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Skyward bound

Social Alpha has taken its aim of supporting entrepreneurs and startups to a higher plane by venturing into aerospace.

Last November, in a first in India, Meghalaya used a drone to deliver medical supplies to a remote primary healthcare centre in the West Khasi hills. The centre is just 25 km from Noingstoin District Hospital, the source of the supplies, but by road it takes four hard hours to reach. The drone did the job in under 30 minutes.

Telangana followed Meghalaya’s lead when its ‘medicine from the sky’ initiative got off the ground, with drones carrying vaccines, serum, blood samples and diagnostic specimens to villages where access by other means is difficult.

These two experiments have caught the eye of Social Alpha, a multi-stage innovation and venture development platform for science and technology startups seeking to address some of India’s pressing development sector challenges.

Launched in 2016, Social Alpha supports entrepreneurs and startups in their lab-to-market journey through a network of innovation labs, startup incubators, accelerator programmes, seed funds and market access mechanisms. 

Central to Social Alpha is its three-tiered architecture, powered by the Foundation for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (FISE), a Tata Trusts supported initiative to co-create and foster solutions with the potential to meet the needs of underserved communities in areas of climate and sustainability, healthcare, livelihoods and more.

Drones for medical supplies as well as for weather analytics and land-use patterns, and satellite sensing for remote crop monitoring, pest control and imagery are examples of space-tech applications that Social Alpha has been venturing into. It has recently launched mach33.aero, a private-public partnership with the Government of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and the National Research Development Corporation.

Mach33.aero will look at accelerating breakthrough ideas in aviation, aerospace and space tech with cross sectoral applications in climate, healthcare and livelihoods. With its lab-to-market mandate, it expects to be a catalyst that advances the social development cause. The first stop for that is finding and supporting startups that fit the bill.

There are caveats attached. The startup must show promise and be in line with Social Alpha’s credo: to tackle critical social, economic and environmental challenges through sustainable and scalable solutions. The objective is to use technology to craft solutions that are affordable and accessible, high on quality and user experience. 

Full-stack backing

Such startups can then avail Social Alpha’s full stack of support — from access to a number of specialised innovations labs and incubators, mentoring, help with design, development and testing of prototypes, to accessing funds from multiple pools of capital and finding new markets.

The startups being scouted are not cut from conventional cloth. “If you look at startups today, they are all about e-commerce, fintech, edtech, microfinance and food delivery,” explains Manoj Kumar, chief executive and cofounder of Social Alpha. “While the growing startup ecosystem is very promising for the economy, we don’t see enough entrepreneurial activity in climate action, in primary healthcare, in water and sanitation, in agriculture and other livelihood areas.

“We encourage entrepreneurial risk-taking in these spaces with the hope that, eventually, they will become more mainstream and the philanthropic capital invested in them today will give way to commercial capital. This is how we are attempting to address market failure by de-risking some of the neglected sectors of the economy.”

Jacob Poulose, the incubation programme director of Social Alpha (he is transitioning to mach33 to set it up as its chief operating officer), emphasises the importance of smoothening the lab-to-market pathway.

“A lot of deep science and tech innovations are being created across the country today at institutes like CSIR-NAL,” he says. “The creators are often unaware that these technologies have the potential for dual use. That means, apart from addressing the problems they were created for, they can also offer pathbreaking solutions to social and environmental challenges.”

Aerospace engineering is an example. Its versatility extends to applications that can easily be deployed to find remedies for complex issues like poverty, underdevelopment, climate change and healthcare, and solve these problems at scale. 

Chasing the missing

“In India, we certainly have the scientific and intellectual capability to address our social and economic challenges. But their translation to commercial ventures through entrepreneurship, and something that becomes useful for wider society, is entirely missing from the value chain,” says Harshan Vazhakunnam, a programme director with Social Alpha. “That’s where our intervention through offerings such as the scientist/entrepreneur-in- residence and market access programmes can come in handy.”

Mach33.aero — a name derived from the common scientific term for the speed of sound — is billed as India’s first aerospace-focused innovation curation and venture development programme. It leverages the platform architecture of Social Alpha and pledges to provide a common ground for government, industry and academia to nurture entrepreneurship, indigenous manufacturing and promote dual-use technology in spheres such as healthcare, climate change, agriculture and natural resources management.

Even though mach33.aero has been launched recently, the folks at Social Alpha believe it will have no problem finding partners. “Companies from around the globe, who are working in aerospace, have been approaching us,” adds Mr Kumar.

Scientists at NAL have recently demonstrated, in Karnataka and Jammu & Kashmir, that drones initially manufactured for surveillance, aerial photography or mapping can be a quick and inexpensive vehicle for transporting medical supplies or even food and essentials to remote locations. They can even be used by small farmers to monitor their fields. 

Agriculture is a space where such technologies can be more than useful. “The struggle for the marginal farmer is getting the right data,” says Mr Kumar. “They never know in advance if a disaster is about to hit, or if there has been a pest attack in a neighbouring village or they may just be struggling to find an efficient and precise way of spraying pesticides and fertilisers.” 

Data collected via satellite, and then disseminated among farmers, would be a big help. Geospatial imaging and analysis can provide inputs about the amount of water in rivers and ponds and even changes in topography. 

A startup working in this area could, based on a predictive model, advise farmers on what to grow. If the climate is likely to change causing a water shortage or the water table is rapidly depleting, farmers could be persuaded to grow hardy crops like millets instead of rice. Remote sensing will help them manage scattered holdings or alert them to a crop-killing swarm headed their way. 

In a few years, air taxis might become a reality for city commuters. This could also help farmers carry their produce to markets both near and far, substantially increasing their income. Many of these ground-up innovations are being designed to be non-polluting and zero-emission, making them eco-friendly as well. 

Entrepreneurship is crucial in all of this. “Climate action, poverty and healthcare require innovation, but not if it’s confined to academia or research centres,” adds Mr Kumar. “Taking innovation from the lab to the community or the market is something that only entrepreneurs can do.