How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Boosted Innovation In Indian Startups It's quite fascinating to see what COVID-19 has done to the creative and innovative juices of Indian entrepreneurs

By Prof. Dhruv Nath

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PhoneParLoan was a truly brilliant concept. Loans for those without a CIBIL score. The blue-collar workers—security guards, drivers, office boys, delivery boys, and the like—who perhaps had the most pressing need for these loans. But of course the banks, in their wisdom, would not give them loans. And that's where PhoneParLoan, a Delhi-based startup, grabbed this great new opportunity three years ago.

The company had tied up with several NBFCs, and used the applicant's SMSes to analyse his income as well as expenses. Thereby they had a decent idea about the likelihood of the loan being repaid. And that was the beginning of a revolution in loans for the "non-loanworthy'.

Well, not quite. Because in March this year, COVID-19 hit them like so many others. The NBFCs were themselves in distress, and the first thing they did was to stop lending to these blue-collar workers. And a terrific business—in fact one that had significant social implications—was nipped in the bud.

But hang on. Ashwin Bhambri, the founder of PhoneParLoan, was not the kind to give up in a hurry. He realized that COVID had put the fear of hospitalization in the minds of everyone—and that included his customers, who were unlikely to be able to afford it. He could not provide them loans at the moment, but what if he were to give them health insurance and that too, paid for in easy EMIs? He spoke to a couple of insurance companies, and they were quite happy to expand their coverage into this absolutely virgin segment. And that's where the new avatar of PhoneParLoan was launched—health insurance, with the premium paid for in easy EMIs.

It's actually quite fascinating to see what COVID-19 has done to the creative and innovative juices of Indian entrepreneurs. PhoneParLoan is not the only one. Look at IRIL Fresh, an interesting company which picked up natural fruits and vegetables (no chemical fertilizers or pesticides please) from Himachal Pradesh and made them available to retailers in Delhi and Gurgaon. A brilliant concept amongst today's "health-conscious' population. Of course, they had not anticipated the pandemic, which completely blocked transport from Himachal Pradesh to Delhi, and therefore disrupted their entire supply chain. But did the founders simply throw up their hands and switch to sitting and moping in their respective homes? No. Danish Kakkar and Ashish Sharma were made of sterner stuff. They realized early on that the lockdown had also hit local farmers in and around Delhi. And even the usual vegetables—not the fertilizer free ones—were finding it difficult to reach retail outlets in Delhi. And that's where they swung into action. They picked up these vegetables from local farmers and started supplying them to their retailers. Not under the IRIL fresh brand of course—that was reserved for the organic stuff—but they supplied them all the same. The result? They survived the lockdown, and in fact increased their revenues during times when most businesses were brain-dead. Not only that, the retail outlets realized that IRIL was a reliable supplier. Now that the lockdown is over, and their supply chain from Himachal Pradesh has been restored, IRIL has become a preferred supplier for natural products.

Or take PlanetSpark, an interesting start-up founded by Maneesh Dhooper and Kunal Malik. The start-up had created a chain of learning centres, where school children could come and learn through digital content, workbooks, all in the presence of a friendly mentor. Come COVID, and the children were unable to come to the learning centres. But the founders were quick to react. They made all the digital content available online so that kids could now access it from the safety of their homes. Once again in the presence of the friendly mentor, who of course was now online. Not just that, given the fact that children had far more time available, they branched out into additional areas such as painting, robotics and computer programming. And business at PlanetSpark is now booming.

In fact there are stories galore about innovative founders who pivoted their business models, to not only survive but in fact grow their business during COVID times. And these are the founders that will be the hot shot successes of the future.

Prof. Dhruv Nath

Professor, Information Management, MDI Gurgaon

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