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Necessity is the mother of invention. This is perhaps best illustrated by the innovative solutions developed by start-ups to combat Covid-19. From drones for delivering vaccines and medicine, to robots instead of guards in hospitals, to on-site Covid-19 testing, to smart stethoscopes that protect doctors from the virus, and much more, the story of the start India’s healthcare industry, pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligence (AI)-based medical technology are gaining momentum. There were 7,128 health tech start-ups in India as of March 24, 2022, according to Tracxn Technologies, a global platform for tracking innovative companies.

There has been greater investor interest in these start-ups after the Covid-19 pandemic, when healthcare took center stage in all aspects of life. An indication of their success is the fact that these start-ups are increasingly becoming unicorns. According to Invest India, the national investment promotion and facilitation agency under the Department of Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) of the Ministry of Commerce, the Noida-based health technology start-up, Innovaccer, became India’s first healthcare unicorn and is currently valued at $1.3 billion. Innovaccer analyzes health data to provide actionable insights to hospitals, insurance companies, and other organizations and businesses. Earlier this year, PharmEasy, an online pharmacy and diagnostics company, became a unicorn, with a valuation approaching $1.5 billion. The company is now targeting a valuation of around $7 billion via an initial public offering (IPO). Invest India predicts that healthcare in India is likely to see more unicorns with the growth of health tech start-ups such as CureFit, Practo, HealthifyMe, etc.

The market is also important. According to Invest India, India’s health technology market is expected to reach $5 billion by 2023, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39% post-pandemic. Digital shift, use of better technology and favorable government policies are facilitating the growth of the market.

The pandemic years have not only motivated start-ups to enter the healthcare and pharmaceutical space, but there is also a clear trend of other companies investing and partnering with them. For example, Tata Digital, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Sons, acquired a majority stake in e-pharmacy 1mg in June 2021, with the start-up receiving a capital injection of $100-120 million in total. In February 2019, Cipla acquired an 11.71% stake in health technology start-up Wellthy Therapeutics for Rs 10.5 crore.

The Union government has been supporting the start-up ecosystem for a few years, but Covid-19 has triggered special support for healthcare, pharmaceutical and medtech solutions. Financial and infrastructural support is pouring in from all ministries. So far, the government has supported more than 1,000 biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device start-ups since the start of the pandemic through various ministries. “The Covid-19 pandemic has not only presented challenges but also several growth opportunities for India. The crisis has opened the floodgates for Indian start-ups, many of which have seized the opportunity and accelerated the development of low-cost, scalable and rapid solutions,” says Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, the government’s policy think tank .

In addition, the National Start-up Awards 2022, organized by the DPIIT, have this year a new category, intended to identify innovations in the face of the pandemic (preventive, diagnostic, therapeutic, surveillance, digital connection, teleworking, etc. .) . According to Invest India, the country had over 66,359 DPIIT-recognized start-ups across 642 districts as of March 21, 2022, with the second highest – 9% – coming from healthcare and life sciences.

The private sector has also gotten to work, in partnership with government agencies and educational institutions. For example, Krishna Ella, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Biotech, is contributing `200 crore to a fund corpus with the Technology Development Board (TDB) of the Ministry of Science and Technology (which will contribute an equal amount) to support the start-ups in different areas at relaxed conditions.

The Pfizer Innovation Program to support breakthrough innovations in healthcare is supported by Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), NITI Aayog, Accelerating Growth of New India’s Innovations (AGNIi), Foundation for Innovation and Technology Transfer ( FITT), IIT Delhi and Social Alpha, a multi-stage innovation curation and business development platform for science and technology start-ups. Version 1.0 of the program had incubated nine healthcare innovators and supported 19 IP (intellectual property) filings. Now, in the first year of version 2.0, three winning start-ups, each in the fields of oncology and digital health, will receive a grant of up to Rs 65 lakh each for product trials, studies pilots and product launches in the market. It is one of the largest programs of its kind, by both grant value and partnerships, focused on incubating and commercializing healthcare start-ups in the country. AIM and NITI Aayog will provide start-ups with access to their entire network of incubators and facilities through co-incubation and will also provide technical and strategic advice to support the program and the start-ups. IIT Delhi will be the lead incubation partner with support from others.

Healthcare start-ups, backed by digital, the Internet and AI, are no longer limited to online pharmacies, vaccine and medicine deliveries by drone or telemedicine. Several target various areas of health, and the approaches and business models are quite interesting.

For example, public health experts have said coronavirus infection has long-term effects on mental and physical health. Wellness activities have known health benefits, but integrating them into our daily lives is a challenge. Responding to this need is NowZone, headquartered in Nagpur. The start-up has developed a real-time breath monitoring device (worldwide patent pending), which also, remarkably, contains content based on Buddhist and Vedic teachings for meditation, breath work, pranayama, yoga and even sleep stories.

“Present-moment meditation is about experiencing the Middle Way, balancing the ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ needs of the present time based on science. Our device monitors breathing in real time, notifying slow, deep breathing for 1 minute at 6 bpm (beats per minute), which is most needed when under stress,” says Akash Madnani, Founder and CEO of NowZone. So far, the start-up has received over $1 million in funding from Tata 1mg, Dineout and Healthark Insights. It has sold over 5,000 devices, with a target of 10 million subscribers, including device sales, over the next five years. The current valuation of the start-up is Rs 37.5 crore ($5 million).

Another start-up, Pristyn Care, headquartered in Gurugram, recently entered the unicorn club with a valuation of $1.4 billion (10,963 crore) and investments of $177 million (1,345 crore). Rs crore) from renowned investors like Sequoia Capital and Tiger Global, among others. The company specializes in elective surgeries using advanced treatments such as laser, laparoscopic treatment in ENT, urology, proctology and gynecology and kidney stones. It is also an end-to-end health service provider (not an aggregator). Pristyn Care takes care of the patient throughout the treatment journey from the first OPD visit, diagnosis, admission, operation, post-op and IPD to insurance claims , the discharge process and follow-ups with the surgeon. Additionally, Pristyn Care used technology to integrate its panel of physicians, partner hospitals, care coordinators and insurance claims handling team. “We are investing heavily in retrofitting unused and unused space in Tier II and Tier III metro and city and town hospitals. We manage them and put systems in place, including creating a robust IT infrastructure there,” says Harsimarbir Singh, co-founder of Pristyn Care.

Or take HealthPlix Technologies. The Bengaluru-based Software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for physicians has recently released the mobile version of its AI-powered Electronic Medical Records (EMR) application. ‘EMR on Mobile’ enables real-time access to patient information from anywhere, anytime. The app is built on the same architecture as the company’s AI-powered flagship desktop DME. “It’s not just an add-on application to a web-based EMR. It is a standalone, mobile and feature-packed EMR for the Indian physician. Any physician in India can instantly unlock remote care capabilities and adopt this EMR on mobile with no infrastructure required,” says Subhadeep Mondal, VP of Product at HealthPlix Technologies.

The mobile EMR has been accessed by physicians in over 350 cities, including Tier II and Tier III cities. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, physicians can use “EMR on Mobile” to seamlessly manage in-person and online consultations on the same group of patients. “We believe physicians need agile, mobile solutions to achieve better health outcomes,” said Burhanuddin Pithawala, growth marketing manager at HealthPlix. The startup is backed by Kalaari Capital, Lightspeed Ventures, Chiratae Ventures, and JSW Ventures, and has raised $23.5 million in funding to date.

As start-ups bring cutting-edge technologies to healthcare to improve patient outcomes, greater effort is needed to help them scale to benefit a wider population.

@neetu_csharma