CHENNAI 19th October 2022: Two billion people is the number of people who are going to need at least 1 assistive product by 2030, with many older people needing 2 or more. This is the prediction made by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The fact is that today, only 1 in 10 people in need have the required access to assistive products. In India, the need for our geriatric and our physically challenged population is much more than predicted.
WHO defines Assistive technology or AT as an umbrella term covering the systems and services related to the delivery of assistive products and services that aim at improving an individual’s functioning and independence, thereby promoting better well-being in their life. Not only that, but the availability of ATs also instils a large sense of inclusivity and provide equal opportunities for the needy in society.
India, dominated by an aging population and with the rise in several noncommunicable diseases, has a ‘totally available market’ for its potential startups and innovators to foray into the AT space. Integrating smart digital technology into AT will, no doubt, be the icing on the cake. The market value expectedly triples with the scope it provides in India for both domestic uses as well as for export purposes. But it’s unfortunate that this space is less forayed in India, with very limited innovations and product development, thereby mismatching the volume of requirements.
The glaring gap cannot be put forth any better than Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, President of IITM Research Park, IITM Incubation Cell & RTBI. He says India houses the world’s most aging population and their need for Assistive Technology products is humungous versus the poor development and availability of the products. Prof. Jhunjhunwala understands the pulse of the needs in the AT vertical and therefore hosted the EMPOWER Conference – an annual technical event, organized with the objective of bringing together all stakeholders in the Assistive Technology sector and to present to the world that there is a huge need for the confluence of minds and works under this space. His experience from attending all the past editions of the event (two of which were conducted virtually) gave him a sense of determination to host it at IITM Research Park this year in Chennai.
EMPOWER – A platform to show India as an emerging leader in AT
Spearheaded by Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, this year, the IITM Research Park was the host of the 5th EMPOWER Conference, which was held between the 13th and 15th of October, 2022 at Chennai. The motto of this event, according to the Professor, is to ‘drive affordable and quality assistive technology and to make India a leader in the sphere of Assistive Technology’s product innovation and development. Just as the Professor and his team had planned, 2022 EMPOWER brought together the industry, academia, startups, and students to share their expertise, inspire individuals, and collaborate towards a stronger, innovation-driven AT ecosystem in India.
Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, while inaugurating EMPOWER said, “IIT Madras Research Park, as part of the 10X program is pursuing an ambitious vision to make India a global leader in Assistive Technology to enable inclusion for ‘People with Disabilities (PwD) and geriatrics, empowering them to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives. India is a large market, and the volume of production can help bridge this gap given that R&D and commercialization happen in India.”
At every edition, EMPOWER, the 3-day conference, uses a mix of keynote talks, invited papers, posters, user forums, panel discussions, and a product exhibition and provides opportunities for discussions around current solutions, and seeds ideas for research and beyond in AT. The Program Committee of EMPOWER consists of globally located members from premier academic institutions, NGOs, and technology incubators. The participants are engaged with the issues involved in the creation, production, and dissemination of Assistive Technology solutions.
Chief guests of this year’s EMPOWER – Chapal Khasnabis, Head (a.i) of the Access to Assistive Technology and Medical Devices Unit at World Health Organization, Pradeep Gupta, Chairman, CyberMedia Group, and C K Ranganathan, Founder Chairman, CavinKare resonated the aim of the conference to encourage and promote research and development of indigenous Assistive Technology of global standards.
Balakrishnan. Honorary Professor, CSE Department, IIT Delhi and Principal Investigator & Mentor at Assistive Technologies Group, who is a key researcher in AT and an active dignitary at EMPOWER said, “India must rapidly progress in ideation, R&D of affordable assistive devices and technologies for independent mobility, education and for a less dependent living of people with disabilities. Students, and start-up entrepreneurs must capitalize such events as EMPOWER to network, showcase their innovation, and lure investors to ensure that India moves ahead in AT innovation and products.”
Pradeep Gupta, Chairman, CyberMedia Group, in his inaugural address said, “Events like EMPOWER have the potential to pave the way to address the key factors of accessibility, availability, affordability, and consumer awareness of AT. A large gap that persists today in the AT space can only be addressed by deploying meaningful user-friendly technology to people with disabilities. A food delivery app addresses accessibility to a large extent. But when apps fail to address accessibility then technology must be dug deep to use it and deploy solutions. We are in the age of Metaverse – a technology that overcomes several accessibility issues. So, India’s tech start-ups must gear up. Stakeholders of this sector are compelled to come together to create an ecosystem that is conducive for more innovative products to come to fore. Startups have tremendous scope to accelerate this sector’s growth for India, just like how other sectors like healthcare and e-commerce have undergone a major transformation in the last 2 decades.”
Pradeep Gupta also dons the hat of a Trustee of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP). At EMPOWER, Gupta stressed on the fact that he is particularly looking forward to the AT sector growing as the NCPEDP is on a mission to set up a hub and several spokes for the development of AT products. He says the AT sector requires acceleration at a pace that can change the way the world looks at India. For startups to set foot in this space will bring glory to India and the at the same time serve the people of India who are in dire need of meaningful solutions to their disability problems.
Giving the right impetus to the country’s AT start-ups, EMPOWER set the platform for more than 90 start-ups to exhibit parallelly along the knowledge-packed conference sessions. A database, titled ‘Driving Affordable & Quality Assistive Technology (DAQAT)’, of companies involved in AT was also released at the event. Workshops, paper presentations for and by start-ups and tech conglomerates like Microsoft, Google and TCS brought forth various facets to accomplishing global AT goals during the 3-day event.
Author: Anusha Ashwin, PCQuest
October 19th, 2022
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