Rising to the challenge: Startups and the COVID-19 crisis

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Amitabha Bandyopadhyay is the Professor in-charge of the Startup Incubation and Innovation Centre at IIT Kanpur. In this Q&A, Bandyopadhyay describes how startups in India have risen to the challenge of providing COVID-19 solutions, highlighting the example of Nocca Robotics, a startup that swiftly developed a low-cost ventilator in record time.
 

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected the startup ecosystem in India?

It is a little premature to comment on it authoritatively. Surveys are ongoing. Some niche product companies are suffering. But there are other companies whose existing products just fit in nicely as solutions for COVID-19.

Most of the solutions for the crisis coming from within the country are from startups. This has been an occasion for them to step up to the plate, and they have proved their mettle.

Has this crisis provided an unprecedented opportunity for startups to become more innovative?

To put this in perspective, the story about Nocca Robotics [a startup incubated at IIT Kanpur] is important. Nocca Robotics’ actual business is to make robots that can clean solar panels; they have nothing to do with medical technology. When I, as the head of the IITK incubator, sent an SOS to all our 130 companies, Nocca Robotics raised their hand and said that they will build ventilators. The oldest person in this team is 28 years old and the youngest graduated in 2019.

This is of enormous significance for a country like India where manufacturing and innovation has taken a back seat, whether we like it or not, for quite some time. Now, suddenly, we have a tribe of young kids who feel like they can innovate and do anything. I would say it is an opportunity for India to capitalize on this newfound confidence and build on it.

Can you give examples of specific areas where startups are proving to be especially helpful during this crisis?

Everybody understands that early diagnosis is important. Companies that have some understanding of molecular biology are moving towards diagnostic kits. I am aware of one interesting concept: a startup has developed a mobile phone-based solution for diagnosing COVID-19 positive individuals; this is a light-based detection system. It is early to comment on how accurate it is, but it looks fairly promising.

Other groups are looking at manufacturing PPEs, masks, and so on. We have a company that normally makes breast implants for cancer survivors, because of which they have sophisticated stitching facilities. They promptly pivoted to make PPEs for doctors and nurses.

Before COVID-19, we thought that the N95 mask was an exclusive forte of foreign companies. I know of efforts at IIT Bombay, IIT Kanpur and IIT Delhi, where they developed N95-like materials almost within a fortnight.

One of our companies has developed hands-free handwashing stations. There is also a completely robotic sample collection station. Then, of course, there’s the entire set of companies making ventilators and high flow nasal cannula, software-based solutions for tracking infected individuals, and prediction models at individual and community scales.

People are also seriously thinking about a problem that is going to come up. Suddenly, there is a hundred-fold increase in the consumption of PPEs and masks which are not really biodegradable, and will all end up in rivers and oceans. Some companies are trying to develop recycling-related solutions for these products.
I am part of a body (Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis or CAWACH) which received funding of about Rs. 68 crores from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to quickly deploy solutions for COVID-19 and related issues. In our call that lasted only five days, we received 877 applications. We shortlisted 170 applications spread across all areas: diagnostics, devices, software-based solutions, PPEs and masks. We are seeing activity in all possible spheres.

What advantages might startups have over larger organizations in quickly deploying such solutions?

If it is a large organization with a history, it will have entrenched processes and it is not very easy to change them. [For example], enlisting car manufacturing companies to make ventilators is a bad idea. If you think of the conveyor belt and assembly line of a car manufacturing company, it is of high precision and is worth crores of rupees. It is not simple to repurpose it to make ventilators. When you talk of large organizations, they have their own inertia and, like it or not, their own bureaucracy.

On the other hand, a startup is four buddies. They have a whole lot more nimbleness in their operation, so they can very quickly pivot.

On the flip side, don’t startups also face challenges in scaling up, getting their product quickly to the market and so on?

That is precisely where the role of a good incubator comes into play. When Nocca Robotics said that they were going to make ventilators, I made them sit down with doctors in our network who described what is the requirement, how it should work, and so on. They listened to all of it, read up on ventilators within 24 hours, and in the next 24 hours, came up with a prototype.

Then, I escalated it to our incubator board, and we formed a task force, where we have the founders of HCL Technologies, the founding Chairman of NASSCOM, the founding Chairperson of Indian Angel Network, the president of the Medical Technology Association of India, the global R&D head of Stryker Corporation, and some other leaders in the med-tech industry. The core engineering team is working only on product development, in consultation with doctors. Everything else ‒ ensuring supply chains, getting it to the market, figuring out insurance costs for the designer and manufacturer, legal aspects and certifications ‒ is being taken care of by this task force behind the company. This is happening at an accelerated pace because we are all working in a mission mode.

In the US, there is a two-tier system: an incubator and then an accelerator. In India, most of the innovative products are coming only from the college/university ecosystem. There are no good accelerators. Therefore, good universities have to leverage their networks. We need to play that role to nurture a seamless transition from pre-incubation to incubation to acceleration.

Has government support for startups been improving, even before the COVID-19 crisis?

The support from the government has increased substantially. Year after year, I am seeing more and more schemes, and money coming into the startup ecosystem. The government is currently operating two organizations. One is the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), which is receiving and reviewing applications on a daily basis. Similarly, DST is operating two arms, one of which is the National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board, under which is the CAWACH scheme.

After this crisis, there will be a lot of buoyant startups thinking, ‘we have done it, we have served the country’. Indian startups really rose to the occasion. Now the government has to come up with mechanisms beyond funding to ensure that they flourish.