Today, India’s healthtech market is being disrupted by 4K+ startups using AI and ML technologies to revolutionize healthcare end-to-end, from automated scanning of medical images, to providing virtual assistance for mental health and physical illness. In this article, we look at the business models developed by 5 such leading startups in this segment
In the last two articles in the series on AI in Healthcare, we looked at the challenges and opportunities AI technologies present in healthcare, and where they have been most effective so far. While the insights were from a global perspective (largely focussed on the US markets), the AI reality in India’s healthcare sector is no different. If anything, it’s only more complex. Aside from the usual challenges of lack of access to healthcare, disproportionate patient to doctor ratio and high treatment costs, the country also faces unique caste-based challenges (women in some rural parts are denied healthcare), lack of native data for AI devices (owing to handwritten doctor prescriptions, lack of a centralized EHS systems and patients visiting multiple doctors for the same ailment), low healthcare spends (health sector spend was 1.2% to 1.6% of GDP in 2018-19) and the like. These challenges especially came to the forefront when the country was hit by the pandemic. To begin with, India lacked adequate hospital beds, testing facilities and surveillance systems to get by.
However, this pandemic also became a turning point for the Government, hospitals and AI startups to work together towards building a universal healthcare system to curb the spread and cure the disease. For example, the Madurai Government installed its CCTV cameras with software to detect those who violated healthcare norms in public places and issued them with warnings (with a photo as evidence of violation). DRDO developed ATMAN.AI, an AI driven, web-based COVID detection software which uses chest X-rays to classify images as pneumonia, COVID-19 and normal. Accenture and Microsoft collaborated with Digital India Corporation to launch an AI chatbot called MyGov Saathi to provide citizens with accurate information on COVID-19. In terms of investments, AI startups raised a total of US $836.3 million in funding last year. This was supplemented by the launch of the National Digital Health Mission, a major step towards universal health coverage, by the Prime Minister of India last year.
In India, where the doctor to patient ratio today is 1:1511 people, as opposed to the 1:1000 recommended by WHO, AI, ML and other digital technologies could play a pivotal role in helping India fall within the recommended standards in the coming years. In fact, working in the background, quietly and surely, are many Indian AI startups that have been making promising strides in ensuring affordable healthcare for all. Who these startups are and how they’re doing it is what we will be exploring in this article.
SigTuple: Digitizing Slides & Fostering Telemedicine
Co-founded by Tathagato Rai Dastidar, SigTuple’s goal is to make the life of a doctor easier by using AI to automate screening and analysis of medical data (mainly in pathology and ophthalmology). The company currently offers five products; Shonit (an automated peripheral blood smear analyzer), Shrava (an automated urine slide analyzer), Aadi (an automated semen sample analyzer), Digitizer (a digital scanner that scans slides, stores the image and aids in telemedicine), and Drishti (a cloud-based AI system which analyses images from a Fundus camera to screen diabetic retinopathy).
Recently, this Bengaluru-based startup was in the news for helping a hospital in remote parts of Tamil Nadu analyze blood samples for those suffering from sickle cell anemia. SigTuple claims that with Shonit, it was able to bring down the turnaround time of lab tests for this hospital from two days to less than 15 minutes.
Niramai: A low-cost, non-invasive breast cancer screening software
Niramai stands for Noninvasive Risk Assessment for Machine Intelligence. Simply put, the company has developed a low-cost, radiation-free, non-touch software-based medical device to detect breast cancer in women. What makes it popular is its ability to detect cancer faster than self-examination, and at a lower cost than traditional diagnostics. After being successful in the Indian market, with its device being used by large hospitals like HCG and Apollo, the company has recently announced that it has received the required certifications to expand its base into the Europe and US markets.
Perfint: Developing robotic systems to aid physicians in minimally invasive surgeries
Perfint has been in the healthcare play for more than a decade now. Founded in 2005, the company offers three products; Maxio, Robio Ex and Navios, all robotic systems which help physicians perform cancer biopsies, remove tumors and CT-guided ablation procedures. By 2015, the company’s systems had been used for 1,500 procedures in India and abroad.
Wysa: Building an intelligent listening and guidance platform for better mental health
In recent years, a handful of platforms have been developed for people to login anonymously and vent out their feelings, be it loneliness, depression, anxiety or more. While these platforms have actual humans reading and responding to them as a friend, the founders of Wysa took it one step further by connecting respondents with intelligent bots that use evidence-based cognitive behavioral techniques, breathing, yoga and other actions to listen to the user and help him/her build mental resilience. Privacy is key in Wysa, and the platform is built first for listening, and then for therapy services if he/she is ready. Today, the platform has 3 million users from 65 different countries, and the platform is mostly free for users.
In 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak, Lybrate, the online doctor consultation platform saw 60% increase in bookings. Founded in 2014, the platform enables users to book doctor appointments for themselves and their family. In fact, its chat platform even allows users to share medical reports and prescriptions online and get connected with the right doctor for diagnosis and consultation.
These are just five among the many healthcare AI startups (4000+ active healthtech startups according to some sources) that have been founded in the last few years in India. The spike in interest in India’s healthcare sector is particularly owing to the wide gap between caretakers and caregivers, and the need for remote healthcare accelerated by the pandemic and lockdowns. With NITI Aayog promising that the country will meet the accepted doctor to patient ratio by 2024, it will be interesting to see how the industry will culminate and collaborate in its efforts to take healthcare even to the remotest parts of the country.