‘Flight Of The Unicorns’ is out!

From the backside blurb of the book —


The years 2015 and 2016 were watershed years in the history of the Indian start-up ecosystem. Not only did the word ‘start-up’ enter common parlance as large sums of money were poured in, several firms also achieved the fabled ‘unicorn’ status of billion-dollar valuation. However, immediately afterwards, the exuberance disappeared as the bubble burst and the very viability of these celebrated ventures came into question. And with it, began a new era.

This book took me on a journey through startup ecosystems of India, Indonesia, Singapore, in my attempt at unearthing business model patterns that tend to work.

After a two and half year effort, here it is finally. The book is divided into three sections.

Part 1 deals with the story of the ecosystem’s evolution, and the narratives that emerged from it. Part 2 deals with a revisiting of the idea of startups, and deep-dive into the patterns in success, models that seem to work based on a deeper understanding of the subcontinent. Part 3 dives into the future trends that are emerging, and how they can be applied to the challenges that India and other emerging markets present.

Amazon India has started delivering, and it will hit most of the popular bookstores around in the country very soon. Exciting!

10 books that are the inspiration behind my latest work


My latest work – Flight Of The Unicorns – is meant for entrepreneurs who are keen on understanding the nuances of Indian startup ecosystem, what works and what doesn’t, and trends they need to watch out for.

Along with being an author, I am an entrepreneur; it is a lifestyle choice I made over a decade ago. Many of the theories I have presented in this book have been formed through years of dealing with the market and working with startups in this part of the world.

However, a lot of the inspiration behind this book comes from existing work by stellar authors, some who inspire entrepreneurs to being their journey, and others who have shaped the thinking behind startups through their work.

Here are the top 10 amongst the numerous books I have gone through when writing my own:

  1. The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
  2. Zero to One: Note on Start Ups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
  3. Platform Scale: How an emerging business model helps startups build large empires with minimum investment by Sangeet Paul Choudary
  4. The Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms by David S. Evans and Richard Schmalensee
  5. The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank
  6. The Golden Tap – The Inside Story of Hyper-Funded Indian Start-Ups by Kashyap Deorah
  7. Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston
  8. The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly
  9. Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton Christensen
  10. Stay Hungry Stay Foolish by Rashmi Bansal

I could list 90 more very easily, but I will stop at these for now and get back to working on my next.

How Deep Learning AI can help solve India’s biggest challenge in healthcare


In my most recent book, Flight Of The Unicorns, I touched upon the incredible capabilities of one of the most recent innovations in AI: Deep Learning. Unless you have been living in a basement, you are probably already aware of this.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Deep learning systems are great at performing three core tasks: classify, cluster and predict. Classification, for instance, can help identify spam emails and send them to spam folder. Prediction algorithms, on the other hand, can help e-commerce companies develop more accurate recommendation engines. Clustering, for example, can help identify similar photograph from massive datasets. Researchers and companies are now trying to build self-driving cars using the technology, for instance in solving the problem of image recognition in real-time so that the car is better aware and can navigate through its surroundings. Deep Learning has given Skype instant translation capabilities. When applied on a robot dog, it was found to walk very much like the living ones.

There is a big worry amongst a lot of thinkers that such a powerful system can replace thousands of jobs, especially the ones that large involve decision making based on pattern recognition (turns out, this is one of the primary abilities of our brain). This fear is not misplaced, as the efficiency improvements this technology brings itself would force companies to adopt it to stay competitive.

India’s terrible doctor-patient ratio

However, there is a big positive impact that this technology can offer: solving India’s perennial scarcity of medical staff. Consider this as a fact: India has one of the worst doctor-patient ratios in the world. Medical Council of India has pointed out, “The total number of doctors in India is much smaller than the official figure and we may have one doctor per 2,000 population, if not more.” A visit any of the well-known hospitals in India presents a scary picture — thousands of patients waiting for the doctor’s time.

A large part of the challenge is the lack of facilities for early warning, prevention and diagnosis. If we just focus on this problem to start with, it really boils down to creating systems that spot erratic patterns in lab test results, something that Deep Learning systems are showing incredible promise in. Furthermore, AI has the ability of processing far more data that learn from the latest research far better than any human doctor.

The solution

An example of a breakthrough in this front is IBM Watson powered cancer diagnostics system.

Human experts at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine tested Watson by having the AI analyze 1,000 cancer diagnoses. In 99 percent of the cases, Watson was able to recommend treatment plans that matched actual suggestions from oncologists. Not only that, but because it can read and digest thousands of documents in minutes, Watson found treatment options human doctors missed in 30 percent of the cases. The AI’s processing power allowed it to take into account all of the research papers or clinical trials that the human oncologists might not have read at the time of diagnosis.

(Read more here.)

For entrepreneurs interested in healthcare domain, there is no better time than now to catch the wave and create some of the early innovations in this space.

Forus Health is one such startup which managed to do so, and I have written about them in my book. Especially interesting is their approach towards creating a portable eye testing device that is battery operated, and can be carried to villages. In the future, if such devices could be attached to AI-driven pattern recognition systems, it could offer treatment advise, which the doctors optionally vet and offer to patients, thereby cutting their time and effort drastically, and also making more informed decision. This could impact lives of millions who go without any access to healthcare.

Another example in lines of IBM Watson is the recent research at the Stanford University and iRhythm Technologies, who have developed a model using CNNs (Convolutional Neural Networks) to detect irregular heart rhythms, and have shown that their model outperforms the cardiologist average. Read more about it here: Cardiologist-Level Arrhythmia Detection With Convolutional Neural Networks, by Pranav Rajpurkar*, Awni Hannun*, Masoumeh Haghpanahi, Codie Bourn, and Andrew Ng.

Is it a good problem to take on?

Consider the economics of such a solution. Typically, e-commerce startups in India have faced the challenge of growth once they penetrated the upper income strata. The growth plateaued, and with that came the realization that a large portion of the country is still below the poverty line, and an even bigger chunk only spends in essentials. Healthcare happens to be one such essential — if one can offer a healthcare solution at a low price point, it has a massive potential target market.

The challenge with such a startup, however, is that it requires investment into R&D, something that seed stage investors in India are generally averse to. The investment landscape in India is still very nascent: while VC firms like Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB) had already started operating in the US from early 1970s, India saw investors enter only within the last ten years, and there is a long way to go before the ecosystem matures. While there are some rare few cases of such investment, generally it is quite challenging to raise funds when the startup doesn’t have a revenue potential for a while. When investment is this risk-averse, it is fatal for most big ideas.

Yet, as with most high-risk, high-return startups, if a startup does manage to harness the technology early on and actually prove that it works on the ground without too much dependency on early investment, the possibilities are endless and only sky is the limit for such a company. And the most important thing is, while making money, it would end up solving a deep rooted problem of the country.

Swadhaar Saathi wins $100,000 from MetLife Foundation

Swadhaar Saathi, the app that we made last year for Swadhaar FinAccess, has won the MetLife Foundation’s Inclusion Plus competition, amongst 100 other entries. Read more here.

MUMBAI, India, May 1, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — Swadhaar Saathi has been announced winner of the MetLife Foundation Inclusion Plus competition in India. The competition was open to entrepreneurs, businesses and non-profit organisations and aimed to discover innovative solutions to promote financial capability and access to financial services in India. With more than 100 entries, Swadhaar Saathi won the grand prize with its money management application and collected a grant of $100,000.

Cracking digital literacy barrier in India is a hard problem, and our approach seems to have found some traction — something we are very proud of.

Here’s a video interview with the CEO of Swadhaar FinAccess on eve of the win.

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Vernacular Financial Literacy Modules

One of the biggest challenges when creating products for the larger India is the abysmal state of alpha-literacy: essentially, a large segment of the population cannot read or write alphabetic characters, but can understand numbers.

To reach such a segment, there is only one real approach: using audio-visual means to convey the message. When MFIN India brought us in to create vernacular financial literacy modules, we decided to step back and rethink our approach based on the constraints presented:

  1. The modules should work in low data connections.
  2. The language switching in the module should happen consistently once the user has selected the base language.
  3. It should be highly audio-visual, and avoid use of text.
  4. It should be low cost – for the approach to be scalable and sustainable in the long run.

We recreated the audio-visual player in our mobile app, to work with a sequence of images and audio track, which made it extremely low on bandwidth requirements. Furthermore, the language picker smartly switches the app language and the literacy modules, and presents the user with streamlined view. The modules themselves have been developed in five languages.

Our work was showcased at MFIN’s recent pan-Asia microfinance event, and following is the video version of one of the modules we presented. You can see how simple sequence of images with a smart audio track can convey extremely indepth information, perhaps far more than brochures or other such means.

Including The Excluded – film on microfinance industry in India

The fantastic folks at MFIN India wanted us to create a film around the current state of microfinance industry in India. The production took us into the deep remotes of four states in India – Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam – where we shot this film under constrained electricity and tough travel conditions.

The final product was screened to a full audience as an opening film of the SAMN Conference.