An Ecosystem for Disability

In a country where 8 crore people live with some form of disability (as per an estimate by World Bank 2018 report), there’s a worrying absence of a dedicated effort to ensure a life of dignity for them. This is precisely the gap that is being filled by Assistive Technology Accelerator (ATA), India’s first accelerator focused on nurturing startups that are working to develop technology solutions that will enable persons with disability.

Founded by Prateek Madhav, ATA has built an ecosystem around disability combining business and technology to back startups working in this space. After spending nearly two decades in global technology organizations like Accenture, Prateek joined the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled as its CEO. The Trust, which is an award-winning NGO of 22 years, joined hands in setting up ATA in November 2011. The organisation’s leadership is backed by a board of advisors comprising industry heavyweights, including Samarthanam’s founder Mahantesh GK.

ATA has identified two main focus areas, startups and people with disabilities. The idea is to do positive match-making between needs and solutions so as to make an impact.

The Social Welfare Ministry, Government of Karnataka has pledged a support of Rs 11 crore to the organisation. According to official data, the number of disabled people in the state stands at over 1.3 million, with mobility, visual and auditory challenges being predominant, and close to 100,000 with multiple disabilities.

In order to understand the role of ATA better, it is necessary to understand the current landscape. The assistive technology startup ecosystem in India is fragmented with multiple stakeholders working in silos. In the absence of interest of funds and accelerators in the sector, raising resources has remained a serious challenge; sometimes there’s enough money to pilot ideas but not enough for subsequent deployment. Even developing ideas or technologies has suffered on account of a paucity of expert advice.

As a result, there has been limited access to cost-effective and affordable solutions, apart from the low availability of solutions and products, themselves. The WHO Report on Disability of May 2018 says, around two billion people globally will need at least one assistive product by 2030. As against this, only 10 per cent are likely to have access. The scenario in India is unlikely to be any different.

ATA has identified two main focus areas, startups and people with disabilities. The idea is to do positive match-making between needs and solutions so as to make an impact. What is critical to achieving this goal is to bring all stakeholders under one umbrella. The accelerator is creating a comprehensive support system that can vet ideas, identify startups (including NGOs), provide expertise, financial support, and create a buy-in from the government.

For this, it has a three-pronged approach: Help existing Assistive Technology startups to scale up, incubate early stage ideas and enable collaborations between organisations to service the larger picture. The process is also quite rigorous and detailed. Batches of eight to ten startups are screened and evaluated by a competent jury. The final decisions on investment are made on the strength of the solution on offer, the scalability of the idea, the business model and, of course, the founding team.

This is followed by the accelerator programme which lasts for five months when the chosen organisations are attached to mentors. They are helped with nuances of growth and investment strategy, product design and management, developing milestone-based operating plans, hiring team members, interactions with industry and disability experts and weekly review meetings.

On completion, they are offered an opportunity to present a demo before industry leaders, investors, government officials and disability experts. With that, the ball starts rolling. However, they remain connected through the alumni network.

The first cohort of ATA comprises three startups, chosen from among 60+ of their kind. All three have very promising technology solutions for persons with disability, and one of them is the Bengaluru-based Eye-D which works on building AI based assistive technology solutions enabling visually impaired on mobility and independent living.

The selected startups will gain access to disability community experts, will be able to leverage the ATA ecosystem for funding – seed or growth capital, and would also gain access to product distribution channels as part of its go-to-market. Hopefully, persons with disability stand to benefit from the availability of innovative solutions at affordable prices.

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