India’s got the innovations, now just scale them up


Corporate social responsibility typically means that companies spend 2% of their profits supporting NGOs in health, education, rural development, and similar causes. R A Mashelkar, former head of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, takes a different approach. In his recent K R Narayan Oration at Australian National University, he called for a new form of CSR focusing on innovation to serve the masses through what he called an ASSURED strategy. ASSURED is Mashelkar’s acronym for Affordable, Scalable, Sustainable, Universal, Rapid, Excellent and Distinctive.

He posed some questions.

•# Can India have high-speed 4G internet available for just 10 cents/GB, with free voice calls?

•# Can quality breast cancer screening be available to all women at one dollar per scan?

•# Can we make portable ECG machines providing heart reports at 8 cents per test?

•# Can we make eye-imaging devices that are portable and 66% cheaper?

•#Can we make a test-kit for dengue, detecting the disease on day one for less than $2 per test?

Answer: all these have already been achieved in India! Profit-seeking entrepreneurs have done more for the masses than conventional CSR, because of the ASSURED features of their innovations.

India created almost a billion mobile phone subscribers between 1995 and 2014, ending the old era of queueing for years for a landline. Prices per call fell, yet were too costly for many poor people, who used “missed calls” to communicate (for instance to signal safe arrival after a journey to relatives). Now, Reliance Jio has ushering in virtually free calls and cheap 4G internet. Expensive “roaming” charges have disappeared. SIM card activation can be done in 5 minutes, not hours or days. Jio is profitable, but more important is its vast social impact, providing cheap digital communication for all.

Reliance has deep pockets. But small startups have achieved ASSURED results too. UE LifeSciences has developed a handheld device for early detection of breast cancer, at Rs 65 per scan. Any community health worker can operate it. Expensive mammography and radiation are eliminated. Almost 200 million women aged 35-55 are at risk, and this device can save their lives. The company has earned a million dollars in revenue, got new orders worth $2 million, and tied up with GE Healthcare to market the product across 25 African countries.

Heart disease is the biggest killer. ECG machines help detect the problem. Entrepreneur Rahul Rastogi has created a matchbox-sized ECG machine providing heart reports at just Rs 5 each. Called the Sanket ECG, it connects to any smartphone wirelessly. Its ECG report can be shared instantly with a distant doctor via email, Bluetooth or a message. It can be operated by any rural community health worker. The Tata Trusts have deployed 45 such devices in remote areas of Tripura, where regular ECG screening is impossible.

India has the most blind people in the world, but 80% of blindness is avoidable or curable through early detection. Forus Health has invented an eye-screening device called 3nethra, costing one-fifth of a conventional device, requiring minimally trained operators. It pre-screens five problems — cataract, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, corneal defects, and refractive errors. Already 1,700 devices have been installed across 26 countries, touching 2 million lives.

Dengue’s incidence has risen 30-fold in the last half-century. At the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Dr Navin Khanna has developed a test-kit detecting dengue within minutes on day one of the fever. It distinguishes between primary and secondary infections, vital for disease management. It costs barely Rs 140 per test. Initially it faced huge resistance from health providers. In 2013, dengue swept across India. Health providers who initially opposed the test-kit adopted it in desperation when stocks of imported kits ran out. Once used, all stakeholders were delighted.

India needs more such awards and entrepreneurs. The leftist notion that profits are bad, and that social uplift is the task of governments and NGOs, is not entirely wrong. But global living standards have been raised overwhelmingly by productivity revolutions that scaled up and reached the masses.

Governments cannot orchestrate productivity revolutions, but government procurement can greatly help scale up, cut costs and reach the masses. Lack of government help to scale up sank an earlier promising innovation, the Simputer. Another failure to scale up was the Computer Based Functional Literacy technique developed by TCS. By contrast, the JAM innovation — Jan Dhan bank accounts, Aadhaar and mobile phones — has enabled hundreds of millions to get mobile-linked bank accounts into which government entitlements can be directly deposited. India needs more such scaled-up innovation.

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