The 21st century could truly belong to India, with companies and start-ups set on innovative responses to Covid-19
By Dhanendra Kumar
When the Centre announced Unlock-1 after 68 days of national lockdown, nature too seemed to greet it with an unusual ‘double rainbow’, widely ‘considered a symbol of transformation and a sign of good fortune’. The numeral in Unlock-1 also raised hopes of subsequent phases of unlocking.
The world has been reeling under the Covid-19 onslaught; it is evident that the real end to the long drawn war with the pandemic will come with an effective vaccine, for which a global race is on, with India participating. Until then, as PM Modi stressed, “do gaz doori (six-feet distance), wearing masks and staying indoors as much as possible” has to be the new normal. Alongside, innovative solutions must be devised to strengthen the healthcare ecosystem, save our frontline ‘corona warriors’, and upgrade the infrastructure. Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly emphasised the for innovative solutions at this juncture. Even at CII, at their Annual Session on June 2, he underlined the need of innovation.
There are innumerable examples of how firms, big and small, have stepped up to the challenge by pivoting their normal business models to find and deliver low-cost solutions, sometimes in step with the government, particularly to beef up healthcare infrastructure.
Ratan Tata, doyen of Indian Industry, while pledging Rs 1,500 crore, highlighted support to ‘own innovativeness’. He stressed ‘it is not a world war, but it is like a world war. There is a dramatic need for vaccine, there is a dramatic need for solutions’. He said that ‘there could be another wave of innovativeness arising out of a problem just like what happened in World War II or the Cold War’. Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Hotel was also thrown open by the Tatas for free stay for Covid-19 health workers. The Tatas also partnered with Institutes of Excellence under the department of science and technology (DST), and CSIR to come up with latest testing kits based on RT-LAMP technology for quick and effective results.
Aditya Birla Group pledged Rs 500 crore, one million N95 masks, 2,80,000 PPEs and ventilators. They also announced a 100-bed Covid-19 facility at the Seven Hills Hospital in Mumbai. Cumulative capacity of 200 beds was announced at Ujjain, Pune, Hazaribagh, etc.
Maruti, the country’s largest car-maker, partnered with AgVa Healthcare to produce the much needed 10,000 ventilators every month, besides PPEs and masks and other protective equipment. Similarly, the Mahindra group announced plans to manufacture ICU ventilators and other healthcare equipment, and indigenously developed a prototype of the big valve mask, also known as Ambu bag to help patients with breathing problems and act as an interim lifesaver.
Azim Premji of Wipro pledged Rs 1,125 crore to fight Covid-19, and signed an agreement with the Maharashtra government to repurpose one of its campuses in the Hinjewadi area into a 450-bed, intermediary care Covid-19 hospital. Infosys announced a Rs 100-crore support to fight Covid-19 and launched a 100-room quarantine facility for Covid-19 patients next to Narayana Health City in Bengaluru.
Pune-based MyLab Discovery Solutions has come up with indigenously manufactured Covid-19 test kits and PCR kits that can speedily detect the infection. Aerobiosys Innovations, an incubated start-up of IIT-Hyderabad, has come up with a low-cost, portable emergency use ventilator called ‘Jeevan Lite’. This is a low-cost (Rs 1 lakh) option enabled by Internet of Things (IoT).
IIT Roorkee has also developed a low cost ventilator called ‘Prana-Vayu’, and a low cost face shield for the doctors during the shortage of PPE. The 3D printed reusable frame of the shield is not bound to the transparent sheet. IIT Bombay has come up with a portable UltraViolet Sanitiser device that helps in sanitising currency notes, gadgets and other items.
Another area of notable innovation is ensuring hygiene in public spaces. There are start-ups like Aqoza technologies and PerSapien who have developed chemical formulations for disinfecting public spaces. Airlens minus Corona from PerSapien dispenses water droplets to oxidise the viral protein.
Crowdsourcing is also in full swing during the pandemic. India’s start-up community set-up a platform ‘ACT Grants’, and has mobilised Rs 100 crore to support ideas to combat Covid-19 with immediate impact. The candidate projects could be in fields like prevention of Covid-19 spread, scale-up of testing, disease management at home (like tele-medicine), enhanced support for healthcare workers & hospitals (like protective gear for healthcare workers, augment hospital capacity), management of critically ill patients (like expansion of ICU capacity, ventilators, oxygen supply) and support for mental health (like families of patients and broader community).
A number of projects have been identified and supported. Clovia is working on manufacturing superior quality PPE kits (higher GSM fabric with lamination, and anti-bacterial tapes). Karkhana is using a variety of techniques (3D printing, injection moulding, etc) to produce PPEs, including face shields, aerosol boxes, goggles, etc; 1mg is helping in mass-scale testing that uses tech (for triage) for doctors (for prescription) and innovative ways to administer the test. They have built a complete work-flow chain, from tele-consulting to testing. Ethereal provides a splitter uniquely designed for managing two patients with different ventilatory needs (differential pressure splitting). This will also prevent cross contamination between paired patients.
StepOne is a solution for state helpline numbers which are breaking down under the burden of calls. This is achieved through a scalable network of existing cloud telephony queuing systems, and a network of doctors on call. Mozark has helped DoT to set up an open platform for states to monitor quarantined individuals and issue alerts, identify the geography of the population density of infection, etc. Molbio has come up with indigenously made portable RT-PCR kits equipped with data connectivity, and faster tests with quick results that can be printed, for use in remote areas.
Drona Maps has built a full-service, technology-enabled war-room solution for public and administration dashboards, enabling geofencing, patient & quarantine monitoring, and predictive analysis. Infinite Analytics is a tech solution for tracing high-risk individuals based on their accurate historic proximity and time of contact with infected individuals. Healthians is working on a three-pronged approach to holistic and scalable testing, drive through testing and booth/kiosk based testing. Project PCR Sample Pooling aims to reduce cost of testing by pooling RT-PCR samples.
On the health service delivery side, too, there have been innovations. Specialist tele-consultations will provide effective solutions for the vast primary care providers and patients at home, without the need to go to hospitals. e-Psyclinic will be especially helpful in tackling general anxiety, depression, feelings of deep isolation, psychosomatic disorders, domestic violence and psychological problems.
The private sector is also contributing significantly through innovations in other areas. Deep Kalra, founder of MakeMyTrip, played a key role in developing the Aarogya Setu app, which has been hailed by the prime minister as a game-changer in fighting Corona. Abhiraj Bhal at Urban Company launched Project Vishwas, helping 27,000 service partners bounce back with innovative solutions. TourHQ.com has been similarly working with its 30,000 guides to retrain them, and help them get the necessary equipment to be able to earn a living by providing virtual experiences to global clients, sitting in the comfort of their homes.
Indian minds have repeatedly proved their mettle across the world. In times of war and crisis, the entire nation has stood as one! As PM Modi exhorted in his call to the nation, the world believed that 21st Century belongs to India, and this crisis has given us that opportunity to achieve it! Whatever happens, one thing is certain, the post-Covid era will be different than the BC (before Covid) one, and the new normal will make our lives easier in several ways with new innovative solutions.
Former chairman, CCI and ED, World Bank. Views are personal