As we gear up for Infosys Foundation’s Aarohan Social Innovations Awards 2023, a winner of the 2019 edition speaks of how the awards gave them a platform to scale their innovation to new heights.
This article has been sponsored by Infosys Foundation.
In 2019, engineer duo Sumanth Mudaliar and Vishrut Bhatt were presented with the Aarohan Social Innovations Award by Infosys Foundation for their device Handicare.
The unique mobility device was built on the idea of helping people with lower body disabilities and was the first product developed by their startup Oneceptual Technologies, founded in 2019. While the ideation for the device began in 2015, the duo say that it was only after the Aarohan Awards that their initiative finally got the wings to take flight.
Recalling the idea that laid the foundation of this innovation, Sumanth says it all began in his final year of mechanical engineering.
He began noticing that among the people with lower limb disabilities, many would navigate roads and public places using a board and pushing their hands on the ground.
“Trying to navigate in this manner would not only bruise their hands, but also cause their clothes to tear. And needless to say, it was unhygienic,” he notes, adding that this problem was not only prevalent on the streets, but also — as he would discover through the course of the next few months — at centres that housed people with disabilities.
Wanting to come up with a solution, Sumanth was joined by his batchmate Vishrut, and the duo spent the next few months at centres in Ahmedabad, trying to understand how they could arrive at a solution.
A unique device is born
Months of experimenting and conversing with inmates to understand their needs helped the duo come up with a prototype of Handicare — a mobility device that would enable people with disabilities or those who cannot afford a wheelchair to move without touching their hands to the ground.
The device has a board on which the person can put their weight, as well as a handlebar to navigate and control speed.
“We developed the device in 2016 and gave it to 100 people to use for two months. These were people who had lower limb disabilities. The idea was for them to try and test it out before we finalised the design, and we did get a lot of feedback,” he notes.
“For instance, one feedback was that the board was too heavy, it was 10 kg at the time. Another was that the structure of the device made it tough for users to take it into the washroom,” explains Sumanth.
The duo spent the next few months reevaluating the specifics of the device and modifying it to weigh less — 6 kg — while also structuring it to make it more aerodynamic, such that it wouldn’t be a problem in small spaces.
To make this possible, Sumanth says they changed the steering from round to flat, enhancing speed and performance in the process.
“We also altered the thickness of the board from the previous 19 mm to a marine board of 12 mm thickness. Having a marine board also ensured that the board did not swell up during the rain or when exposed to water,” notes Sumanth.
Once these alterations were complete, the duo decided to have their devices tested from a medical perspective and started giving them to civil hospitals across Ahmedabad, which housed people with disabilities.
“While our earlier testing period was around 10 days, this time we had people use the device for six months to know of any performance-related issues they faced. We then went through the entire process and re-engineered the device as our aim was always simple from the start — to make something that people could use on a daily basis,” he notes.
Elaborating on the final design, he says there are handlebars that the user can wiggle, which helps the front wheels move forward due to friction. The greater the friction, the more easily the device moves. For higher speeds, all the user needs to do is move the handlebars more frequently.
In January 2019, Sumanth and Vishrut were finally ready with their innovation and launched their company Onceptual Technologies.
Taking home the Aarohan Award
Sumanth notes that while their startup was up and running, the Aarohan Awards in February 2019 changed everything.
“We got to know about the awards through LinkedIn and filled out the form, which had a list of questions on the kind of impact we wanted to create through our innovation. In January, we got a call to say our innovation had been shortlisted and we pitched in front of a team of judges alongside 20 other startups,” says Sumanth.
In February 2019, they were notified by Infosys that they had been selected for the final round to pitch the idea to a panel, including author, philanthropist and chairperson of Infosys Foundation Sudha Murthy.
“Standing in front of her is, to date, the highlight of our Aarohan journey,” says Sumanth. “She has an incredible sense of humility, and though she is such a big personality, she remembered us and our idea from the first round.”
The opportunity gave the duo a chance to kickstart their company, they say.
“Prior to being awarded, we had never had an investment before, and no one knew of Handicare. But the Rs 15 lakh we won helped us set up our manufacturing facility and tie up with other suppliers who could help us in the venture. We could also set our sights on a range of other products that would assist people with disabilities in leading a comfortable life,” Sumanth says.
For instance, they came up with the Mobula in 2020.
“This is a multipurpose electric scooter for people with disabilities, or the elderly who can’t walk. What sets the Mobula apart from other assistive scooters is that it can be used both indoors as well as outdoors, and in narrow spaces as well. It can run 25 km on a single charge.”
He adds that through their innovations, they are not only looking at providing mobility to people with disabilities, but also ways in which they can use the innovation to generate employment for themselves.
The duo emphasise that their products are for everyone. Today, Handicare is being used by “5000 customers pan-India”. “We simply started out with the aim of solving a problem. Today we have built a dream out of that,” says Sumanth.