A man with a mission and the collective will to make science work for those who need it the most. Bionic Yantra is India’s first medical robotics company that aims to use cutting-edge technology to solve real human problems. This Made-in-India product was created to cater to the needs of the differently abled in India and abroad.
Here’s a candid conversation with the Bionic Yantra Founders on the trials and successes of being social entrepreneurs.
Q. The story of how Bionic Yantra came about contains many life changing events for the founders personally. Walk us through what happened in the years before you decided to create Bionic Yantra?
A sudden auto-immune condition in 2007 left our co -founder Vaidyanathan Narayanan a.k.a. Vaidy’s cousin paralyzed (waist downwards). Despite efforts to help him with a wheelchair, in a few years his cousin developed pressure sores (owing to not standing/walking) and this shook Vaidy deeply. He redoubled his efforts to try to get him to walk.
Around this time, he connected with Dr. Arun Jayaraman of the Rehab Institute of Chicago (RIC), who was an expert in rehabilitation of paralyzed people. He also noticed that at the inauguration ceremony of the FIFA world cup 2014, a paralyzed lady skier was walking using an exoskeleton (a rigid external covering for the body in some invertebrate animals).
However, the price was a formidable 200,000 USD – rendering the product un-affordable to most people.Simultaneously, Vaidy also reached out to a team in IIT-Madras who were building a standing wheelchair prototype with Dr. Arun.
The team worked on this device from 2014-2016 and did a field trial on his cousin in April 2016. Vaidy recorded the event on video and sent it to Arun who was extremely excited to see the device. The two decided to meet later that year in order to have a better look at this prototype. Vaidy requested two other people Shiva (a former colleague) and Amitav (CEO of Timetooth) to attend the meeting.
A detailed chat between the four about the possibility of building a cheaper and more user-friendly device had everyone’s interest piqued. Thus, the idea of creating a company to address this opportunity was born on 24th Jun 2016 at the IIT Madras Campus!
Q. How did things move after that meeting?
The next 6 months were spent by Vaidy and Shiva doing extensive market research on the need and viability of this kind of product.
The overwhelming response across the respondents was that it was useful, but they were skeptical whether such a hi-tech device could be built in India (especially led by 2 people who were not robotics experts).
Shiva (after 20 years in various MNCs) was bored with the routine (and somewhat bureaucratic) functioning of corporate jobs. He was looking to do something truly useful to society and which would be fulfilling as well.
When Vaidy had called and asked him to help with some market analysis, structuring etc. Shiva agreed to do it pro bono. Shiva was initially reluctant to join full-time as he felt he would be drain on resources. But, over the next few months, Shiva’s involvement got so high that both Vaidy and Shiva decided to incorporate a company and thus was born Bionic Yantra in 2017.
Q. Did you have any local model to emulate, when you create Bionic Yantra? What about global examples?
No, there were no local companies to emulate. Globally most exoskeleton ccompanies usually started with other use cases (Iron-man, augmented soldier etc.) and stumbled onto rehab as a use case after several years. Bionic Yantra was probably the only exoskeleton company that started with the rehab use case.
Q. You have several high-profile partners including the Indian Spinal Injury Centre. How easy or difficult was it to convince them to come on-board with your idea & product?
Vaidy and Shiva together have over 40 years of experience – but not in any area related to healthcare or robotics. However, this area of robotic rehabilitation needs expertise spread across (at least) 4 disciplines in Engineering; Mechanical engineering, Controls Engineering, Electronics Engineering and Software Engineering as also 3 disciplines in medicine, namely, Orthopedics, Neurology & Physiotherapy.
It’s impossible for one individual to possess expertise in such varied and specialized fields. Hence the founders adopted a “network of experts” model – wherein partners from each area were taken on board. This reduced our execution risk and time-to-market.
The project was conceived with a vision of “improving quality of lives for the differently abled”. While it would be a commercial for-profit venture, the rationale for the company was not to generate a money-pot at the fastest, sell out and start the next adventure.In any case, getting the company to a point of stability would take 3-5 years. This vision was liked by many key people at these high-profile institutions and come on-board after ascertaining our sincerity.
Q. What are the things you think an entrepreneur in your field should be prepared for, before entering this space?
Sincerity of purpose, trust in co-founders/partners and oodles of patience are essential. Frugality is a good virtue to cultivate but one needs to support oneself adequately as well. After all, the idea of starting a venture is not to starve one’s family.
Q. What would your advice be for entrepreneurs looking to design high -end products for social good but struggling with fund availability?
There are family offices of UHNIs (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals) and Impact funds who are slightly more patient than usual VCs. However, hardware is not usually funded – most innovation is funded by friends and family, not institutions. Govt funding is low (small amounts less than 50 Lakhs) and has a long procedure to access it. In short, bootstrap sufficiently, search for aligned investors (strike rate is about 1-2%) and pray hard!
Q. How do you define success as a social entrepreneur, is it financial goals, brand recall or something else?
A social entrepreneur is someone who starts a business with a need to see social impact, rather than a pot of money or brand or personal fame. While it is essential to be commercially viable and make adequate profits, the need to become a billionaire in 3 years is probably not driving social entrepreneurs.
Q.What’s the 5-year goal for Bionic Yantra?
Bionic Yantra’s vision is to convert differently abled patients to productive assets of society. The idea is to rehabilitate the patient to enable them to recover better (at the hospital), provide a mobility device to enable them to live independently at home and finally a variant to get to office (to make them productive).
In terms of financial goals, the endeavour is to break even and sell at least 500 devices. Being India’s first medical robotics company, our ambition is to build a 100 Million $ company with valuation on par with global peers.