Walk a mile in the user’s shoes

For ground-breaking innovation, keep the user at the centre, and get a good cultural understanding of the actual place where your product will be used

Founding Fuel

[Image by StockSnap from Pixabay]

Dear friend,

I am often asked if I know of any innovative healthcare startup in the Indian context. Given the numerous healthcare challenges in India, there are many startups that are building interesting products and services that leverage AI for diagnosis, use mobile phones’ sensors for reading vitals, manage doctor appointments and patient data, and so on. But I often go back to one startup as the best example in the Indian context.

This is a company called Embrace Innovations. The estimated number of preterm and underweight babies born across the world is about 20 million annually. To survive, these babies have to be kept in incubators to keep them warm for a period of time. Incubators do exist. But they are bulky, need electricity and are very expensive. For preterm and underweight babies born in developing countries, especially in rural areas, access to these incubators is a big constraint. That’s the challenge Embrace is addressing.

This company started out as a Stanford University project for extreme affordability. The team spent time observing mothers and infants in Nepal and made quick observations on the operating environment for the use of a baby-warming incubator. They quickly figured out that “it would have to work without electricity and be transportable, intuitive, sanitisable, culturally appropriate, and perhaps most importantly—inexpensive.”

Embrace, through multiple iterations and interactions with the mothers, babies and caregivers, ended up building an incubator that looked like a modified sleeping bag using locally available common materials. It is very different from a traditional incubator and costs just a small fraction. The product was launched in India a few years ago and is said to have saved the lives of 2 lakh babies! Learn more about Embrace here.

It should be obvious by now, why this is a favourite example of mine. The founders focused on the cultural context, simplicity, and the use of relevant low-cost technologies to save a baby. Why did no one think of this before? Why aren’t more products built this way? Why does everyone follow the herd, looking for the coolest and snazziest technologies to solve these problems?

Embrace broadly followed principles laid out under the Design Thinking approach, keeping the user at the centre, and also getting a good cultural understanding of the actual place where their products would be put to use. Perhaps most other incubator manufacturers designed their products in the Western world and ‘rolled it out’ to the rest of the world where operative environments are vastly different.

This brings me to a related idea proposed in the new book by Arun Maira, Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit. Maira explores the idea that to address the challenges in local environments, local change agents must apply systems thinking. That’s not how we intuitively think.

To explore this idea in greater detail, we invited two practicing change agents to tell their stories—Nachiket Mor on improving healthcare and Swati Ramanathan on addressing urban challenges. It’s a fabulous read.

Their essays are part of a learning project we are putting together with Maira: MasterClass on TransformingSystems with Arun Maira. For this, we’ve picked a set of three important themes from his book: 1. A New Model for Change: Complex Global Problems, Local Systems Solutions; 2. Building Purpose-driven Networks; 3. Creating Ethical Leaders of Tomorrow.

As Maira states in a context-setting note on the theme covered by Mor and Ramanathan: “When problems are large and complex, a human instinct is to turn upwards for solutions—to God, to the United Nations, or to a powerful government. When confronted with large-scale problems, the default theory of effective management, of command-and-control, becomes very tempting to apply. Governments construct centralised, top-down programmes. International NGO programmes, and large-scale philanthropy, are managed centrally to achieve scale and to improve efficiency by deploying best practices.” The results of this approach are sub-optimal at best.

Over the next few weeks, Maira will lead a public conversation on each of the three themes. And we’ve invited seven thought leaders to engage with him. We’ll announce the names shortly. Please look out for email announcements on this.

Have a great week ahead!

CS Swaminathan 

For Team Founding Fuel

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