Problems that hit back

OK, I’m in a lazy mood today :-). So I’m reposting an article I wrote for the Smart Manager magazine today, which should be published soon, I guess…

At an event a few years back, I had the opportunity to ask Mr N R Narayana Murthy where he thought the opportunities lay in innovation-focused entrepreneurship for the Indian market. His reply was that in India, innovation is better commercialized through a solutions-based business model, instead of a products-based model.

I’ve had the opportunity to mull over the wisdom of this insight for a couple of years now. I think an inventor who is setting out to be an entrepreneur would do well to understand this key difference between India and ‘innovation-mature’ markets like the US, Japan and Germany. My own experience building Avaz – India’s first (and so far only) communication device for children with speech disabilities – reinforces Mr Narayanamurthy’s view.

Different countries around the world have different attitudes, policies and opportunities for children with disability. In the USA, for example, every child has the right to ‘free and appropriate’ education; that means that a child is not only entitled to being educated, but to being equipped with appropriate technologies and assistive aids that are necessary for them to gain the most from such an education. If a child requires a hearing aid or a wheelchair to be able to go to a school and listen to a teacher, the law mandates that the Government, through appropriate school boards, provide those aids to the child. This is the case in many other Western countries also.

What this means is that these countries meet the first requirement for entrepreneurial, innovative activity in the disability sector: there is money in it. And so there is a whole community of people who are intelligent, well-trained, and creative, who are motivated to solve problems that people with disabilities face. This includes speech therapists, special educators, developmental pediatricians, child psychologists, insurance companies, and manufacturers of assistive technologies. The ecosystem already exists. And so an inventor, coming up with a novel product, need not work on ‘solving the big problem’ – he or she only needs to make one piece of the solution better, and the rest of the ecosystem works, through a free-market route, to ensure the innovation reaches the person who needs it.

In India, an innovator often has the additional responsibility of figuring out the entire chain. This makes for a more exhilarating and creatively satisfying experience, but is more capital- and time-intensive. Avaz is a good case in point here.

For many years, countries like the US had advanced devices to provide communication abilities to children who could not speak – due to various conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, Downs syndrome and intellectual disabilities. These ‘speech generating’ devices were battery-operated computer-based systems, which a child would either carry around or mount on a wheelchair. By suitable eye or muscle movements (in the case of cerebral palsy) or through the medium of pictures (in the case of autism), a child would be able to create a message, which the device would ‘speak out’ in a synthesized voice. These devices typically cost $10,000 or higher. But due to the fact that the money was available, either from the Government or from insurance, a majority of children who needed these devices eventually got one.

This happy situation did not exist in India; even very affluent parents could not afford $10,000 (or more) for a speech generating device. So the word went out on the technology grapevine that an indigenous product that was able to solve this problem would be very highly appreciated in the special needs community. A couple of early devices were built by the IITs – Prof Anupam Basu of IIT Kharagpur (and his team) invented Kathamala, a device that would play back recorded audio when an appropriate picture button was pressed; Prof Anil Prabhakar of IIT Madras built KAVI, a device that displayed letters and words in sequence, and making a selection when a child made a muscle movement. These devices were able to achieve only very limited adoption – perhaps to a large extent because of the Indian environment. Large industries did not exist in this space in India, who were able to license the technology from these pioneers and take them to the market.

My company, Invention Labs, decided to work on Avaz in 2008. I foresaw the tablet revolution that was at its cusp then, and immediately realized that these new generation of devices would completely change the mechanics of the assistive technology space. In 2009, we created our own tablet, added a bunch of accessibility aids (for example, we added a switch interface for children without hand function, who could still control the tablet with their head movements), and released Avaz. The uptake was phenomenal – within a few months, we had users from all over India who were trying out Avaz for children with cerebral palsy and autism. In 2010, the iPad was launched, and so were several Android tablets; we decided not to manufacture our own hardware, and instead work with an OEM for the devices. We put more and more of our efforts into developing software. Now, Avaz is available as a device, and also an app for the iPad, for children with autism.

For a new product like Avaz, it was not just important for us to make it work technologically and commercially; we also had to ensure the product was being used to achieve the communication goals we’d envisioned when we started work on it. Any invention needs to become a part of the fabric of society for it to have widespread adoption, and the only way this can happen if it’s being used widely enough. When we started investigating how we could increase adoption, we realized that in some schools that had bought Avaz, it wasn’t being used enough because the schools couldn’t pull out teachers from their regular schedule to teach Avaz for more than a few hours a week. In other schools, we found some kids were doing a great job with Avaz, but the school was still sharing a single device between 10 children or more, because they didn’t have money for it.

In India, we don’t have the luxury of focusing on the problem that we are best equipped to solve. We have the obligation to ‘make it work’ – even if that means venturing outside our areas of comfort. For Invention Labs, that meant expanding our business model significantly. We started looking for corporate sponsors who would support the schools that were interested in buying our device. We had to ask these sponsors to not only donate devices, but also sponsor teachers who would train the children to use them.

In some schools, we hired our own trainers to teach the children, their parents and their special educators about Avaz. In a few places, even the concept of speech therapy and communication intervention were new, and we had to start from the basics to make an impact. So it turned out that we weren’t creating a product, really; we were building a solution.

The rewards of all of this effort is the thrill of being the market leader, of setting the pace, in some sense, for people who will follow in our tracks. There are a lot of problems out there in India that need technological solutions, and many of them seem deceptively easy to the enthusiastic entrepreneur. The fact that they’re still problems should be seen as a testament to their challenge. Because eventually, most of us will realize the truth of what Piet Hein says:

Problems worthy of attack
Prove their worth by hitting back.

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