Over the last few years, India’s startup scene has opened up for entrepreneurs whose innovative ideas are driven not solely by the profit motive, but also by their determination to bring about a positive social change. Nibedita Saha writes about how these smart startups are harnessing the power of technology for social good.
The Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence, an Indian startup headquartered in Mumbai, became one of the recipients of the Google AI Impact Challenge grant in May 2019. This award, worth around $2 million, has been given to 20 organisations worldwide, in recognition of the socially meaningful AI-related work they are doing in their respective fields.
Wadhwani Institute’s winning entry was their “Integrated Pest Management Project”, which provides AI-enabled solutions to the problem of reduced crop yields in India’s cotton farming sector, which generates livelihood for over 6 million farmers.
Pest infestation has remained a serious concern for agriculturalists across India, and cotton plantations are particularly vulnerable in this respect. Researchers at the Wadhwani Institute came up with a simple solution to this problem, centred on a smartphone.
This easy to operate software can detect pest infestation in cotton plants at the click of a button. You just have to point your smartphone camera at the plant and take a photo. The app can detect the type of infestation, recommend quick solutions and, in the near future, would also connect farmers with experts ready to offer actionable advice.
“We are building algorithms that can identify different types of pests [that can damage cotton plants] and can even count their numbers… We will be adding these modules to an existing app, called Crop App, designed and run by the government of Maharashtra. By integrating our features in their app, the Agriculture Extension Programme officers would be able to reduce their burden and increase their accuracy [in terms of pest management],” said Raghu Dharmaraju, VP, Products and Programs, Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
They are now working on further developing their AI modules, and planning to add a new feature to their application for providing automated advice to farmers. For the past few months, their researchers have been scanning Maharashtra’s cotton belt for pest infestation and crop-yield data. Their presence has been strictly local. But now, after winning the recent Google grant, their work has been recognised and lauded on an international stage.
“We are an organisation which is barely a year old. Winning the Google AI Challenge is a huge thing for the team. It will help us attract more talent,” Dharmaraju said.
Wadhwani Institute is just one example among many of how next-gen startups in India are looking beyond the profit motive in their bid to take up socially-relevant initiatives. These organisations are run by a largely young workforce, they excel in offering tech-enabled solutions, and they are inspired by a spirit of social good.
But more than anything else, they are powered by the urge to innovate. Consider the Bengaluru-based startup, Skylark Drones, which is using drone technology to assist public sector engineers in large-scale infrastructure development projects in sectors as varied as mining, agriculture, and roads and highways.
They collect diverse sets of data—compiled from photos, videos and thermal imaging maps—using high-tech drones. This data is then provided to specific agencies overseeing construction projects in the areas surveyed.
“We help these agencies plan how they are to set up a particular project and how they would monitor the construction,” said Gokul Kumaravelu, Marketing Lead at Skylark Drones. “Our drone-based solutions help them to inspect as well as maintain their works in progress.”
These drone surveys not only contribute towards enhancing the overall quality of a construction project, but also result in increased efficiency and a general streamlining of how and where manual labour is deployed. Without drone technology, such a survey would take anything up to five or six weeks. But with drones, it can all be done within a couple of weeks in a significantly cost-effective manner.
“Usually, big enterprises come to us for their construction projects because they don’t have the time and manpower to monitor their construction sites comprehensively. So we help them with our drone-based data. Till today, we have worked with more than 40 private enterprises, including Tata Steel and L&T. We have also worked with the government of Karnataka,” added Kumaravelu.
The power of innovation is acknowledged by virtually every government official and policymaker in India. It is partly for that reason that our tech startup scene has come this far. But there are challenges that still need addressing. Though the government-centric framework that previously held sway is now slowly being relaxed, young entrepreneurs can still do with more state support and better implementation of “ease-of-doing-business” policies.
Talking about the challenges Skylark Drones faced as a startup, Kumaravelu said, “The government regulations were very strict. They need to be more open about business when it comes to startups. But things have changed a lot over time and they will keep on changing with time… We have seen a lot of improvement in the past four years. Now, the government is very much aware of the advancements made in technology. Today, they are as knowledgeable as we are about tech-based solutions. So the change has been positive.”
Government and private agencies are also incentivising such socially-minded projects. MedCords is a Pune-based startup that is working on a project that helps make quality and affordable healthcare accessible for rural and semi-urban populations. “We have collaborated with more than 1000 sehat sathee (local medical stores) to create a platform to improve the medical services in the villages,” said Shreyansh Mehta, co-founder of MedCords.
It is a smartphone app that connects rural pharmacists— the sehat sathees—to medical practitioners and doctors. Using this app, pharmacists can file medical queries about individual patients straight to doctors, who then answer back their prescriptions. It’s a process that makes treatment effective, less time consuming and affordable.
MedCords representative say that they have till now covered over 11 lakh people in more than 2,500 villages across Rajasthan. They have some 400 doctors handling MedCords cases. There are plans to take this project to other states as well, and to release a MedCords app for general users.
“If you go to the rural parts of India you won’t get any doctors. But if we have the medical history of a patient we can solve 80% problems their problems via this app. On the app, we have developed a questioner related to 23 types of basic medical problems, like headache, fever, cold etc. So when one enters a patient’s details in the app, within 15 minutes the information goes to the doctor for diagnosis and treatment,” said Mehta.
In 2018, MedCords received a Rs 15 lakh grant from the government of Rajasthan. This year, they won the prize money of Rs 35 lakh at the Startup India WhatsApp Grand Challenge.
“The government is doing its bit to help startups grow. There is always resistance initially when you come up with something new, but we did not face many problems when we began, because we had done our research thoroughly,” Mehta told us.