Meet the mentor of startups working with differently-abled people

Prateek Madhav is in awe of India’s blind cricket team.

Led by 28-year-old Ajay Kumar Reddy, the team won the 2018 Blind Cricket World Cup and the 2017 Blind T20 World Cup.

“Competing with the best in the world, India’s blind cricket team has won two world cups. This feat goes on to prove that differently-abled people can achieve anything, with technology, support, and encouragement,” said the founder of the Bengaluru-based Assistive Technology Accelerator (ATA).

A first of its kind platform in India, ATA invests and provides mentorship to startups that develop “assistive,” or rehabilitative, devices for disabled individuals. It is his firm belief in the power of technology to transform differently-abled people’s lives that inspired Madhav to set up ATA in December 2018.

Why ATA?
The startup boom in India has seen the rise of several for-profit business ventures. However, success stories in the social impact segment, especially in the area of disability, have been few, says Madhav. There are many NGOs operating in this field, but most work in silos and, hence, fail to make a significant impact.

ATA aims to change all of this. Madhav, the CEO of the startup accelerator, has found support from like-minded people.

It counts some established names from the disability and corporate world as its backers. The management team includes the social worker and disability crusader Mahantesh GK, founder and chairman of the Bengaluru-based Samarthanam Trust for the disabled. It also counts Ravi Narayan, ex-global director, startups, Microsoft, as a member of the advisory board.

Narayan also heads the Hyderabad-based T-Hub, one of India’s biggest startup incubators.

Madhav’s own journey with disabled people began when he returned from the US in 2009 after a few years with NTT Data as director of client management. This was the time when he began volunteering at Samarthanam, which offers primary and secondary school education to differently-abled people.

Like most corporate professionals, he did what he knew best—preparing power point presentations, raising funds, and occasionally visiting the NGO.

However, 2015-16 proved to be a turning point for this ex-Wipro and Accenture corporate honcho. This was the time when Samarthanam was looking for a full-time CEO and Madhav was devoting more time and effort on the trust. Eventually, Samarthanam zeroed in on him and he took over as CEO that year.

“For long, I juggled corporate responsibilities on weekdays and found myself amidst disabled people on weekends. These were two different worlds. Finally, I chose to leverage my technology experience to pursue my passion to push disability-related causes full time,” said Madhav.

He quit corporate world in September 2018.

His long association with Samarthanam and having observed first hand the challenges faced by the differently-abled, inspired him to set up ATA later that year. The objective was to help startups scale up and commercialise products and services to help disabled people live independently.

The opportunity
Over a billion people, or close to 15% of the world’s population, live with some form of disability. Of these, 70 million are in India. The sheer size of this population calls for the extensive application of technology to develop products and services that can make their lives easier.

So, how does ATA identify and choose promising startups?

“The startup team needs to have a product that can be scaled up and commercialised,” said Madhav. “We also look into why the founders are betting on a particular idea. And if there is a personal story behind it,” he added.

ATA currently works closely with just a few startups it has handpicked.

The accelerator is upbeat about Innovision, a Mumbai-based company developing “assistive” technology products for blind persons. It has developed a digital Braille display screen, which can be plugged into a desktop and help blind people type in multiple languages.

Another startup that has caught ATA’s attention is Inclov, a matchmaking platform for people with disabilities. The New Delhi-based startup’s mobile app matches members based on their medical condition, level of independence, and lifestyle choices.

Way forward
Even as ATA focuses on accelerating startups working with assistive technology for disabled, challenges remain. Funding is the biggest of them.

Most startup investors aren’t aware of the assistive technology-led product ecosystem and its unique requirements. Such startups’ target customers are spread across geographies, and many depend on governments and corporate social responsibility-led initiatives to access these products.

“This lack of awareness also affects attempts to raise funds because there are very few investors interested in a space that doesn’t yield high returns over a short period, like the rest of their portfolio,” explained Narayan serving on the advisory board of ATA.

India could possibly look at countries like the UK and Australia, which lead with public-private partnership models to back startups working with assistive technology.

“Nothing can beat a top-down approach from the government. After all, government is the largest agency with huge funds and access to the end-beneficiaries of products targeted at disabled people,” says Madhav.

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