Sarthak Ranade, Managing Director, Janssen India
Sanjeev Mohoni, CEO, Mahindra EPC Irrigation
Tapan Singhel, MD & CEO, Bajaj Allianz Insurance
Subhashini Chandran, MD, Xynteo
Zarir N Langrana, Executive Director & President (Global Chemicals Business), Tata
Moderated by David Wilcox, Founder, ReachScale
David Wilcox: Can you describe the nano unicorn that you are working on?
Subhashini Chandran: India generates about 120 million tons of rice husk as agricultural waste annually. We have been working for the past eight-nine months to figure out how we can convert that into a commercially viable product. A lot has been done with bagasse, and we have recently had a lot of regulation around plastics and on the back of that, support from government to say that we need to use a lot less of disposable plastics in railways, etc. We are very close to cracking a technology that gives enough strength to produce a disposable product, and we would love to see that go to scale. A layer on that is that we work very closely with mining communities in India and a lot of the mining communities are agrarian. There is a lot of this waste that’s not monetised or used by the farmers in any way, so if we can crack this one, it could be very interesting.
Sarthak Ranade: There are many startups which are disrupting and changing the rules of the game in healthcare. There are startups which are using technology to connect patients and doctors, and many of them have huge potential. There are also startups helping the patient be more compliant in terms of taking his medications.
Zarir Langrana: Agriculture and water are the two areas where technology and technological disruption can throw out a dozen nano unicorns over the next year or two. One example is in the space of safe, affordable clean drinking water, which is that rice husk ash, a byproduct of rice milling can be used to filter out water.
Tapan Singhel: We have our demographic dividend to our advantage, but if we are not able to get jobs, the democratic dividend can become hugely negative, can lead to social unrest, and can create huge issues. Having such a huge young population and no answers to what we do with them is going to be a problem. With the aim to create a difference, my team created process systems in which we could open virtual offices and generate massive employment. The mission is to generate one million employment opportunities in the next five years or so as one institution. Since we lead from the front in terms of being the leading insurance company of India, it means that other will copy, which triggers a domino effect to turn one million into 10-50 million. In the past year itself, we opened 2000 such offices. We already generate quite a few jobs and now my competitors are copying it onwards.
Sanjeev Mohoni: At Mahindra EPC Irrigation, we work with water, and the source of water is always a problem. If it is groundwater, the depth is going deeper and deeper every day, and if it is reservoir water, that itself has immense problems. One of the things we are working on is, how to recharge tube wells that have gone dry so that we create more reservoirs and recharge and bring up groundwater levels. This project has the possibility of becoming a good-sized business.
There is another project we are working on. In most of our towns and cities, we have “nallas” which are a source of water. It is a herculean task to get them to potable level, and requires a lot of investment. Getting that to usable grade for farm is not such a big deal. Moreover, there are a lot of farmers who have small pieces of land which are fallow or which cannot be used for agriculture. Through the project, we are trying to help farmers with pieces of land less than 8th of an acre to set up a small net or a greenhouse which uses a small STP built on this kind of a source. It can generate an income of about Rs 8,000-10,000 a month.
Agriculture and water are the two areas where technology and technological disruption can throw out a dozen nano unicorns over the next year or two.
David Wilcox: Please describe what would the unicorn look like if you collaborate with nonprofit leaders, government leaders and leaders from other spaces, to build it. What do you think you and your company could do together with all the other players?
Subhashini Chandran: One grand challenge that we are working on now is in the waste sector. Over 100,000 metric tons of waste are dumped in a landfill on a daily basis, and much of it is either not processed or poorly collected. We have been looking at this problem from the lens of both business and government, and one of the realisations has been that no one side can do this alone. Often, civil society thinks that the responsibility for this sits with government and government increasingly says the responsibility sits with individuals. In designing a program that can bring everyone together and make it an investable opportunity, we have decided to work with the local government in Mumbai and other ecosystem players along with business that is heavily concerned about waste, particularly packaging waste.
A pilot project is being conceived in collaboration with organisations like the State Bank of India, Hindustan Unilever, Mumbai Municipal Corporation and local civil society, to figure out a business model that can make it possible for each of us to play our role more responsibly in segregating, collecting and disposing as well as monetising our waste in a more sensible way. If we make models like this work and make them replicable and scalable, then we are looking at solving a national grand challenge using the lens of business, and hopefully crowding in more innovation and entrepreneurship in a space that is currently not getting enough funding, enough interest, enough innovation or enough civic engagement.
Sarthak Ranade: At Johnson & Johnson, we are investing a lot towards solving some of the world’s most complex problems, that is, epidemics like HIV and Ebola. In this space, our efforts are particularly focused on tuberculosis right now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a clarion call of eradicating tuberculosis from India by 2025. This is great because many people don’t know the damages which tuberculosis does to the Indian economy. In fact, we are a high burden country, and more than 25% of the global burden lies in India. A matter of great worry is that the bugs of TB are developing a lot of resistance.
We work very closely with the government in terms of raising awareness about tuberculosis. We also work with like-minded NGOs who help us and the government because this issue is too big for the government alone to handle. So, we collaborate with a lot of NGOs to see how we can diagnose, treat and make these people productive and put them back into society.
Zarir Langrana: Electric mobility is one of the spaces that India will certainly have to look at in five to 10 years. Authorities have taken an aggressive stance to promote electric mobility by introducing a slew of incentives, both at the producer end and at the consumer end. Electric vehicles require electric batteries, and as electric batteries and vehicles are getting into the ecosystem, people are not looking at what to do with the disposed batteries. We already have an issue with lithium-ion batteries in electronics and consumer electronics.
The whole recycling value chain opens itself up to disruption and open innovation, beginning from the point of responsible collection, which means collecting with full traceability, ensuring that child labour hasn’t been used to collect and segregate, and then congregate and consolidate the collection, figure out what are the recycling centres that you bring it back to, how do you recycle with a low environmental footprint, and then what do you do with the recycled material? The entire value chain is something that lends itself to various partners coming in at various points in time, very much like the plastic issue today, but it is an issue that is going to hit us five years from today. If we don’t start thinking about it and working on it today, we might generate another problem in the process of solving one.
Electric mobility is one of the spaces that India will certainly have to look at in five to 10 years.
Tapan Singhel: We can all talk about the trillion-dollar economy, of being the fourth largest economy in the world, but if the average life expectancy of Indians is not the third or fourth largest or best in the world, it has no relevance. Taking on the challenge of addressing this issue, we started actively pushing for a National Health Scheme, which came through now and covers 40 crore people. About three to four billion dollars are getting pumped in every year, which will make healthcare and hospitals accessible to rural India. For example, Apollo is going to invest Rs 300 crores in opening healthcare facilities in the location where they never thought of. All startups in healthcare, all integration together will have an impact on increasing life expectancy of Indians by at least five years because the difference between high life expectancy and lowest life expectancy is the access to healthcare.
The next move that we are pushing through with the government is to extend health cover to the next 40 crores. The U.S. has mandatory employer-employee health insurance, and why should that not be the case in India as well? it would be 1/6th of the actual cost of individual healthcare. If the next 40 crores come under its ambit and the money being pumped in annually increases to $7-8 billion just from the private partnership, the life expectancy of Indians will move to the top three as the economy grows, in the span of 15-20 years.
Sanjeev Mohoni: This plan of doubling farmers’ income is very doable, in the sense that we have all the technologies to be able to grow multifold the kind of output a typical farm generates, either by way of precision farming or by way of net housing, green housing and protected cultivation. However, if the farmer doesn’t have a market to be able to sell that produce at the end of the day, he is back to where he was. So, the companies that we would wish to tie up with would be the ones that can lift the kind of produce that you can actually generate.
David Wilcox: In 2030, we will all look back on the sustainable development goals, and the following thing will happen. We will at that point be able to see multiple solutions to those goals and we will look back and realise that if we had concentrated resources and scaled those solutions, we’d have reached the goals, but we didn’t. There are many situations where we are going to have the answers, and we are going to fail in scaling them unless we do something dramatically different.