An IIT Madras alumnus, Rahul Alex Panicker is the co-founder of Embrace Innovations. The Bangalore-based startup has invented an easy-to-use infant warmer that doesn’t require continuous electricity supply or a specialist for its operation. It is an alternative to expensive incubators. He was recently named in the ‘Innovators under 35’ list by MIT Technology Review. In an interaction with Heena Khandelwal, the young entrepreneur talks about his journey from the IIT Madras campus to co-founding a company. Excerpts:
How did your interest turn towards entrepreneurship?
Inspired by the work done by the TeNeT group at IIT Madras, and also by Villgro (Rural Innovations Network back then) led by Paul Basil, I had an early interest in using technology to help meet various challenges in developing countries. The entrepreneurship bug bit me at Stanford. At the d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford, I learnt how to put people at the centre of your pursuit through user empathy, and how business and technology are means to developing solutions for human needs.
How was Embrace Innovations set up? When did the idea of an infant warmer strike you?
The d.school has a course on ‘Design for Extreme Affordability’, which focuses on designing projects for the developing world. The course partners with various organisations and one of them was Medical Mondiale, an NGO working in the field of neonatal health. They came to us asking if we could design a cheaper incubator—a glass box that plugs in to keep babies warm. Existing ones cost thousands of dollars; they wanted one for under $200. We travelled to Nepal and India and realised that even though cheaper glass boxes could be made, these were not the solution, since there were many incubators that were donated but were kept idle—they require electricity and trained people for their operation. So, the team came up with a prototype baby warmer that uses phase-change material to keep the baby warm without electricity.
We had no plans of setting up a company. We didn’t have the capital and there were lucrative job opportunities. But we realised that if we don’t (won’t) do it, no one else will.
How has been the entrepreneurial experience so far?
It has been an enormous learning experience. There is a wide spectrum of people I am fortunate enough to meet—from mothers residing in rural areas to Bill Gates. Our product was launched in 2012. It has reached about 200,000 babies in over 15 countries. It is nice to be able to make a difference to so many lives.
How long does it take for an idea to turn into a marketable project?
It depends on the complexity of the product and the nature of the market. A good app can be developed in weeks. Seven years can be a short time for a new drug. For us to go to market, we had to develop the right product, get it manufacturing ready, ensure regulatory compliance, and do clinical trials and field pilots. It took us three years.
Is it difficult to make such products reach the needy?
Yes, the places are hard to reach, awareness levels are limited, distribution and service networks are poor, electricity is unavailable and so on. But things are improving.
Do you see the Indian market supporting innovators?
It is an exciting time. The internet and the app economy have provided new marketing and distribution channels. These can lead to improvements in the physical world. For example, as online retail of vegetables gets large organised players, the availability of cold chains will improve. Startup hubs like Bangalore are developing an ecosystem to that aids entrepreneurship.
India is a land of entrepreneurs. Some very successful, others not. What would you like to share with those who have not succeeded?
I would tell them that today’s economy values their skills and experience, and they will never starve. They have to look at all the new opportunities around and all the new support structures that likely did not exist when they started. They have to put their experience to good use.
What kind of support you received?
I reached out to my professors at IIT Madras and old friends when I wanted help at Embrace Innovations. Many progressive bureaucrats gave us early breaks in working with the government, allowing us to reach the lowest levels of the healthcare system—Nedumkandam in Idukki (Kerala), Khanapur Belgaum (Karnataka), Shahabad in Baran (Rajasthan).