There has been widespread disruption due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 globally. In India, the government took extreme measures of putting the entire country under lockdown starting from midnight of 24 March 2020. While a much-needed step, this has resulted in hardship for citizens and has drawn the Indian economy into battle. However, in these bleak times, Indian startups have risen to the fore and our creating or reworking their product offerings to meet the COVID-19 challenge and truly become a force multiplier for the efforts against coronavirus. Apart from being active in ensuring that businesses in India are able to tide over the current crisis, Invest India has been instrumental in helping discover innovative startups across India working on solutions against COVID-19 and actively connecting them to sources of funding, technology validation and on-ground deployment opportunities.
Multiple teams at Invest India focus on innovations and startups even during regular operations. At this time of global crisis, there has been increased synchronization and coordination with stakeholders within and outside Invest India to scale-up innovations deemed to be effective against COVID-19.
The Startup India program has activated an Open Innovation Challenge to target innovations from startups, MSMEs, corporations and individual innovators across multiple challenge areas such as personal protective and critical-care equipment, large area sanitization, crowd tracking, logistics and fake news detection.
The Accelerating Growth of New India’s Innovations (AGNIi), one of the nine missions of the Prime Minister’s Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC), tasked with helping commercialize innovative technologies, has been engaged in building a portfolio of technologies that can support the fight against COVID-19. As the executing arm for innovations under the aegis of the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, AGNIi has been given the overall responsibility of managing the portfolio of diverse technologies being sourced by all other programs and initiatives.
The technology scouting effort has been focused on unearthing the most relevant technologies across the possible spectrum of interventions against COVID-19 including preventive, diagnostics, treatment, recuperative/assistive and support technologies. Within these broad categories, special task forces have been set-up to support interventions in specific need areas such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Critical Care Equipment (CCE) including resuscitators and ventilators, Diagnostics/ Testing kits, and Digital Health tools. While there has been a widespread outreach effort to reach as many innovators as possible using different channels, care has been ensured to maintain quality of solutions being sent forward for funding and deployment to partner organisations. A concerted effort has been made to reach out to qualified pools of innovators, namely technology incubators supported by various government organisations such as Department of Science & Technology, Department of Biotechnology, Atal Innovation Mission and academic institutions such as IITs, IIMs and IISc.
A stringent evaluation process being undertaken by AGNIi focusses on the state of technology readiness, customer interest including government priorities, regulatory compliance, and capacity to manufacture and scale-up. A small team of analysts review the documents submitted by each innovator, and take follow-on interviews to gauge startups’ suitability for further financial and deployment support. Their recommendations funnel the innovations to 3 different pathways – funding support, technology validation support, and adopter connections.
Funding is often a critical impediment in a startups growth trajectory, especially during a crisis when most sources of funding are inaccessible. Hence, Invest India has partnered with various initiatives to enable truly deserving innovators to access immediate funding. The ACT Grants initiative, an INR 100 crore grant fund set-up by the venture capital and startup founder community in India, is one such channel for funding support. Another channel is debt financing via the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI). Invest India has partnered with SIDBI, to help fast track applications to the various schemes such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding to support suitable startups. This has been made possible as the scope of CSR has been expanded to include funds spent on incubators funded by Central or State Government or any agency or Public Sector Undertaking of Central or State Government. Moreover, as per Circular No 05.01.2019-CSR, funds spent on COVID-19 related activities shall be considered CSR. This opens up a unique opportunity to support innovative solutions to combat COVID-19 via this channel, especially since a majority of the shortlisted solutions are incubated.
Separate teams within AGNIi route the other innovators to different channels of support as per their particular needs. The de-risking team handles support related to regulations/ certifications, testing, technical mentoring, manufacturing, and other logistical support. The team works closely with the Office of PSA to enable technical support, and facilitates smoother business operations and other supply chain support via various mechanisms set-up under Invest India’s Business Immunity Platform. Another team handles demand management and adopter connections, across government departments, corporations, foundations and NGOs working at the ground-level. This team regularly updates various state governments’ response teams on potential technologies which can be utilized for combatting COVID-19 based on local requirements.
This proactive approach to innovations has led to Invest India processing hundreds of innovative solutions from dozens of technology incubators and other sources. Moreover, effective partnerships and streamlined workflows for potential solutions has led to some immediate impact. Out of the technologies seeking funding, 6 technologies in the Invest India pool (MolBio, HuWel, Mylab, Karkhana, Nocca Robotics and Cloudphysician) have already been granted funding from the ACT Grants initiative. Further, other technologies have received interest from corporate and government departments from across the country. In fact, Invest India facilitated the deployment of Garuda Aerospace drones for large-scale sanitization operations in Varanasi and Chandigarh. This necessitated special permissions from the Ministry of Civil Aviation to allow transport of drones on an Air India cargo flight during the lockdown period.
Many more such examples will come forth in the next few months as India tackles the COVID-19 threat and gets businesses and lives of citizens back to normal.
But this crisis has highlighted two critical things – the enduring capacity of the human will to tackle any existential threat head on, and the coming of age of the Indian innovation ecosystem.