Indian innovation leads the fight against the pandemic
Necessity has been the mother of invention in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and nowhere is this more apparent than in India. With a clear focus on affordability and low cost, here is how frugal Indian innovations have taken the commercial route to aid the fight against the pandemic.
From sanitisation drones, digital stethoscopes and infection-proof fabric for hospitals to incredibly cheap portable ventilators and affordable Covid-19 test kits, the swift innovation at the heart of India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a testimony to its age-old tradition of being creative and resourceful in the face of social crisis and resource constraints.
With a majority of these innovations being spearheaded by Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) across the country, it’s also a vote of confidence on the robust culture of practical innovation that has always given the Indian economy an extra edge. The key innovations during this period have taken the commercial route either through IIT-incubated startups or the institutes have awarded licenses to companies and kept the patent rights with themselves.
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Knack for frugal solutions
Before we dove deep into the amazing array of products that Indian scientists and entrepreneurs have created in the short span of the past four months, let’s take a moment to understand what is it that makes India a frontrunner for an innovation paradigm with increasing global relevance during the coronavirus pandemic? Why do Indians have a general knack for frugal solutions?
“On one hand, there are concrete economic factors that give rise to resource-efficient and affordable solutions to problems faced in day-to-day life in India. On the other hand, frugality has been long regarded as a virtuous social value in India and the socio-cultural context of the country provides a fertile environment for the acceptance of frugal products and services on both demand and supply sides,” said Rajnish Tiwari, Professor at the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Hamburg’s University of Technology. While this has been the reality for many countries with a low income GDP – which is one reason why so many frugal innovations emerge from these contexts – in the case of India frugal innovation has not only serving the needs of the most underserved segments of the society but has also made its businesses globally competitive and paved the way for sustainable development in several scenarios.
Price riders and commercial licences
Consider the case of the $6 Covid-19 test kit.
Yes, you read that right – and that’s a product developed by scientists, professors and research students of IIT Delhi, which became the first academic institute to get an approval from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for the Covid-19 test kit. The institute has given a non-exclusive open licence to Bengaluru-based biotechnology firm Genie Laboratories for commercial roll out of the test, but with a price rider of Rs500 (around $6) per kit. The kits are being manufactured at the Andhra Pradesh MedTech Zone (AMTZ) in Vishakhapatnam.
“More than 40 companies, including a few big names, have reached out to us to commercialise the test. We will be giving open licences to companies which meet the quality criterion set by us and set a price rider so that companies do not hike the price once commercialised. We have chosen Genie laboratories as the first one, but there will be more companies too,” IIT Delhi Director V Ramgopal told the PTI news agency last month.
So how could the test come at a throwaway price when most other countries are finding it hard to bring the price of test-kits down below even $50? According to the IIT Delhi team, the current testing methods available in the market are “probe-based” while the one developed by the IIT team is a “probe-free” method, which immediately reduces the testing cost without compromising on the accuracy of results.
Clincher for frontline workers
The same institute has also thrown in yet another clincher for frontline workers and healthcare personnel engaged in the fight against the pandemic: an “infection-proof fabric” to prevent hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). “We take rolls of cotton fabric and treat it with a set of proprietary-developed chemicals under a set of particular reaction conditions, using the machinery already commonly available in textile industries. The fabric, after undergoing these processes, gains the powerful antimicrobial functionality,” said Samrat Mukhopadhyay, a professor at IIT-Delhi. “Even after washing multiple times, it does not lose its functionality. This fabric can be stitched into various articles such as bedsheets, the uniforms for patients, doctors and nurses and even curtains. The fabric satisfies the Indian standards in terms of the number of washing. It is completely non-toxic and affordable,” he said.
The fabric has been sent to various hospitals in the Indian capital of New Delhi in the form of bed sheets, curtains and uniforms by an incubated startup called “Fabiosys Innovations,” after being tested at the All India Institute of Medical Studies.
Culture of improvisation
As the examples above amply demonstrate, frugal innovation in Indian healthcare does not mean compromising on quality but rather stands for the ability to provide safe healthcare in the best way possible under given circumstances and constraints. Commenting on the culture of innovation that lies at the heart of the global pandemic response, Matthew Harris, Yasser Bhatti, Jim Buckley & Dhananjaya Sharma cited the example of India refitting its rolling stock of trains to become hospital wards for patients with the virus.
“Covid-19 has required unprecedented responses from all countries. Such has been the speed and severity of the pandemic that few countries have been afforded the luxury of following traditional processes of testing and trialing new technologies, processes and medicines. Countries that have delayed their response to COVID-19 seem to be faring worse. The lack of time and resources available to respond to the crisis, as well as the need for rapid scaling in every context, has led to an explosion of innovative responses,” they wrote in a paper for the Nature magazine.
Crucible of innovation
“Challenging as the current public-health crisis is, frugal innovation provides opportunities to expand access to care and to ensure that the care, although perhaps not perfect (yet), is good enough under the current circumstances,” they added.
As Indian tech institutes become the crucible of innovation in a post-pandemic world, it is well worth remembering that the entire global society stands to reap the benefits of their ingenuity down the road: the Internet, GPS, touchscreen display, smart phones and voice-activated personal assistants, all stem from the same thread of crisis-driven innovation.