Indian companies can rise to occasion and deliver localised solutions: Dr Raghunath Mashelkar

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Published: July 23, 2020 4:40 AM

Many times, very crowded quarantines pose their own challenges. So we needed not just innovation, but ‘Indovation’ that can work under Indian conditions.

Raghunath Mashelkar, governing council chairperson, Marico Innovation FoundationRaghunath Mashelkar, governing council chairperson, Marico Innovation Foundation

The pandemic has exerted immense pressure on the existing healthcare infrastructure. Dr Raghunath Mashelkar, governing council chairperson of Marico Innovation Foundation, says that three companies won their grand challenge by developing affordable ventilators to suit Indian conditions. This demonstrates that Indian companies can rise to the occasion and deliver localised solutions. Edited Excerpts:

What was the realisation when the pandemic struck on limitations and lacunae in the healthcare infrastructure?
When the pandemic broke out, we wanted to fuel innovation that will help the nation in battling the pandemic by creating specific and directed innovations. Amit Chandra and Harsh Mariwala rose to the challenge and put Rs 2.5 crore to start such a well directed grand challenge. Mostly governments give such grand challenges. This was one of the rare occasions, when the grand challenge was given by the private sector in India. Among many needs, we identified two critical needs, namely ventilators and PPE (personal protection equipment).

We received within just a couple of weeks around 1,500 intents, out of which came around 600 submissions. Finally, we whittled these down to 6 winners with the help of technical experts with deep domain knowledge. We were privileged to have iconic Dr Nirmal Ganguly, who was the director-general of ICMR. We also got experts, who were interventionists, pulmonologists, experts in bioethics, in manufacturing of medical equipment and so on. We had to verify and trust, as we could not take a chance in an area dealing with critical life saving equipment.

What was the mandate given to these innovators?
We have some specific Indian needs. For instance, there is no electricity in some parts of India. Sometimes, compressed medical air is not available. Sometimes one has to do with staff, that is not fully trained. Sometimes one has to work with no one in attendance for some time. Many times, very crowded quarantines pose their own challenges. So we needed not just innovation, but ‘Indovation’ that can work under Indian conditions. The innovative products had to be affordable. But at the same time they had to match the technical specifications of the very best, in other words, we went for affordable excellence!

The three companies that were selected met all these criteria. The remarkable part of the story is that none of them were into the business of ventilators yet they rose to the challenge. Nocca is a young start-up from IIT, that was into robotics, while KPIT is a software company. Shreeyash Electromedicals also entered into this space of full fledged manufacture of ventilators, they were earlier dealing with only paediatrics.

All three came up with ventilators that could cover the whole range, so in transit ventilation in ambulances to in patient wards to critical care in ICUs. We insisted on certifications from Central Drug Controlling Organization of India and National Accreditation Board. And many of these have been now tested in reputed hospitals.

Has this adversity in some sense acted like an opportunity?
This demonstrates how India can convert an adversity into an opportunity. What we need is self-confidence. We earlier had denial driven innovation. We were denied technologies, whether it was in supercomputers, in cryogenic engines in space, nuclear fuel in atomic energy. And we thrived on denial driven innovation. I remember when India was denied Cray supercomputers, we created CDAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computation). We came out with Param 8000 in 1991. We were able to export it in 1992 to Russia. In 1998 we created our own Param 10000, a 100 gigaflops machine. The same Cray came back with the offer of a supercomputer that they had denied earlier. We overcame the adversity of denial, here we overcame the adversity of acute shortages!

Do you think the winners of the grand challenge can mass-produce ventilators and respiratory systems to combat shortage?
Currently, these players have the capacity to produce 6,000 units a month. We have the technology and talent, what we need is trust. ‘AtmaNirbhar Bharat’ can be built only when we have Atmavishwas , self confidence. Government must give generous public procurement policy support. Then why just produce for domestic supply, we can even export them!

Healthcare is a big area and how can technology resolve India’s problems in this area?
This pandemic has shown a number of things. If you look at telemedicine we have achieved in days what we would have achieved in ten years. The consultations through digital channels can happen if we have affordable digital access. In my mother’s name, I have created Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award. Rahul Rustogi developed Sanket, a portable ECG device, half the size a mobile phone, which helps you to take your own ECG even in a distant village and send it to the best expert in the city with the click of a button. The cost is Rs 5 per ECG.

We had young Mihir Shah, who developed a non-invasive screening for breast cancer at the cost of just $1 per screening. This has got both EU and US FDA certificate. What we require is trust. Dr Navin Khanna, another winner of award developed a dengue test kit that would detect the disease in 15 minutes as against one or two days.

But people continued to use the imported test kits and nobody believed him. When the dengue pandemic struck and we could not import from any country at short notice, Dr Khanna’s test kits were used.

From having a 0% market share, he now has a 78% share of this market.

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