18/11/2015 8:45 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Driving Innovation For A Healthier India

SANJAY KANOJIA via Getty Images
Young Indian child Laxmi (L) carries a broom and hoe as she walks with her mother after working at the site of the annual traditional fair Magh Mela at Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati in Allahabad on January 2, 2015. The Magh Mela which is known as a mini-Kumbh Mela is scheduled to start January 5 and continue until February 17 with auspicious bathing dates throughout the 45 day period. AFP PHOTO/SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

The time period set by the nations of the world in 2000 for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) comes to an end in December. Leaders from around the world met at the United Nations General Assembly in September to review the progress made and adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. Here I want to posit that encouraging and fostering innovation and research is crucial to achieving these goals.

In the past two decades, the world has witnessed unparalleled advancements in enhancing the quality of life for millions. Healthcare services employing innovative service delivery models and modern technology have improved the global rates for poverty, child mortality and burden of disease significantly. Child mortality rates have declined by more than half and the number of people living in extreme poverty has come down from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015.

"Healthcare services employing innovative service delivery models and modern technology have improved the global rates for poverty, child mortality and burden of disease significantly."

Although there has been significant progress in terms of improving the lives of people around the globe, a number of health problems still plague the world, especially in developing countries. In India, the extreme poverty, the high number of maternal and child deaths and the huge infectious diseases burden are major causes for concern and need to be addressed on a firm war-footing. Health innovations to develop low-cost and high-impact solutions, keeping in mind the ground realities in India, need to be supported.

Driving innovation to improve health and well-being

To harness the vast research potential in India, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), Department of Biotechnology and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the Grand Challenges India (GCI) initiative in 2013 to promote and cultivate health innovation in the country. Under the initiative, the DBT and the Gates Foundation pledged an investment of up to US$25 million each, over five years, to promote innovations in vaccines, drugs, agricultural products and interventions related to improving maternal and child health.

Three grant programmes under the GCI initiative, "Achieving Healthy Growth through Agriculture and Nutrition" or Ag-Nu, "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" and "All Children Thriving" are collectively supporting 17 research projects. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a partner for the agriculture component.

The ongoing grantee projects have shown remarkable progress in terms of empowering communities and delivering progressive results which can be replicated on a larger scale. For example, in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, a grantee project under the Ag-Nu grant involves the integration of fish farming with livestock production and farming of agricultural crops creating an ecofriendly farming system which is devoid of artificial fertilisers. Knowledge, equipment and the functioning of such an integrated farming system has been shared with 150 women small-holder farmers. The use of organic fertiliser has increased crop yield, decreased the input cost for fertiliser and has ensured that soil fertility remains high. On a team visit to the site in July, the women farmers expressed their satisfaction and hailed the initiative as life-changing, which is truly inspiring and exciting.

BIRAC and the Gates Foundation aim to encourage research to solve India's most troubling problems, i.e. open defecation and stunted growth in children through the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" and the "All Children Thriving" programmes. At the 4th Innovator's meeting held in Manesar on 15-16 September, the awardees of the "All Children Thriving" grant were announced. This grant encourages development of solutions to reduce pre-term births, stunted post-natal growth and impaired cognitive development in Indian children.

"MLM innovation, or More (value) for Less (cost) for More (people)... is particularly relevant to our country."

Another novel programme by BIRAC was the launch of Sparsh -- Social Innovation Programme for Products Affordable and Relevant to Societal Health -- in 2013. The Sparsh programme was launched with the intent of developing solutions aligned with MDG 4, 5 and 7, i.e., reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and sanitation. Under the programme, a pool of social innovators has been created who are being mentored to understand product needs, supported in prototype development and assisted in creating concrete business plans to present to potential investors. The amount committed as seed fund is around US$ 1.1 million.

BIRAC through a member of other grant schemes -- BIG (Biotechnology Ignition Grant), BIPP (Biotechnology Industry Partnership Programme), SBIRI (Small Business Innovation Research Initiative), and CRS (Contract Research Scheme) is supporting a number of young innovators, start-ups and SMEs for discovery-led innovation research leading for affordable product development. A total of 350 start-ups and SMEs and 155 young entrepreneurs have delivered 23 affordable products, 20 new technologies and approximately 50 new IPs.

Create in India

Dr RA Mashelkar coined the term MLM innovation, or More (value) for Less (cost) for More (people). This is particularly relevant to our country.

The problems India faces are enormous but they can be solved through frugal solutions. The government continues to move forward with the creation of policy instruments such as those that support the Make in India movement and promote development. An "Innovation Marketplace" to engage international and regional organisations, corporates, universities and research institutes to induce an atmosphere of research in the country can help empower communities and bolster the country's fight against disease and preventable death.

As a country brimming with talent and creativity, India should strive to create a conducive "innovation ecosystem" where innovation across different areas that need changes in processes is encouraged and inventiveness/creative confidence is praised and supported.

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