Fostering change through impact-driven innovations benefits India's economy immensely

The benefits of economic growth need to percolate down to the grassroots level to reduce inequities in all levels.


Over the last few decades, India has made huge strides to emerge as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Simultaneously, policies and programmes introduced at the national and state levels, have enabled the country to reap these economic benefits.

With steady progress and concerted efforts, the country has seen an immense improvement in the number and quality of its healthcare facilities, reduction in pregnancy-related deaths, improvement in sanitation and immunisation coverage, and has successfully averted several preventable disease epidemics. However, much remains to be done.

Fostering change through impact-driven innovations benefits Indias economy immensely

Representational image. Credit: ACCF

India’s growth story needs to be more equitable, inclusive and sustainable. The benefits of economic growth must percolate down to the grassroots level, to reduce inequities in wealth, health outcomes and education levels. It is therefore imperative that we come up with novel solutions to address the existing and upcoming socio-economic challenges, such as waste management, environmental pollution, maternal and child health, streamlining and improving agricultural processes – including minimising post-harvest losses – and creating alternate livelihood opportunities in the rural sector. Such innovations, which focus on addressing social issues, are key to developing last-mile solutions that can bridge gaps at the grassroots level.

India has recently witnessed a phenomenal surge of interest in impact-driven, market-based innovations as a way to achieve sustainable economic growth. Social innovations, such as fair trade, mobile learning applications for enhancing literacy and numerical skills, mobile money transfer, cloth-based reusable sanitary napkins, have demonstrated how novel and creative solutions can play a critical role in solving pressing and sometimes neglected issues.

Growth needs to be visible in all sector and levels, like medicine.

Growth needs to be visible in all sector and levels, like medicine.

While several social enterprises are working towards alleviating poverty and reducing inequalities, the biggest challenge they face is achieving the required scale of social impact. Although there are some success stories, others are relatively small as compared to the magnitude of the socio-economic challenges they aim to address.

Social innovative models often face difficulty in accessing start-up capital and technical guidance. Some venture capital organisations have been instrumental in providing risk capital and support to social innovations in earlier stages. However, there is a need for more longer-term capital and grants to fund proof-of-concept and cheaper loans for working capital. Encumbered by uncertainty, many innovations rely only on the passion of the innovator to become an agent of social change.

Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), through its Social Innovation Programme for Products: Affordable & Relevant to Societal Health (SPARSH), is changing this landscape steadily and bringing social innovations into the mainstream. SPARSH has been devised to create a pool of social innovators in biotechnology, who can identify gaps within communities, offer new ideas and develop high-impact innovations.

There are various agencies working towards alleviating poverty but it is not enough.

There are various agencies working towards alleviating poverty but it is not enough.

Till date, several calls for proposals have been launched, centred on themes, such as reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, transforming waste materials to value-added products and biofuel, developing diagnostic tools to enhance soil and plant health, and improving livestock health. BIRAC ensures the selected social innovations align well with the government initiatives, such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, Make In India, National Livestock Mission and Digital India, to bring forth new ideas and do away with old and ineffective solutions.

Under the aegis of SPARSH, the Social Innovation Immersion Program (SIIP) aims to shift the needle by mentoring and nurturing innovators to a point where they are able to develop viable and sustainable business plans. The programme has already mentored 35 social innovators, identified 70 novel solutions, and successfully developed 13 prototypes.

A few innovations developed under SPARSH need special mention:

Rhino Digester (a compact, automated and cost-effective device used to decentralise waste processing) and ReMeDi (a fully wireless and mobile-based solution used as a diagnostic tool for multiple health parameters in hard-to-reach areas) are testament to the ability of simple and effective solutions in addressing social and development challenges at the grassroots level.

 

The SPARSH programme is expanding with the setting up of SPARSH centres across the country, which will be responsible for the implementation of SIIP, and will provide a host of technical, business and marketing mentoring to SIIP fellows.

For the Indian growth story to be more equitable and inclusive, social innovation needs to cater to the needs of all Indians. India has between 40-80 million disabled persons, and among the lowest levels of social mobility for disabled persons. To focus on innovation in this crucial space, BIRAC, Social Alpha, and Mphasis – a Bengaluru-based company – have come together and launched the BIRAC-Social Alpha Quest for Assistive Technologies. This programme will identify 10 assistive innovations and provide them with funding as well as ‘lab-to-market support’. We hope this programme will bring both national and international players to work in this underserved but important space.

Social innovations, through inventive and astute solutions, are driving the need to tilt the scales in favour of inclusive growth and permanently transforming people’s lives. SPARSH, BIRAC’s social innovation programme, is a step in that direction. Through a new wave of creative and innovative solutions, BIRAC is aiming to harness Indian ingenuity to address the country’s most pressing development issues and to ensure India’s growth phenomenon reaches those previously left out of it.

 

Dr Renu Swarup is the Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology, Government of India and Chairperson, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).