Disability start-ups find ways to innovate & grow in a post Covid world
From flights to hotels, the coronavirus pandemic has affected start-ups across India and the world. From fundraising to customers to employees, start-ups are struggling to cope with every aspect. Disability start-ups have not been spared either. How then are they innovating to survive? That’s the focus on #StoryOfTheWeek.
“70% of Indian start-ups stated their business had been impacted by COVID-19. 12% of start-ups have shut operations and 60% are operating with disruptions”. This was the key takeaway from a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry survey in July.
India has the world’s third largest ecosystem for successful start-ups. This has taken a hit after the coronavirus pandemic. Disability start-ups are particularly vulnerable as many of them depend on investor support. How are they adapting to this new world?
“People feel this is not the right time to invest and that’s understandable”, says Jayasudan Munsamy, Founder-CEO, DeepVisionTech.AI, the company behind LetsTalkSign, an AI-powered solution for people with hearing impairments. “We were reaching out to multiple organisations catering to the deaf and all those discussions came to a halt due to Covid”.
Funding, says Jaysudan, is one part of the problem. Hiring is another. “Even if I am ready to put my own money and recruit, I am not getting the right people because they are reluctant to move from where they are at the moment given the situation”.
CSR funds diverted to Covid relief
For travel and hotel start-ups, the new norms of social distancing have brought greater challenges.
“‘State’ regulations have been changing at most places. International travel has not opened yet. We have people travelling for weekends and staycations and workations, but it will take some time to be near what it was before. Travel will change. How, we know little of right now.” says Neha Arora, Founder, Planet Abled
For disability start-ups, the post Covid challenges are especially daunting. Many of them, despite the solutions and potential to make revenue, do not attract VC funding. And now much of the CSR funding has been diverted to the PM Cares fund or for Covid related innovations, which is understandable.
Among those forced to close down is Nirmaya Robotics, which launched an innovation for children with autism and developmental disorders earlier this year. “Several funding options like grants, competitions, etc have slowed down”, said a source in the company who did not want to be named. “There was no revenue possible as all the special schools are closed or are operating online. This set us back some eight quarters”.
Innovate to cope
Among the disability start-ups to turn to Covid innovations is Thinkerbell Labs, which is behind Annie, the self-learning device in Braille. “We have adapted post Covid”, says Aman Srivastava, Co-founder. “We were completely dependent on going in person and doing demos of Annie. It was difficult to get that rolling as these were completely driven by relationships”.
Thinkerbell Labs has developed a software product that makes use of the temperature data that people are using. This will be launched soon. Alongside, it is adapting its existing content.
Demand has started coming back with existing relationships with government departments, rotary clubs, etc., reigniting. The government has shown interest in reaching out to visually impaired kids and mapping remote learning for disabled children. We are launching a project in Pune where children are not dependant on going to school and modifying existing content for individual use as well. – Aman Srivastava,Co-founder, Thinkerbell Labs
To save costs, Thinkerbell Labs also moved manufacturing from Pune to Bengaluru. Assembly is now being done in-house to save costs.
Adapting existing content is the road BleeTech Pvt. Ltd. has taken as well. The Pune-based start-up is known for design solutions that empower people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Like many other start-ups, BleeTech faced a funds shortfall after Covid. “We realised we needed to innovate in terms of products. This way we could help beneficiaries cope with the situation”, adds Janhavi.
“We designed BleeKits or learning kits which we now give along with the BleeTV app”, says Janhavi Joshi, Co-founder. The kits are supported by Mahindra CIE, the CSR partner. “These remote learning kits help children and teachers carry forward the learning.”. Two hundred BleeKits have been distributed so far and another 1,000 will be launched shortly.
BleeTech is also conducting online trainings in Indian sign language and other technical aspects for teachers. ‘Teachers have realised that ISL offers an effective way to communicate with deaf kids. We have trained over 178 teachers and more schools have approached us”; she adds.
Innovate to impact the lives of our patrons positively when they can’t travel is the mantra Planet Abled has adopted by starting accessible and inclusive online experiences.
“Everyone is going through a tough time mentally, so we mixed travel and dance movement therapy to facilitate people having fun right in the comfort of their homes”, says Neha. This includes experiences with a celebrity chef. “We are working on some more new ideas and will launch them soon”. These will be paid experiences. “We have to support local communities and people we closely work with in these tough times. And also ourselves. These experiences take time and effort to organise and manage seamlessly.The point is a new vertical is being developed and even if Covid goes away, we will keep it”.
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