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Coronavirus and innovation: An emerging market perspective

By Sreevas Sahasranamam - Posted on 26 March 2020

With Covid-19 making its way around the globe, businesses are becoming seriously disrupted. For some, the disruption can lead to new ideas - here, Sreevas Sahasranamam discusses India and some innovative ideas as a result of the pandemic.

The world is traversing through a totally unprecedented territory in the face of the global pandemic Covid-19. According to estimates on March 23, over 1.5 billion people globally are under lock down in an attempt to flatten the spread of the coronavirus. While the enormity and gravity of the situation is truly alarming, an element of positivity is the role of start-up innovations in responding to the crisis in a rapid manner. 

Globally, in the last couple of weeks, we have seen collaboration apps and start-ups like PhoneSoap and Slightly Robot develop innovations responding to the challenges from the new-normal of our lives. From the emerging market context of India, particularly in the state of Kerala, I have noticed a relatively silent - for the global audience - but remarkable response of entrepreneurs and innovators to the pandemic. In this post, I will highlight some of these innovations and more importantly discuss why this might be happening, as this could contain learnings for other contexts. 

Some notable innovations 

Social distancing has been the buzz word of Covid-19 response globally. But how do you #BreakTheChain of contact in public spaces like airports or bus stations? There are multiple innovation answers offered by Kerala innovators. Asimov Robotics has deployed robots at entrances of office buildings and other public places to dispense hand sanitizers and for delivering public awareness messages on precautionary measures to be taken to control the spread of the virus. Automated hand sanitizers is perhaps not a novelty in itself, but the adaptation of it to meet the needs of the context is. A team of young innovators from an engineering college have been at this, by developing a low-cost (to be affordable) automated hand sanitizer machine that can hold larger volume of sanitizer liquid (to account for the larger population) and can be operated on battery (to account for power shortages and absence of charging points). 

Public awareness is another area where important actions are needed to ensure important messages are passed on to people, and to curb fake news and panic among people. When I arrived in India from UK on March 16, on the very first call I made, I was surprised to be greeted by an automated message outlining the precautions to be taken for Covid-19. Such messages are delivered through multiple platforms (landlines and mobiles), and multiple languages (English and respective vernacular languages), across India (not just in Kerala), to ensure wide reach of the message. 

Using a platform developed by the start-up QKopy, Kerala state government has launched an app called GoK-Kerala Direct. This sends official government notifications, Covid-19 case updates and other relevant information not only on smartphones but also as SMS on feature phones (less than half of India’s population have smartphones). These messages are delivered both in English and in Malayalam (local vernacular language). Hygiene of public spaces is another area of notable innovation interventions. Aqoza technologies, a chemical technology start-up, has developed a water-based sanitizer for disinfecting public spaces. This technology is expected to disinfect the area in 15 minutes in comparison to alcohol-based disinfectants which take around four to five hours. 

What is supporting such quick innovation responses during Covid-19 in Kerala? 

In my opinion, such timely innovation interventions are happening in Kerala for a combination of general and contextual reasons. The general reasons could well be true around the world, but the contextual reasons point to certain unique ecosystem aspects in Kerala that is fostering the quick innovation responses. 

General reasons: 

· Entrepreneurs by definition are individuals who operate under uncertainty. Consequently, they are better equipped by experience to meet with the uncertainties imposed by crisis situations like Covid-19 pandemic. 

· Large-scale crisis situations are also bound to bring out humanitarian-ness, goodness and community-spirit amongst all of us to contribute in our own ways to help others, and in this regard, start-ups and innovators are no different. 

Contextual reasons: 

· Role of intermediaries – Kerala Start-up Mission, a government-supported entrepreneurship development agency, has been acting as a key intermediary in channelling the efforts of start-ups and acting as a bridge in connecting start-ups with government in ensuring rapid action. ICFOSS, an autonomous institution under the state government, is another intermediary that is closely linked with both the government and the engineering technology talent in the state. Consequently, they are able to mobilise the engineering talent in a short time span to respond through technological innovations for tackling Covid-19. 

· Prior government-startup collaborations during crisis – The state of Kerala has had to deal with similar large-scale crisis in recent years such as the Kerala floods and Nipah virus outbreak in 2018. This prior experience has elevated the government preparedness to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. At the same time, these prior instances have offered opportunities for government-startup collaborations for developing innovations for crisis situations. For instance, some of the start-ups mentioned earlier like Aqoza technologies and Qkopy were supporting the government during the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 as well. 

· Role of boundary spanners – The presence of key boundary spanning individuals, who are at the intersection of industry-academia-government, is another factor contributing to the timely innovative responses. For instance, ICFOSS, an autonomous institution under the state government, has been led by individuals from the industry who are also embedded with the academia through associations like IEEE. Such boundary spanners are ideally placed to quickly mobilise resources from multiple areas and direct them to developing innovations for crisis response. 

· Strength of engineering talent, organised within a volunteering ambit – The state of Kerala has consistently been ranked as leading the literacy standards in the country. So the presence of strong engineering talent in the state might not be a surprise in itself. However, the quick innovation responses necessitated during crisis times, may not just come naturally from strength of such engineering talent. In this regard, the presence of associations like IEEE Kerala Section that brings together engineering students and young professionals under a common volunteering ambit, in my opinion, is providing a platform for easy aggregation of talent to develop innovations for crisis response. For example, a number of innovators and volunteers have put in their efforts to setup the online portal Coronasafe-Network, supported by the state government, which is a real-time open-source public platform containing details on Covid-19 precautions, tools and responses. 

For further information on this post, please contact sreevas.sahasranamam@strath.ac.uk


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