality for 4.5 million first-time mothers.
• Centre for human machine interface: robotic prosthetic arms using electromylography. Compares well to the Jaipur Foot and Stanford-Jaipur Knee.
• Pulse prognostic: fitness band and professional medical device, both using, nadi vijnana, ayurvedic pulse measurement to detect diseases including cancer at an early stage.
• Ayu devices: a low-cost digital stethoscope that can be attached to a conventional stethoscope especially for telemedicine, to spot abnormalities via sound, with the use of existing databases for heart and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
• Metflux: a human physiology database for modelling a person’s metabolism based on diet, exercise, pathological and blood parameter levels, and predict glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels based on current diet and lifestyle.
• HealWell24: a home healthcare aggregator so that physiotherapy, nursing, home ICU, dental, palliative and elderly care can be offered at home. Also offers post-operative care and links to pharma and insurance.
• Nemo.care: a wearable coin-sized health monitoring application and solution for infants to measure oxygenation, respiration, temperature, body position and detect things like apnea and hypothermia using deep learning algorithms.
• Ambee: a series of products in the air pollution market starting with air purifiers and monitors to develop sufficient data for future enhancements.
• Farmizen: customers lease out 600 square feet plot for which they pay Rs 2,500 a month, and get organic pesticide-free vegetables grown and
delivered to their homes. Customers can choose the vegetables they want to be planted. Quality assurance through visits, remote monitoring, surveillance, etc.
• Gastrotope: an accelerator creating an ecosystem of ‘farm to fork’ companies
-Personalised food product processing and management
-Image processing and ML driven farms
-Hydroponic and urban farming
-Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based
farm management system
-IoT solution for farm management
-Cold-chain distribution and delivery partner
• Spudnik: farm to consumer twosided platform so that consumers can pre-order fresh organic vegetables. Subscription model avoids intermediaries. Live tracking of crop stages.
• Jivabhumi: online marketplace plus 15 retail outlets in Bangalore for organic vegetables. Product traceability using blockchain.
• Wooly: Urban agriculture, digital rooftop farms, C2C (consumer to consumer), vertical farming, hydroponics, data science, AI, mobile aggregation.
• Gobasco: optimisation of agricultural supply chain using AI and Big Data.
• Kyber: a decentralised exchange on ethereum that allows for digital assets to be exchanged, smart contracts to be written and tokens exchanged between systems using different blockchain or cryptocurrency ecosystems (this company is in Singapore).
• Airim: a customer engagement widget for helping customers navigate complex websites and find the products and services they want. Substitute for live chat.
• Artivatic: a B2B cloud-based AI infrastructure platform solution, integrated for fintech markets, especially insurance and healthcare markets.
• Cyran Tech: Neuromorphic chips optimised for AI purposes: eNVM (emerging non-volatile memories). Potentially a breakthrough area in chip design that can help leapfrog conventional chip company monopoly.
• Slang Labs: multilingual (15 Indian languages) voice assistant interface that can be easily added to any mobile app, competing with Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana. This is B2B2C.
• Zasti: deep learning platform originally for medical applications, but to serve as a general SaaS platform (PaaS) with proprietary algorithms for predictive analytics in B2B spaces such as transportation, insurance, surveillance and healthcare. They can also do compliance, eg with GDPR.
• D-ID: protects facial images from facial recognition technology. It modifies images to prevent automated face recognition systems from identifying them, while preserving identification by humans. Thus provides de-recognition. This is a privacy preservation mechanism at www.deidentification.co (This company is in Israel).
• Clutch.AI: platform to allow bankers and lenders to operate viable AI predictive models without writing a line of code so that credit scoring accuracy can be improved when the customer (often small vendors) seeks loans.
• Selvitate: a platform to help SMSEs move into e-commerce, marketplace registration, listings/catalogs, daily order management. The small firm can more easily integrate themselves into leading marketplaces using this.
• Tactopus: multisensory learning material for early childhood education: books with textured surfaces, and a read-along app on a phone. Initially for blind children between 3-8, but now for sighted children too.
• Vision Empower: technologies to make mathematics and science accessible to visually impaired students.
• Lincodes: Grid pattern pin code for fine tuned addresses in India for delivery and for geotracking, even inside large warehouses: India divided into a grid of 10ftx10ft without using GPS. A 12-digit code identifies any cell in the grid.
• Trashcon: municipal waste management. Trashbots. Segregates biodegradable and non-bio-degradable waste and shreds it. Comes in various capacities. Can extract oil from non biodegradable (100 litres of oil from 1 tonne of waste) and manure from biodegradable (100 kg of manure from 1 tonne of waste).
• Fieldscope: two-sided online marketplace and task management software for social impact sector to find trusted service providers for short-term project needs.
• SmartClean: IoT and robotics solution to predict and keep public toilets spotless (Singapore).
• BeingYou: an online media company where inspirational stories are curated, photographed and presented in short story form.
• Antipara: underwater mapping, surveys, and coral reef preservation using underwater drone (Philippines).
There is a reason for optimism in that real problems (such as the real concern of urban Indians about pesticides and fertiliser overuse in their vegetables and harmful chemicals introduced in the meat and fish supply chain, about healthcare, and also about waste management) are beginning to be addressed by entrepreneurs. There is also the interesting venture into specialised chips for AI. However, there may not be enough original work being done in AI and ML, partly as a result of the lack of original R&D being done in universities or in large firms. The lack of originality is a problem (but it’s true that you can go a long way by copying business models, as Flipkart and Indigo have shown).
Another major issue I observed when running an incubator for electronics companies earlier is that many startups in India are focused on solving technical issues. The entire, major activity of marketing including both market research (in reaching out to customers to understand their real problems, both stated and unstated) and sales and distribution (eg in finding partners who can license your IPR, manufacture, brand or distribute your product) is not emphasised.
Unless internal systemic problems are addressed any amount of funding and government initiatives like Startup India may be of limited help in building up the startup ecosystem in India.