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Breaking Barriers: How These Startups are Supporting the Differently-Abled With 2.68 crore disabled population in the country, a number of Indian startups have come up to contribute to simplifying and easing their mobility challenges

By Paromita Gupta

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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One sunny October afternoon, what was supposed to be Virali Modi's big day turned into a nearly sour one. Being outside the Registrar's Office at Khar Mumbai with her partner and family, Modi was in a fix when they realized the building had no lift. Taking to X, the microblogging platform, she shared "My country should accommodate my needs and the needs of millions of disabled citizens." About 2.68 crore citizens out of 121 crores of India live with a disability as per the 2011 census. Unfortunately, the 1991 Population Census did not cover disability. While Modi has the means and resources to lead a fairly mobile life, not everyone has the accessibility or awareness about it. However, some founders have taken it up to themselves to create more affordable-accessible mobility solutions for the differently-abled.

The startups in the space include Arcatron, Aether Biomedical, Lechal, Innovision, TorchIt, Bionic Yantra, Astrek Innovations, Robo Bionics, Eye-D, and Widex India. According to Grand View Research, the global personal mobility devices market was valued at $10.58 billion in 2022, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.8 per cent from 2023 to 2030.

THE NEED FOR INNOVATION

While the 2001 census suggested 2.68 crore as the figure, in 2009, a World Bank Report suggested that the number had reached between five and eight per cent (around 55 – 90 million individuals). The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities shared that the percentage of disabled to the total population increased from 2.13 per cent in 2001 to 2.21 per cent in 2011. The lack of proper infrastructure and resources has resulted in the mass exclusion of the specially-abled population. "My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn't accessible," said Stella Jane Young, an Australian comedian, journalist and disability rights activist.

85 Startups are Working Towards Improving Mobility Among People With Disabilities, According to Tracxn

In terms of disability type, movement is the largest category by large. Ravindra Singh was diagnosed with post-polio paralysis (paraplegic) at just eight months old. His special needs eventually made it tough for his parents to enrol him in school, "but my mother always thought that getting an education would help me rise above disability." Activities such as travelling, using public toilets, elevators, transport or using ATMs posed a great hindrance. However, his trip to the Statue of Unity with his wife and child was the tipping point. "During a trip with my family to the Statue of Unity, I was looking for a wheelchair but the only wheelchair available had been reserved for a VIP. After waiting for hours, we got it but my wife had to push me while I held our baby. This incident was the trigger for me to think out of the box and ask why it was still so hard to be mobile and independent? This was the start of an idea for an on-demand assistance service where people can book wheelchair assistants (like an Uber)," he shared.

Thus he founded MyUdaan in 2019. The social startup manufactures wheelchairs for disabled people and enables them to embrace a new kind of freedom. Notably, the educational level of disabled persons is comparatively better in urban areas compared to rural areas, both for males and females.

The views are mirrored by Manan Issar. He shares that most of the environment/ infrastructure is not designed for the differently abled which makes things difficult for them. He understood that there are very few options available for people who have arm amputations, especially for the people who belong to the bottom of the pyramid. Hence he founded Piltover Technologies, "we wanted to develop affordable functional prosthetics. Over the years, we developed and upgraded our designs to build IDA MSeries I, which is a completely mechanical prosthetic hand and allows users to perform a variety of functions to live an independent life," he adds.

Dhruv Agrawal and Dr Faith Jiwakhan established Aether Biomedical, a startup developing bionic limbs for performing multiple tasks. Having met in college and gotten introduced to a hand amputee and acquired a 3D printer, the duo quickly realized a gap in the prosthetics field. And hence, in 2018 Aether Biomedical came into existence. Since then, their multi-articulating bionic hand, the Zeus, has aided People with Disability in their daily chores. According to the Series A funded startup, Zeus' strength and agility allow one to perform daily activities with ease. Aether Biomedical has played a pivotal role in providing bionic limbs for people affected by war in Ukraine. It conducted its first successful patient camp in Lviv.

"The customization, adaptability, and integration with smart technologies make our bionic hand a remarkable leap forward in providing a more natural and personalized experience for individuals with limb loss," said Agrawal to media on raising the latest capital.

Ganesh Sonawane founded Arcatron when he noticed how these products existed abroad and not in India. With the motto "Purpose Driven Innovation", the startup is on a mission to advance global standards of assisted living and make it dignified and safer. It claims to be the first in India to launch a beta bathroom wheelchair and offers four products in its travel wheelchair category.

Bionic Yantra was founded by Shivakumar Nagarajan and Vaidy Narayanan as a medical robotics company in 2017. The Bionic Yantra Exoskeleton can be used to stand, walk and assist in performing activities of daily living. The inspiration for the startup was Vaidy's 27-year-old cousin who suffered from an auto-immune condition and a woman skier who wore a robotic exoskeleton at the opening ceremony of FIFA 2014. The startup's Robotic Exoskeleton Assisted Rehabilitation System is equipped with sensors to capture data. These data include the maximum and minimum speed of walking, number of steps taken, and range of motion of the knees and hips, and provide a session report. By product specification, the market is divided into three, with wheelchairs being the biggest. The market is growing with about two million new users annually.

CAPITAL- A CHALLENGE

Despite the dire need for such innovations, the public infrastructure and funding in space pose as main challenges. "Over 1/3 of Indian senior citizens need daily living assistance, like using the washroom. The broken product ecosystem forces them to choose between cheap, ineffective imports and expensive or European options incompatible with Indian Infra," shares Sonawane.

"Despite the proven demand for our services, accessing sufficient capital remains a big challenge as convincing investors of the viability and scalability of our business model, especially in niche markets, presents hurdles in securing funding," shares Singh.

Out of the 85 startups in this segment, only two are Series A funded with 12 having seed status. Lack of awareness, investment risks, and social stigma are some factors that heavily contribute to the challenges in the space. GetVantage, an investor in Arcatron, views that with over a billion people experiencing disability globally, this is undeniably a big market to cater to. "While this space has immense potential and many innovative startups are working towards making life easy for differently abled, there are certain apprehensions with regards to the scalability and profitability of such ventures amongst the investors. Besides factors such as lack of awareness, investment risks, and social stigma attached, the segment has kept investors at bay for a long time," shares the fintech platform providing access to equity-free working capital.

THE GOVERNMENT ROLE

The government's role for the differentlyabled is a convoluted one. On one hand, the Government of India has taken an active stand on creating a more PwDfriendly system. President Droupadi Murmu at the golden jubilee celebrations of the National Federation of the Blind noted how the system needed to ensure that this population got proper education, employment opportunities, accessible public places and a safer and better life. The Centre has pushed for a draft rule proposed by the Railway Board to have railway stations and trains be more accessible to people with disabilities.

The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment launched the Sambhav (Aids and Assistive Devices) scheme where each of the Sambhav centres will showcase aids and assistive devices for the PwDs under the National Trust Act. The scheme aims at setting up one Sambhav Centre in each city of India with a population greater than five million.

However, on the flip side, the MSJE shelved the socio-economic data collected on this category for Unique Disability ID over the past six years due to "quality issues." The socio-economic data minus personal and family income, Below Poverty Line, employment status, occupation, socio-economic category, and level of education were published. The Centre suggested that the aggregated UDID data was required to influence e-commerce platforms to design their interface in such a manner that increases usability and purchase cycles among PwDs. The first set of 3,600 out of the 10,000 electric buses which are being inducted under the PM eBus Sewa scheme will be inaccessible for persons with disabilities (PwD). This has propelled activists to write to the Centre to reconsider their decision to procure standard floor, as opposed to low-floor buses. There exists a need to create more awareness about several PwD schemes, including Sambhav, on the government's side.

THE WAY FORWARD

Patience and persistence are the keys to building a startup in this space. "Constantly upgrade solutions as per the feedback they receive from the users. Doing so will help reduce a lot of development time and would accelerate the growth of the startup," shares Issar. Under the 'BIRAC-Social Alpha Quest for Assistive Technologies,' 14 start-ups were declared winners for their PwDaiding innovations.

While automobile giants are active in pushing their EV capacities, Hyundai India has launched the Samarth initiative for disabled individuals. "It is a step towards creating a more aware and inclusive society towards differently abled in India," shared Un Soo Kim, MD & CEO, HMIL. Additionally, WHILL, a Japan-based personal mobility solutions provider, entered the Indian market in a strategic partnership with the electric mobility startup, eBikeGo.

Paromita Gupta

Features Writer with Entrepreneur India

Covering news and trends in AI and Metaverse segments. An avid book reader running her personal blog on the side. You may reach me at paromita@entrepreneurindia.com. 
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