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BW Businessworld

Profiting From Changing Lives

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Finding start-ups that are changing the lives of people is a hard step to take. There are some that go that extra mile to tell the world that there is merit in creating businesses that change lives.  The Unitus Seed Fund, which is a $23 million fund, has made finding social entrepreneurs easy. However, the fund managers are humble enough to say that India can produce many more ideas that are relevant in a mobile first world to solve social problems. With more than 300 million smartphones hitting the Indian market by 2018, USF can create great businesses. Its three-year track record has already set things rolling with investments in sectors like education, mobile commerce and retail. Dave Richards, the managing partner of the fund, spoke with BW|Businessworld about their endless quest to create social impact.
 
A decade ago your equity fund took risks in microfinance and created a change in India, you showed everyone that microfinance can make money. Does the same philosophy follow this fund with the proliferation of mobile technology?
 
Yes we want to set a similar trend. We want to back entrepreneurs that can change the other India, a sizeable population that is yet to experience the internet. A decade ago we saw our investee companies build technology that could capture payments on remote devices and send information back from the village to the central operations centre. Now with mobile phones, and growing network infrastructure, we can build new businesses for challenges that were never addressed better. For example, in health care, we have invested in a company called Welcare Health Systems. They create affordable eye screening solutions. All the data captured on diabetic retinopathy, a disease which can lead to blindness is captured real time and sent to doctors on a real time basis. The company can easily integrate a mobile solutions play. Similarly we have invested a market place for health services which can bring transparency in connecting hospitals to patients. This can have a mobile device play too. However in healthcare there are underlying challenges, in the Indian system, because of the unaccounted for cash transactions in the ecosystem. This is still difficult to break. That said there is a chance for technology to create transparency.
 
What about education and other retail services?
Hippocampus is a company that has changed the way we look at rural education. They are a rural kindergarten learning centre. The data suggests that 60 per cent of rural children do not finish school. This company has already created more than 100 learning centres and is targeting the rural masses who can pay Rs 250 a month. Think about the solutions and technology intervention here in the long run. This company is making a serious impact and will eventually send more kids to schools in rural areas. The fund’s interest is also to look at agriculture. Supply chain is a key part of India’s growth in the future. One of our portfolio companies makes organic agri-input. They help farmers improve the soil and make it ready for organic farming. Then we have a retail company that connects rural artisans to customers. This is a Rs 16,000-crore opportunity. We have invested in 16 companies and we have several business plans sent to us.
 
What about mobile first businesses?
Mobile internet is a key here. Majority of India will access internet on phones and this will change the way information is consumed and services will be very important here. We have three portfolio companies that use mobile to deliver low cost services in the city. They are mGaadi, JiffStore and Blowhorn. All these companies address the local commuter to connect with his rickshaws. The second company provides a mobile solution for small stores and the last one connects businesses to move product across the city and deliver to customers. These businesses will build more services on top of the mobile. We believe this will be the fastest growing segment in the country.
 
Tell me a bit about the fund and the support you have had?
It has been great. We have nine start-up scouts across the country and they are the ones who bring the maximum number of ideas to the table. We have several top senior fund advisors from across the world. As you know we have big names as fund investors; to name a few for the global fund are investors like the Lemelson Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation. Then we have local investors for the seed fund and they include names like Mohan Das Pai and Ranjan Pai among many others. Today investors across the world are looking at India because of the sheer opportunity and challenges it presents. I must tell you that, since you had asked me about skilling, it is very important to create employable people in this country. We have already invested in a company that can help people in soft skill development --  especially for commerce students -- to help them land jobs. The fund will look at profitable businesses ideas in the rural and urban poor areas.