A hotbed of innovation

Narayanappa, a 65-year-old resident of a remote village bordering Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh can finally see clearly. Recently he was on the verge of going blind due to an eye disease and he didn’t know about it. But thanks to a Bengaluru-based medical devices start-up, Forus Health, the disease was detected in time.

Mr. Narayanappa was immediately treated at Sree Sharada Devi Eye Hospital and Research Centre in Pavagada, Tumkur district, 180 km from Bengaluru.

Forus is among a new breed of start-ups building affordable innovations for remote and poor areas in Karnataka and other parts of India, where large technology companies have failed to reach. It has developed ‘3nethra,’ a low-cost portable pre-screening ophthalmology device. The device can identify multiple diseases such as glaucoma, cataract, diabetic retina, refraction and cornea problems.

“There are hundreds of examples like these. Forus is doing a great revolutionary and sensational service to rural India,” said Swami Japananda, chairman of Sree Sharada Devi Eye Hospital and Research Centre.

Pavagada is one of the most backward areas in Karnataka in terms of health, education and economy. Experts say due to drought, the groundwater is less in Pavagada and neighbouring areas. The water has high fluoride content which is impacting general health of people there, causing eye diseases among children and increasing cases of blindness.

But the region and the taluks surrounding it don’t have access to eye care or testing centres. This is where Forus’s rugged device makes an enormous difference. It can be carried on bus tops and even on horses and costs just one sixth the price of the devices available in the market. The device ensures that a mobile eye clinic reaches the people. “We wanted to change the lives of people in rural India,” said K.Chandrasekhar, who co-founded Forus along with Shyam V. Rao, his former colleague at Philips. Forus, which has raised about Rs.88 crore from marquee investors like IDG Ventures India, Accel Partners and Asian Healthcare Fund, has now screened 15 lakh patients in 20 countries.

The success story of Forus is just one example of how tech-savvy entrepreneurs from India’s Silicon Valley are making enormous inroads into Karnataka. Despite the difficulties in reaching out to a rural market, the sheer strength of innovation is getting these start-ups kick start a rural revolution.

For instance, uber Diagnostics is providing early diagnosis and prevention of heart diseases in rural and semi-urban areas. It has developed a smartphone-sized electrocardiogram (ECG) machine called ‘Cardiotrack‘ that gives physicians all the details needed to make a diagnosis. The ECG captured in a rural area can be instantaneously transferred to a cardiologist far away for interpretation. Ashim Roy, the cofounder of uber Diagnostics said he got the idea to develop such a solution after visiting rural areas in Karnataka.

The clinical grade device was recently used at an orphanage in Bengaluru. The firm tested 200 boys and girls in the 5-18 years age group. It found seventeen cases of abnormal heart conditions.

“The reason to highlight the issue of these kids is that the orphanage does not have sufficient funds to perform these kinds of tests,” said Ashim Roy chief executive of uber Diagnostics. An alumnus of IIT-Delhi, Mr. Roy cofounded the company along with Avin Agarwal, a medical electronics engineer from Visvesvaraya Technological University. The firm recently received funding of Rs 1.3 crore from Mercatus Capital and a few angel investors based in the Netherlands, the US and Singapore.

“What I see is exciting, a lot of young companies are genuinely solving India’s problem,” said Professor S. Sadagopan, founder director of the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore. He said the availability of engineering talent in the country and access to technologies like mobile and Internet are helping start-ups solve the unique challenges of India. “There is definitely a future for growth, but as a society we have to create more investments in these small cities in terms of infrastructure,” argued Mr.Sadagopan.

Forus's rugged device can be carried on the top of buses and even on horses and costs just one-sixth of what other devices cost. Photo: Special Arrangement

Certainly, the potential for growth is enormous, but so is the social impact that these start-ups can create. Gamifying education using technology to improve learning outcomes among rural students is what eDreams Edusoft is betting on. The Bengaluru-based start-up uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology to provide automated personalised tutoring. The product, called ‘Funtoot’, is being used by over 50,000 kids in the country which includes children in backward areas such as Athani, Gokak and Saundatti in Karnataka. Rajeev Pathak, cofounder of eDreams said Funtoot has been able to improve learning outcomes of students by an average of 20 percent.

It seems the very fact that Bengaluru has been the centre for start-ups in India, has ensured that Karnataka has become the testing ground for socially centred, rural-based start-up ideas. No other State, according to experts, has as many rural start-up ideas being experimented upon. And they have not restricted themselves to just the core areas such as health and education.

Though e-commerce industry is booming in the cities, it has done little to sell products to rural consumers and create jobs in remote areas. But a Bengaluru-based start-up, Head Held High Services, is trying to change that. It has launched a business transaction platform ‘RubanBridge’ that provides last mile connect to corporates to bring their products and services to rural consumers. For instance it is providing distribution services for Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer to reach to consumers in Tier-III towns like Bidar and Mandya in Karnataka. They can receive their online purchases within two or three days. “Our vision is to create at least a hundred jobs in each rural district of India through various rural outreach initiatives,” said Madan Padaki, chief executive of Head Held High Services, who previously founded MeritTrac, India’s largest skills assessment company. Head Held High’s rural ecommerce distribution centres have expanded to 10 locations across South India which includes Mandya, Hassan and Bidar.

Enabling a better atmosphere for farmers is also a prime area that many start-ups are working on. In Karnataka’s Hubballi district, nanoPix has built an image and video processing technology that help farmers to sort agriculture products such as cashew by quality, shape, size and colour. Founded by former Wipro engineer Sasisekar Krish, the start-up does not use expensive-high resolution cameras used in imaging technology. To keep the costs low, it combines the images from several low-cost cameras and uses software algorithm to create three dimensional models of the objects that need to be analysed. It is now taking the technology to the next level where it will help hospitals analyse blood smears to detect infectious diseases. “We have got extremely talented and committed people from Hubballi and surrounding areas to work with us,” said Suchithra B, chief operating officer at nanoPix. She said the patent for the innovation has been published in the US.

However, it is not easy for start-ups to work in rural areas. Experts say many entrepreneurs lack the real data about the problems that they aim to solve. There are also instances where young ventures try to provide solution to the rural markets sitting in the urban locations.

“For innovation to happen in the rural market, a lot of investment is required,” said Jayaram Srinivasan, founder at FrontalRain Technologies, a start-up that provides a technology that plugs gaps in the rural supply chain. Mr. Srinivasan quit German software maker SAP along with Sreeram P and Ravi Mandayam to launch the firm. “It is a long-term investment, and you cannot expect returns in a very short period of time,” said Mr.Jayaram.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 7:50:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/karnataka-state-view-a-hotbed-of-innovation/article7646322.ece

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