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The Crusaders: As Covid-19 Surges, Indian Startups Fight Back With Genomics, Ingenuity & Tech

The Crusaders: As Covid-19 Surges, Indian Startups Fight Back With Genomics, Ingenuity & Tech

Addressing the most pressing needs, startups are looking to meet the shortage of medical equipment

MapMyGenome and DNA Xperts are among the startups making Covid-19 testing affordable

Deeptech startups Supervue.ai, Dimension NXG, and Mozark are working to improve monitoring

As the number of cases in India skyrocketed to over 60,000 this week, many Indians returned to work as the economy opened up gingerly. Last week, the government announced a further extension of the lockdown till May 17, and while things are turning uglier for the economy as well as for startups, there are some bright sparks as well.

Many startups are facing serious financial problems. Yet, their spirit of innovation is creating solutions that have proven effective in the battle against coronavirus. While some biotech startups developed solutions to bolster the healthcare infrastructure, deeptech startups are coming up with new-age tech to fight Covid-19.

From manufacturing low-cost ventilators to developing augmented reality (AR) based solutions, Indian startups have lifted their innovation game in this crucial time. In the past month, startups such as MyLab, Bione, Redcliffe Life Sciences, among others developed Covid-19 testing kits, while AgVa and Biodesign met the demand for ventilators across the country.

Solving A Potential Ventilator Crisis

As of now, India has around 50K ventilators, which are used for the most severe cases. However, with over 2K new active cases being added each day for the past week, the capacity might be strained in the days to come. Bengaluru and US-based Cradlewise is joining the startups looking to address the shortage of ventilators.

Cradlewise, which usually makes baby cribs with smart sensors, has developed a simple ventilator splitter so that fewer ventilators would be needed. A splitter allows a ventilator to be used by two patients simultaneously, and Cradlewise’s solution can cater to multiple different pressure settings. “There is a potential to extend the same to even four patients,” said founder and CEO Radhika Patil.

A prototype of Cradlewise’s splitter has already been tested at the Tata Memorial Hospital and Manipal Hospital, Bengaluru. The company is planning to launch the product at a scalable level soon.

Tracing Covid-19 Through Genomics

Meanwhile, MapMyGenome founder Anu Acharya, Duke Sanford School of Public Policy’s Manoj Mohanan are working on ‘Project PCR Sample Pooling’ that aims to enable mass-scale testing of Covid-19 by making it more affordable. The team is aiming to reduce the costs of testing by 60-80%. A fully operational research team supported by state health workers is also working on the project.

The objective is to reduce the strain on the system by pooling and testing a higher number of samples through reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technique. The project is aiming to find possible hotspots in Karnataka to ramp up testing. It has received a grant of INR 53 Lakhs from Action Covid-19 Team (ACT).

Noida-based biotech startup DNA Xperts has also developed a testing kit which can increase the total number of tests by reducing the time taken per test. While most testing kits used in India take around 2.5 hours to produce results, DNA Xperts claims its ‘Covido’ test takes just 58 minutes to test a sample. The startup is incubated at the state-run Centre for Cellular And Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP).

The indigenously-developed PCR kit detects the presence of SARS CoV-2 RNA in the sample. The startup has already implemented the technology in a few commercial instruments and claims to have got substantial results. The startup manufactures kits locally in India.

Genomics startup HaystackAnalytics is looking to trace the transmission of coronavirus in India but through a completely different technology. The Mumbai-based company is looking to understand the transmission patterns of the virus and help the government plan a better strategy to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The startup is sequencing the genome of the coronavirus, which will aid in vaccine creation and blocking transmission. A genome contains genetic data of an organism and sequencing the genome helps researchers to get around 30K data points per sample. Using the data points, HaystackAnalytics wants to trace the source of transmission in cities by studying samples of all patients.

Founder of HaystackAnalytics Anirvan Chatterjee said that the startup is using DNA fingerprinting to trace the recent common ancestor of the virus. “Theoretically, we can draw the entire trace of the virus back to Wuhan. This means that the transmission chain can be drawn out,” he added.

Globally, many studies have shown that transmission of the virus is different in every country. For instance, every Covid-19 patient in Washington can be traced back to a single individual while multiple transmission points have been reported in Italy.

Chatterjee said that the need to understand the transmission in India has arrived. According to him, understanding the Covid-19 spread between states will help the government to strategise actions against Covid-19. “For example, if there is a cluster transmission in a place, a complete lockdown may not be necessary and containing the virus in the cluster will do,” he added.

Smart Cameras Enforce Social Distancing

In the fight against the coronavirus, social distancing has proven to be somewhat effective as seen in the case of India so far. While testing rates in India do not match other countries, experts say the hard lockdown may result in fewer cases than the US, Italy, and Spain.

But considering the ease of restrictions in the third lockdown, it would seem the government has decided to live with coronavirus. It has allowed many state-run and private companies to restart operations from offices. With the workforce going back to the office, life is expected to return to something resembling normal, but pockets of the country are still categorised as red zones, where there are more restrictions. Some cities have mandated face masks and social distancing is being enforced where it can be.

Startups are also pitching in through cutting-edge tech in enforcing these norms. Supervue.ai has built a tool that monitors if people are following social distancing or not. Its software ensures that people are standing at a safe distance by monitoring CCTV camera feeds. It alerts authorities if any two people are found to be standing close enough.

Supervue.Ai CEO Raja Konathala said the software has been installed in some of the society compounds and is connected to a speaker which alarms people to maintain some distance if they come close.

Supervue.ai

The startup has also developed an attendance system which is based on facial recognition, eliminating the need for a fingerprint scanner or a book register. Minimising human interfacing and contact is one of the primary goals for businesses these days as they return to the office.

Hyderabad-based Tericsoft has also launched an AI-based computer vision that if installed on a CCTV camera can detect if people within the frame are showing Covid-19 symptoms or not. For instance, the camera detects if anyone on the frame is coughing.

The technology also detects if a person is not wearing a mask or not. It also detects how many people are present within the frame and if they are maintaining social distancing or not. The cameras also keep track of the number of people entering and leaving the premises while monitoring their body temperatures.

AR, AI Tools Form First Line Of Defence

Body temperature is often used for a symptom check at points of screening, but screening thousands can take hours. Thane-based Dimension NXG, which operates under the name AjnaLens, is developing thermal scanning glasses to help the government, universities and private organisations check the body temperatures of people entering the premises at a large scale.

Dimension NXGRight now, most authorities and businesses are using laser guns to check body temperature. But this is time-consuming and only one person can be checked at a time. AjnaLens’ solution scans temperature in the real-time, and displays it to the wearer with an augmented overlay on the glasses.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Mozark is helping the department of telecommunications (DoT) in building an open platform to monitor the situation by leveraging telecom data.

The platform monitors individuals that have been ordered to be under quarantine, identify the location and the population density of infection, monitor public spaces, retrace patient movements and geofence quarantined locations to alert authorities of breaches.

States can get authorisation from DoT to integrate Mozark’s war room technology. It is said to be compliant to GDPR norms — Mozark claims that the startup is using best practices used in France to track patients.

Startups Innovate To Make Living With Covid Easy

As the government decided to live with the virus, startups are now aiming to develop solutions that can curb the spread as lockdown rules ease in many areas. In countries like China, robotics and deep-tech helped the country to ease its life towards normalcy.

Similarly, Indian startups must be exploring options on how they would be making it easier for the government to allow and encourage people to come back to work again. For instance, startups such as Asimov Robotics and Milagrow Humantech already developed robots that come handy in the post-Covid world while offerings of Supervue.ai, Dimension NXG and Tericsoft might play a crucial role in the road towards normalcy.