Innovating for the most vulnerable: Social entrepreneurs from South Asia at the Falling Walls Lab 2016

For Arun Agarwal, the long road to the Finale of the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin first wound its way through 100 maternal and child healthcare centres in India.

In southern Karnataka, he watched lab technicians struggle to handle simple blood tests because they did not have the equipment they needed. In Chennai, the bustling capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, he spoke with paediatric nurses who were responsible for the care of very young children, many of whom needed round the clock monitoring if they were to survive these early years. In Kerala, doctors lacked the equipment to measure foetal heart rates. In some tribal areas, newborns had skin covered in scabies, in other populations the most common diagnosis was anaemia. 

I speak to Arun a few days before he arrives in Berlin where he will represent his company JANITRI and its small team of five people based in Bangalore, India. Arun used to work in the corporate world, but when he was chosen for BIRAC (Bio Industry Research Assistant Program) as a social innovation immersion fellow, he promptly left his job and hasn’t looked back.

He tells me that JANITRI have dedicated themselves to working on issues related to maternal and child health care. “The name of the company is a Sanskrit word for ‘mother`,” he said, adding, “Our vision is to develop sustainable technology to improve maternal and child healthcare in developing countries. We are currently working on a low cost, portable uterine contraction monitoring device.”

When we meet in Berlin, just hours before he is to take the stage at the Falling Walls Lab, Arun is nervous but composed. The 21 members of the jury are waiting to hear them all, and most intimidatingly the chair is Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. Arun is number 35 and will spend most of his morning watching his peers from around the world take the stage.

Arun’s presentation at the Falling Walls Lab Finale 2016

The competition is stiff. I am based in South Asia and so I keep an eye out for India’s neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They have sent Ahmed Imtiaz Humayun and Awais Shafique to represent them. Ahmed’s proposal for Electronic Travel Aids relies on 3D image segmentation and cognitive computer vision and was designed to help the visually impaired, 90% of whom live in low-income settings.

Awais took a gamble, when he chose to compete in the Falling Walls Lab in Pakistan – one of this year’s 49 international qualifying rounds. He skipped out on an IELTS test to be there, but was up against a record number of participants. A total of 128 people applied from across his country – the third highest number of registrations worldwide in the history of the Falling Walls Lab.

Standing up before this audience, Awais presents his idea with absolute confidence – it is about empowering people with conditions like Parkinson’s and essential tremor; offering control with the use of a padded machine that stabilises the hand by generating a movement opposite to the tremor. Both men do very well in front of the audience, better than I would do in their shoes, I think.

Awais presenting his idea at the Falling Walls Lab Finale 2016

To me, the Falling Walls Lab format has all the thrill of a spectator sport. It is quick, fierce and demanding. There are no encores, no repeats. A seemingly unpitying moderator deploys his polite cough the moment your three minutes are up. Sometimes, he conjures up a loud knocking sound, and others a barking dog hustles you off stage, mid-sentence if need be. 

Arun has some experience with this format thanks to the first round in India but this is still a challenge. I am nervous for him as he starts to speak, but he gets through his presentation without faltering.

I don’t know it then, but Arun and I both grew up in Rajasthan, in Northern India. I remember that urbanisation can have a tenuous hold on some of these cities and towns, and essential services can be hard to access. “This is where 70% of the Indian population lives,” Arun tells me. He believes affordable and accessible technology could make a huge difference to lives here.

In the end, Arun’s is not one of the names called to join the winners on stage. But he seems quite undeterred when we meet. JANITRI is not waiting on anyone. “We are currently in a phase of product development,” he reveals, explaining that they have an ongoing collaboration with a Bangalore hospital and that the first prototype will be in trials by the end of November. “By the end of 2018, we plan to launch our low cost, easy-to-use and portable uterine contraction monitoring device,” he says confidently. “Meanwhile, we will also work on validation of the other problems related to maternal and child healthcare.”

Falling Walls for him was an opportunity to showcase his work, and connect with others like him from around the world. He says he saw a different approach to innovation: “I think the open and systematic collaborative processes between the universities and industries was the most interesting to learn from.”

But he believes that companies like his can’t rely too long on charitable funding: “The sustainability of the solution of a problem should not be dependent on the grants or CSR funds,” he says. He thinks his country is brimming with opportunities for quality education, healthcare and agriculture. “A social entrepreneur can solve these problems by implementing a sustainable solution to do business and to make an impact,” he says.

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