Intro: This time on the Socio Economic Voices, we have Vishal Anand, Socio-Entrepreneur & Co-Founder, Shoolini University, Himachal Pradesh, in an intense interaction on education and healthcare policies in India that need a boost. Speaking to senior journalist Mahima Sharma, he asserts that as a nation with still millions below the poverty line - we need to focus on quality & inclusiveness, in both the sectors. He adds that India has good policies like the NEP, but what is needed is strong and far reaching implementation of the same.
MS: From being an educationist to now being a Social entrepreneur in the Healthcare Sector. Why and how did this amalgamation happen? And how will India be benefited at large via the social entrepreneurship program that you have embarked on?
VA: When we talk about Social Entrepreneurship, think of an enterprise that enables a large section of the society & improves its way of life. Yes, education & research institutions are a clear example as they work as a great equaliser. But in my opinion so are technology enterprises that have made data & technology accessible to the last layers of the society.
For me, social entrepreneurship will have a tremendous impact in a country like India because of our large youth population and as a consumer-first economy. During the time that I spent seeding a Himalayan research village in research & learning, I understood the need for social entrepreneurship in India. As an example, our mission is to create a platform that can have a long, sustainable impact on the socio-economic landscape of the Himalayas. That is social entrepreneurship.
Now, our job as social entrepreneurs is to create islands of excellence across the spread of the country. These become centres of inspiration and in turn build a larger, developed socio-economic nation. My realisation has been that great institutions or organisations transform multiple layers of society.
As an educationist, our research platform has enabled me to help produce some of the best research work and intellectual property in the country that can have a deep impact on society because they create a paradigm shift in the working order. It also gave me a glimpse into the potential that life science research holds in particular.
So, I started seeding a couple of health tech ideas with my teams about 3 years back. However, the most concrete one came from an old school friend – Dr Gaurav Sahay - a lead scientist in the space of mRNA who is based out of the US. Together, our vision is to solve healthcare problems of South East Asia using the mRNA technology. In fact, in a recent interview Bill Gates strongly advocated the case of India as a future health tech factory for the world.
MS: Throw light on the role of the socio-entrepreneur in both Edtech & Health sectors? And how would these help respectively in solving the social problems of the masses, to improve their quality of life?
VA: As a social entrepreneur, I see two big gaps in India – in education and in healthcare. If we want the quality of life to improve, we have to educate our youth and up-skill our population. The task is very clear -- how to provide world class training & learning to a large section of the society at affordable price points. The answer is fairly simple. It’s through technology, rapid investment in the education sector, and a liberal education policy.
Most importantly, these interventions are possible at multiple levels. Let's have the Harvards of the world come and invest in India, have more edtech startups that can enable quality learning, create skill development programs/ certifications, have the industry come forward to up skill our workforce. There is an endless list of possibilities. The idea is to have a liberal view & let market forces define the rules.
The same is true for the healthcare space. We need to think out of the box to enable quality healthcare. We can’t expect an investor to open a charitable trust in every district of India. Invest upwards of 500 crores towards charity, build a 500-bed hospital & then charge a subsidised fee to educate medical practitioners. There are 773 districts in India so if we need a charitable medical college in each, it will need 773 billionaires who have that kind of money to donate. We cannot even expect our governments to allocate upwards of Rupees five lakh crores to build and then an annual budget equivalent to that to run these institutions. So, where is the answer?
The answer is to create multiple levels of learning platforms. For example, a midwife training centre in each district. This can dramatically reduce the infant death rate. Can our civil hospitals be associated with learning institutions to run medical programs? That's where education and healthcare amalgamate beautifully to me.
Impact also comes from using the resources available in responsible ways. For example, I believe the Himalayas hold several answers for us as one of the largest natural resource labs to the world's problems. It's my true belief that India has lacked in protecting and generating quality intellectual property that comes from such resources. Together with my team, we are working towards solving problems related to energy, water conservation and health-tech using a resource that is available to India exclusively.
Similarly, mRNA is a platform technology and it can exponentially bring down the cost and time required to develop a drug. This can make health solutions available to masses at a fraction of a cost, which is a necessity for a country like India. RNAVAX BIO intends to bring this technology at scale to South East Asia.
MS: Since your social entrepreneur partner is an Indian American, how would you compare Indian and American or worldwide social-entrepreneurs? Can you list both pros and cons?
VA: Incidentally for me, in both ventures I had co-founders who were Indian-American. And both had a strong desire to give back to India. Frankly, the cost, price and scale a business has to achieve to be successful in India, it can by default be termed as social impact.
RNAVAX BIO - our mRNA startup - brewed as an idea while I was speaking to my old school friend Dr Gaurav Sahay. He called me and wanted to check if I would be interested in helping him setting up an mRNA based platform in India. He had worked in the US for the last two decades on the subject. I asked him why he believes it’ll work. He said it is an established technology now and entering from a renaissance phase to an Industrial Revolution phase. He strongly felt India must build its own capabilities in this game changing Health care space.
What we need to enable through public policy is to make India a much more business-friendly environment. We also need to rationalise our priorities as a nation. Just to give you an example, today a road or a bridge is considered an asset of national importance. But it's not the case for education or healthcare. We need to earmark priority funding for these domains.
I believe this is the moment the government needs to welcome private and for-profit institutions to set up education healthcare ventures in India. They need to make the regulation flexible and modular in its nature. To educate and provide quality healthcare to almost a billion people or 1/7th of the world population, India really needs to disrupt its approach in these domains.
While education and healthcare are equally - if not more - important to build a nation, they are not being given priority as sectors. The globally recognized healthcare & education providers have billions of dollars as reserves ready to invest in a highly consumer driven young economy like India. I strongly believe we need to be liberal in our policy here.
What works for India is that it's in an exponential growth phase and we are a consumer-led economy. Every single investor in the world wants to be a part of this story. Just to add to that, the recent Covid scenario & geopolitical uncertainty has put India as a strong partner for the world. We have a very strong and stable leadership at the centre. It's driven by technology & liberal policy. All this makes for a perfect scenario for unprecedented growth.
MS: How can technology and innovation be involved to boost social entrepreneurship in India?
VA: India has one of the deepest penetration of digital networks and accessibility of data at the cheapest price points in the world. Thanks to Jio, we have become the world’s go to place to experiment technology for a much larger inclusive audience. Fintech is a space where the government and private sector was able to build a world-class array of products and become the world’s number one economy when it comes to digital financial inclusiveness. All this in less than two years.
I believe India can disrupt education and healthcare in a similar fashion. The education sector, training one of the largest youth populations in the world, is an opportunity we've not seen before. The same applies to providing quality healthcare to one of the largest nations in the world.
A simple principle of liberalising these two sectors for global investments and players can make it highly competitive and the best in the world. My belief here is that because there is a high potential of future demand in a consumer-based economy like India, market forces will set a game changing preposition for these two sectors.
MS: What legal and taxation reforms do you recommend to the Govt of India for attracting more investment in India from global social-entrepreneurs?
VA: In simple words, we are not even close to ease of doing business. Unfortunately, the hangover of licence raj and unethical practices still mar the system. Intent from the government is strong but will need far far more velocity to deliver on the promise.
As a member of YPO, a global business leaders forum, I can confidently say that the world is looking towards us. We are bound to be the largest consumer-based economy for the next couple of decades. No business leader would like to miss this opportunity.
There are two things we need to assure as a nation. One is to provide technology to enable business environments and second, to have zero tolerance towards unethical practices.
MS: As a social entrepreneur and an educationist, what reforms and strategies would you suggest in the National Education Policy (NEP), so that education becomes affordable and reachable to all?
VA: I think NEP is one of the most brilliant reforms brought in by the government. It has truly given institutions a modular and globally-acceptable learning and research platform. The only thing the policy needs is its implementation across the fabric of the country with a strong mandate. I believe technology startups in this space will further enhance the pace of inclusion and help us achieve a 50% gross enrolment ratio by 2030.
As an example, today we are a country with the deepest penetration of data availability and the internet to the last layer of society. India is the only Nation where even a labourer or an auto rickshaw driver will take digital payments happily. Fintech has paved the way to an affordable inclusive model.
The great news is that the government has been the enabler for this space. I see the same happening in the learning & education space in India led by the Government of India in the next three to four years. The target gross enrollment ratio of 50% is mammoth. Government’s new thought process online for all, dual degree, modular learning and liberalising towards global partners is a clear indicator.
MS: Throw some light upon the strategy followed to ensure that how you ensured that the Govt resources met the demand of the students and researchers?
VA: I don’t agree with the statement. I think the government of India has prioritised Intellectual Property generation. This year, as a nation, we filed more than 10,000 patents for the first time. In fact, the government has dramatically reduced the cost of filing a patent for a student. At Shoolini University, with 1000 plus patents, it’s our dream to enable every young mind in the country to protect his or her IP.
Through your platform, I would like to invite anyone in this country who needs help filing an IP. We would be happy to support in protecting all ideas.
MS: Young people in India are part of an education system that values academic achievement the most, rather than striking a balance between academic literacy with extra-curricular achievements and life skills. What kind of reforms does the Indian Education system need? (If you have implemented these at Shoolini you may exemplify the same.)
VA: My belief is that as a nation we need to celebrate talent in various dimensions and forms. Luckily that’s happening to a certain extent because people can express their talent and their love for things through various social media and other platforms. I believe an equal focus should be given to academic excellence. As a nation with still millions below the poverty line - we need to focus on quality and inclusivity.
At Shoolini, we run multiple programs to encourage students to explore beyond academics & their core area of expertise. More than 200 electives from arts, music, landscaping, impact projects, writing skills etc. enable this journey.
MS: How can entrepreneurial thinking be improved in the community? And what all basic steps the state and central governments need to take to enhance the number of entrepreneurs in India?
VA: I believe what we need to do is celebrate the spirit of entrepreneurship!!
Yes, simply make them the heroes. Start at the grass root level - panchayat level. Every village has a number of problems & opportunities. Let the community find solutions. Let them create products & services that solve the problem. Have District Level, State Level and National Level competitions to recognize this talent & work. That’s the best way to build a generation of entrepreneurs.
Community funding – similar to the model of Gramin Bank can enable a strong rural startup ecosystem. As an example, we submitted a project to the Government of India to enable mushroom cultivation by women in Himachal Pradesh. It’s a simple technique where you lend Rs. 25,000 to a group of 10 women. These women get a mushroom growing kit that can generate Rs. 2500-3000 of earning per month for each woman. The group returns the money in 6 months with interest and enables another group through training & funding. More importantly, the money earned by the women goes back in improving quality of life at home – education, nutrition & healthcare. Models like these will fuel the growth & fund solutions.
MS: "At the intersection of consumer internet/technology with potential for scaled social impact—designing technology for a grassroots audience requires an outside-in approach with a deep understanding of local contexts and needs." How would you explain this essential requirement in context to your two ventures in terms of how consumer growth, audience involvement and impact are created?
VA: I would like to start by giving an example of research as an agenda at our campus. When we seeded the idea - we wanted to create a research facility that revolves around the larger Himalayan theme. With practically no money, we invited post docs from across the globe to come in and pursue their research and to consider the Himalayas as the laboratory.
Every individual that joined the community was encouraged to think of solutions using the Himalayas as a core resource. Today, not only us but several institutions around us are focusing on research as an integral part of academics. All this, at practically 10% of the cost of such a platform that works in a developed country.
Yes, technology has a big role to play in such endeavours. However, more importantly it was the local resources & focus on solving micro problems first that did the magic. With RNAVAX BIO, we are doing a similar experiment. We want to train young researchers on this cutting edge technology & create a disruptive pricing preposition for the world on mRNA solutions. Our design lab is generating IP around the same.
I believe as long as you go with an open mind & focus on local knowledge - resources - magic can happen & unreal impact created.
About Vishal Anand
Vishal is a socio-entrepreneur & investor who creates enterprises that enable empowerment and development of the host society. He has interests in education, healthcare, housing and automotive.
The journey started when he founded Shoolini University at 28 years of age in his hometown Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Today, it is a leading research university of India with a focus on Himalayan Sustainability and Development. In 2007, he led investment in one of India’s first content and publishing enterprises Pen Pundit Media, seeded by a leading journalist and editor. This initiative promotes flexible working hours for women who are willing to work from home and enable them to stay in the workforce. Post 2008, Anand Investments partnered with global leaders in the automotive space for distribution of their product lines, starting with Toyota and Daimler India for Himachal Pradesh. This created multiple employment opportunities in many smaller towns of HP. Anand Investment is on the cusp of taking its vision forward by partnering with the best in the world in the space of automotive engineering and design, education, research & innovation, and hospitality.
Through his latest venture in mRNA technology - the RNAVAX BIO - Vishal intends to make health solutions available to masses at a fraction of a cost, which is a necessity for a country like India and a much needed health resource in South East Asia.
About the Interviewer
Mahima Sharma is a Senior Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in the allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Since March 2022, she is also an Entrepreneurship Education Mentor at Women Will - An Entrepreneurship Program by Google in Collaboration with SHEROES. Mahima can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewee. The facts and opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the interviewer. Indiastat does not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.
Balancing Act in a Shifting World: An insight on Economic Diplomacy, Security Concerns & Navigating Global Challenges... Read more