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? Kerala start-up, 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 sanitizer 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. 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. To maintain hygiene of public toilets, Humble Shit, a start-up in the toilet monitoring space, is supporting the government in maintaining appropriate cleanliness of toilets.
What is enabling such quick innovation responses during COVID-19 in Kerala?
- 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 (BIGPE model):
- Boundary spanners – The presence of key boundary spanning individuals, who work at the intersection of industry-academia-government, are ideally placed to quickly mobilize resources from multiple areas and direct them to developing innovations for crisis response. 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
- Intermediaries – Kerala Start-up Mission (KSUM), 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 engineering talent and start-ups with government in ensuring rapid action. KSUM has launched an online platform called BreakCorona to crowdsource innovations for COVID-19. Under another initiative called “Breath of Hope”, KSUM has brought together an interdisciplinary volunteer team of IT professionals, biomedical engineers and doctors to develop innovative medical devices like half ventilator, HMask, and face shield.
- Government pro-activeness – The Kerala state government took very early proactive measures to set in place mechanisms for COVID-19 testing and monitoring such as temperature checks at airport, contact tracing and information sessions to taxi drivers. The spillover effect of such early proactive government response to COVID-19 encourages innovators and entrepreneurs to put in their efforts in an equally proactive manner, thus enabling quick innovation responses to the challenges of 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. In fact, 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.
- Engineering volunteers – 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.
Call for action – We now need the same entrepreneurial mind-set to create the next wave of innovations for fighting Stage-3 of COVID-19 in Kerala. My recent conversations with start-ups like Phaethon technologies and with entrepreneurially oriented volunteers working in government war rooms offer encouraging signs in this front.
Acknowledgement – Author would like to thank Sahil Sameer, Athil Gafoor, Aswin Mohan, Ranjit Nair and Jayakrishnan Nair for their inputs.