Business Today

Social entrepreneurs: Profiting from Service

Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

At the Delhi office of World Health Partners, a non-government organisation, a doctor monitors the temperature, blood pressure and pulse readings of a new mother and prescribes her some medicines and tests for her stomach ache. Nothing unusual, except that the patient, Rizwana Khatoon, 22, is sitting in a village in Bihar's East Champaran district. How did they interact? Through a video conference the US-based NGO arranged between its Delhi office and its telemedicine centre in the village.

World Health Partners conducts more than 100 such consultations a day for patients in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for as little as Rs 30. The conferences are managed by Bangalore-based Neurosynaptic Communications, which offers a package of remote health-care delivery solutions called ReMeDi.

Neurosynaptic provides this facility for a fee at 1,350 centres in eight states, partnering with NGOs such as World Health Partners, as well as private hospitals which have outreach programmes, and governmentrun public health centres in villages Neurosynaptic was founded in 2002 by Sameer Sawarkar and Rajeev Kumar. "We want to make a difference in places where it is impossible for doctors to reach patients," says Kumar. The company started as a tiny outfit from the incubation centre of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The journey for these former engineers at Motorola India Electronics has been hard. "We spent three years up to 2005 understanding the village ecosystem," recalls Kumar. "We knew formal channels never work in these terrains. Eventually, in 2008, we got our first scalable project with World Health Partners."

Sawarkar and Kumar are part of a growing breed of social entrepreneurs who start businesses not just to make profits but also to find innovative solutions to the problems of the underprivileged. A younger entrant in the area is Vistaar Financial Services. The Bangalorebased company provides loans to small businessmen, such as powerloom or grocery store owners, who find it difficult to get bank funding.

Social entrepreneurs start businesses not just to make profits but also to find innovative solutions to the problems of the underprivileged

Rs 60 cr loan portfolio of vistaar financial services which supports small businessmen

Founded by first-generation entrepreneurs Brahmanand Hegde and Ramakrishna Nistala, it aims to increase its loan portfolio to Rs 1,600 crore in four years from Rs 60 crore now. "Aspiring entrepreneurs are now more aware of the developmental challenges our society faces," says Sidhartha Tata, Agriculture Portfolio Manager at investing firm Acumen Fund. "In general, people are more accepting now of market-based solutions to fight poverty."

Support is also coming from big corporate houses. The software-to-auto giant Mahindra Group, in August 2011, launched the Mahindra Rise initiative to support serviceoriented ideas in energy, infrastructure, agriculture, transportation and rural development. B. Karthik, Senior General Manager, Corporate Brand Management, Mahindra Group, says 7,000 ideas have so far landed. Mahindra gives a grant of up to Rs 40 lakh per venture. It has supported 48 so far with a total of Rs 3 crore.

Social entrepreneurs are also aware that the impact of their innovations is not the only factor investors look at while funding. "There is a recognition that grants and donations are finite," says Acumen's Tata. "A number of non-profits make their models financially sustainable."

Neurosynaptic, for instance, mobilised funding from early-stage venture firm Ventureast in 2003 and 2006, but has been self-sustainable for the past four years.

Taslima Khan

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