These millennials have a tech solution to your health problems

(This story originally appeared in 65532262 on Jan 07, 2018)

Twenty-one-year-old Harsh Songra has a schedule that could put any Silicon Valley techie to shame. At a time when most people his age are worrying about getting ‘likes’ on dating apps, Songra spends 12 to 17 hours a day writing algorithms. He has not taken a vacation in five years and doesn’t intend to.

What’s kept him busy is the MyChild app he created in 2015. The app tracks a child’s health up to two years of age and helps screen for developmental delays. Parents can use the app to approach a doctor for advice and learn more about the condition their child may have through videos, podcasts and other content. The invention has received nods of appreciation from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, he was part of the Forbes 30 under 30 list for 2016, and he raised Rs 70 lakh from investors. A college drop-out, Songra is busy these days improving his app and creating content for his website that provides a platform for the differently-abled community.

Bhopal-based Songra isn’t the only Indian millennial using tech to solve some of the world’s healthcare problems. For most of them, the motivation was personal. Songra’s drive to create the app stems from his childhood struggles. He was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a developmental disorder at 11, and was teased mercilessly for his clumsiness at school. “One in six children suffers from developmental disorders that are undiagnosed,” he says. “I wanted to help create awareness.”

Three years ago, Akash Manoj’s grandfather died unexpectedly. “There were no symptoms, he just collapsed,” says the 16-year-old. Hosur-based Manoj began doing research on silent heart attacks online, at the Indian Institute of Science library, and via emails to professors.

He learnt that 85% of heart attacks cannot be diagnosed as there are no symptoms. But he also learnt that the heart sends out an SOS before failing. This cardiac biomarker, or a protein that’s found at higher levels in the bloodstream, could be isolated and used as a warning system, he believed. After three years of trial and error, Manoj created Save Heart, a sensor to detect silent heat attacks, that costs Rs 900. He’s working on a patent and is likely to launch the product by 2019.

It was in a doctor’s office that Arsh Shah Dilbagi, 16, got the idea for Talk, a device to convert breath into speech. He had taken his grandmother for a check-up when a crying man caught his attention. The doctor told him the patient was unable to speak and express his problem. “I got curious and started doing research on ways to help people with neurological disorders,” Dilbagi says. It took him less than a year to come up with the device that is valued at $100 apiece. This is way cheaper than devices currently available in the market and doesn’t require a laptop to operate it. He’s currently looking for funding to make the device available to the public.

Dilbagi started inventing at the age of 10 when his parents bought him a Lego Mindstorms set. “I sat up all night and made a rover robot. I realised then that it was not a big deal to create things,” he says. Now 19, the Panipat resident is studying computer science at Princeton and working on another project — using artificial intelligence to make YouTube videos. “I am always working on a project, it’s like brushing my teeth,” he says.

For these young innovators though, it’s been a challenge to find support, raise funds, and access research facilities. Manoj says the lack of access to labs was a challenge but he never lost hope while building his device to detect silent heart attacks. “I would watch Ted talks, which motivated me. It’s funny because I am a TedX speaker now,” he says.

Pune-based Jahnavi Joshi and Nupura Kirloskar not only turned a college assignment into a startup idea but also managed to raise Rs 70 lakh in funding. What got them thinking was a performance by deaf dancers who followed visual cues from a teacher. “We wondered how there could be dance without music,” Joshi says. The two classically trained artistes set about exploring ways in which hearing-impaired dancers could sense music with an aid.

They began working on a way to convert sound to vibration, and created Blee Watch, which vibrates to alert the user to a sound. It has four main features, listen, talk, dance and help, but users can also record a baby’s cry or a dog’s bark as independent sounds with their own vibrations. The two friends entered a series of competitions to raise funds from Tata Trust, NASSCOM among others. “The watch will hit the market in six months,” says Kirloskar, 25.