Startups and Venture Capital vs. COVID-19: How an INR 1 Billion Grant Program Is Boosting India’s Pandemic Response
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Enterprise in the Time of Coronavirus,” which explores how the business and development sectors are responding to the pandemic. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to useful resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
It has become fashionable to complain about online meetings in this age of COVID-19, but these encounters can sometimes have a surprising impact. For instance, when the pandemic began to spread in India earlier this year, a group of tech entrepreneurs – including many startups – began holding group chats on the messaging app Telegram to discuss their responses to the crisis. These conversations highlighted many innovative solutions for leveraging technology to fight the virus – and venture capital (VC) firms soon took notice.
Recognizing these innovators’ growing need for capital, a group of prominent VC funds and founders came together with NGOs and healthcare industry veterans to launch ACT Grants, an INR 1 billion effort to fund scale-ready solutions that could help India combat the pandemic. NextBillion spoke with Mekin Maheshwari, founder of Udhyam Learning Foundation – a key partner in the initiative – about how ACT Grants is helping India’s startups ramp up their battle against COVID-19.
James Militzer: Describe Act Grants: What does the program aim to do, how many startups/innovations will it fund, and what makes its approach effective?
Mekin Maheshwari: ACT Grants is an INR 1 billion grant created by India’s startup community to give wings to ideas that could combat COVID-19 with immediate impact. ACT Grants gives grants to scalable solutions from across NGOs and innovative startups that fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ACT Grants has currently funded 55 projects, and aims to give grants to many other projects that showcase the capability to harness technology and innovation to combat the pandemic in their way.
With a highly populated country like India, scalability is one of the key factors that need to be considered in the battle against a strong virus like COVID-19. ACT Grants supports small yet scalable ideas from across the country, and this gives the initial push that most startups need.
JM: Why is the program so necessary? Are there any specific gaps in India’s response to the pandemic that these grants aim to fill?
MM: India is a country that has a population of approximately 1.2 billion people. ACT is a step towards bolstering the efforts of both state and central governments to cater to the huge needs of various stakeholders. The “three C” approach of ACT Grants ensures that at any point in time, an executed idea will be beneficial to a huge number of people. ACT Grants provides its grantee companies with:
- Capital: Between INR 100,000 to 100 million
- Connections: Stakeholders like hospitals, governments and businesses
- Consulting: Strategy, planning and execution
This aids the overall nurturing of the idea, and it decreases the go-to-market time of the ideas at hand. For a pandemic of this scale, combined efforts from the public and private sectors will bolster the interventions and have a solution-oriented effect towards reducing the impact of the pandemic.
JM: What are some promising innovations you’ve supported so far – and are they having a measurable impact?
MM: ACT Grants has supported a total of 55 companies that create solutions for combating COVID-19 in eight different tracks. These companies have created some great technological solutions that are innovative and scalable, which can be immediately put to test in the markets. These are solutions that were needed immediately, in order to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and create the much-needed impact to flatten the curve. They have included:
- Prevention of COVID-19 spread
- Scaling Testing
- Disease Management at home
- Enhanced support for healthcare workers and hospitals
- Management of critically ill patients
- Support for mental health
- Vaccination and treatment
Among them, some of the most promising innovations we have supported are:
- Swasth: A telemedicine solution aimed at bringing quality healthcare to the safety of the homes of the patients.
- Cloudphysician / CritICU / Max Ventilators / InnAccel Technologies: All of these grantee companies have been focussed on developing tele-ICU facilities allowing affected patients to access quality healthcare from remote locations.
- Healthians / 1MG / Housejoy: These solutions have made a huge impact in increasing the testing of suspected COVID-19 patients in the country.
- StepOne: A project that powers state helpline numbers through a scalable network of existing cloud telephony, queuing systems, and a network of doctors on call.
- Dozee: Dozee is proving very helpful in hospitals and quarantine center settings, where it is helping nurses monitor the health of all patients continuously and remotely.
- COVID Response / Epsyclinic / Dost: These services equip people with scientific mental health support in the comfort of their homes, with technology acting as a mediator.
JM: The fact that Act Grants has been “created by India’s VC and startup community” seems to be a key point of emphasis in your messaging. Why is it so important to activate the country’s VCs and startups in fighting COVID-19 – what unique capabilities (or advantages over public-sector efforts) do they bring?
MM: When the COVID-19 outbreak happened early this year, the VC and startup community came together on a Telegram chat group to discuss what they could do to reduce the impact of the pandemic. We wanted to help fight the pandemic in our way, and got to thinking about how we could execute the plan. We believe that connections, consulting and capital are key to solving a problem, and being from the startup and VC community, we knew we would be able to provide grantee companies with these resources. Additionally, we feel that looking at solutions from an innovation, technology and scalability angle is built into our perspective in the VC and startup community, which helped us identify solutions that create a certain type of impact.
JM: The program aims to “provide stimulus to ideas that could combat COVID-19 with immediate impact.” I understand that this only includes “scale-ready” innovations. How do you determine that an innovation has the potential to rapidly scale, and how quickly do you expect them to bring these ideas to market?
MM: In India specifically, scalability is a huge concern. A solution feasible for one location might not be feasible in another, due to the climatic and cultural implications. Therefore the efforts put into ideating and incubating a particular solution may be limited to a specific geography. When the pandemic is spreading like wildfire, scalability is the feature that increases the likelihood of saving the most number of lives, and hence it is our primary focus. We wanted solutions to address the immediate grave concerns of the pandemic and hence, ACT has enabled the prototyping of new solutions, and offered acceleration and scale grants to various initiatives.
We evaluate each solution offered by the various companies, and determine their potential to scale in a short period. We look for solutions that can be immediately scaled and applied, because the need for the solution is now.
While looking at a prospective project, we are focused on the following indicators:
- The commitment of the team
- Product readiness
- Cost per life impacted
ACT has had an outcome-based grant structure to determine if the grantee or the solution can operate at scale. For example, with innovations focused on COVID-19 testing, we initially funded a grantee to set up two or three booths across various cities, after which we scaled it to 25-30 booths across the district. Similarly, with innovations focused on prevention, we deployed contract tracing technology in a few districts and slowly scaled it across multiple states, in a deployment tracking 200,000+ high to medium-risk COVID-19 patients.
JM: Talk about the importance of partnerships in an initiative of this magnitude: What are some of your key partners, and what (besides funding) do they bring to the table?
MM: The pandemic was a sudden disruptor. The sudden spike in numbers alarmed the nation. A mission of this scale and speed would have never been possible without a huge focus on partnerships, including:
- Government Partnerships: Overall COVID-19 management has been mostly managed by the government (at least for the initial few months), including everything from contact tracing to testing to treatment protocols. So it was very necessary to work side-by-side with government efforts to maximize ACT’s impact. We’ve worked with 18 state governments and many more district governments so far.
- Foundation partnerships: Fundraising at a time of uncertainty would have never been possible without support from partner organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the CRISIL Foundation, the Wadhwani Foundation and Omidyar Network. All of these partners have brought both capital as well as ecosystem connections to the table, which have helped ACT to amplify our impact. For instance, the Gates Foundation has deep in-roads into states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and has a strong connection to rural India, which has brought those perspectives to the fore. Similarly, the Dell Foundation provided us crucial insights from their deep expertise in working with various state and local governments. The Wadhwani Foundation brought in an impact investor’s perspective on looking at solutions, and they have been instrumental in supporting some of the solutions in telemedicine and remote ICU monitoring which have the potential to alter the rural healthcare landscape in the country, even beyond COVID-19. The CRISIL Foundation, which specialises in financial inclusion and gender, is helping us take oxygen therapy to stressed hospitals in urban areas, which will directly be used to treat mild and severe COVID-19 patients. Additionally, they are helping us engage with corporate social responsibility initiatives, to see how ACT can continue on its path to create catalytic impact. Omidyar Network India, a leading impact investing firm, has supported us in scaling up some of the most essential solutions in diverse areas such as telemedicine, oxygenation, critical care and mental health, bringing these services to hundreds of thousands of individuals. In short, ACT could not have made such a significant impact without our partners.
- Ecosystem partnerships: This collaborative effort would never have scaled to these numbers without ecosystem partnerships like Boston Consultancy Group (as our internal Project Management Office), KPMG (for helping us with government partnerships), and Sattva Consulting (for our internal operations)
JM: Do you see Act Grants having a long-term impact on Indian healthcare that lasts beyond the pandemic?
MM: The active startup ecosystem of the country has huge potential. If nurtured appropriately, it will aid the healthcare system of the country. Cost-effective and scalable projects supported by ACT Grants will be an added advantage in those parts of the country that have a weak healthcare infrastructure. Moreover, the solutions we support will be necessary to ensure that patients are getting the utmost care. Also, initiatives such as CloudPhysician will be feasible even after the pandemic has been defeated. The human race will be dependent on technology even more after the pandemic. Therefore, initiatives like telemedicine will be a norm, and we are happy to lay the foundation for them.
With the spread of technologies like high flow nasal cannula and telemedicine, there is an unprecedented focus on newer initiatives and solutions that can solve the healthcare system’s larger issues. ACT has also demonstrated a collective impact model in which VCs, private companies, foundations, NGOs and government have come together on a common platform to solve a social issue. This will also help other innovative solutions test the market, and set them on the path toward becoming sustainable interventions.
Photo courtesy of National Cancer Institute.