Japanese firms see opportunities in bridging India's healthcare gap

NEW DELHI, NNA - Japanese companies are looking to tap India's healthcare market with funding and technological solutions to make healthcare more accessible in the world's second most populous country.

Japanese venture capital firms like Spiral Ventures and India Japan Partnership Fund LLP are either funding local healthtech startups or exploring new investment opportunities in the healthcare sector, and electronics giant Panasonic Corp. is offering solutions to improve rural healthcare.

India has a huge healthcare gap between rich and poor and mismatches between doctors and patients. The situation is made worse by low government spending on healthcare at 1.3 percent of the country's gross domestic product, which is the lowest among the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Spiral Ventures has invested in four healthtech startups that offer digital solutions for the local market and is scouting for more such startups to invest in, according to a top company official.

"With rising internet and smartphone connectivity coupled with conducive government policies, healthtech startups are likely to be the next big thing in a country like India, which lacks proper healthcare infrastructure," Spiral Ventures partner Yasuhiro Seo told NNA in an interview.

"The solutions they are offering can help bridge the gap between medical service providers and patients," he said.

Spiral Ventures plans to raise an additional $30 million to $50 million to invest in startups in the Indian and Southeast Asian markets.

"We intend to invest 50 percent of the amount in Indian startups including healthtech," Seo added.

The firm has invested in NirogStreet, an online database of curated and certified practitioners of the ancient medical system of Ayurveda, to help patients choose the right practitioners, and Ambee, which helps track and manage ambulances.

According to a 2017 report by Nasscom, a leading lobby group for India's IT industry, there were over 320 healthtech startups last year, up 28 percent from the preceding year.

Another fund led by Japan-based Sanjeev Sinha, an early-stage promoter and president of the India Japan Partnership Fund, is at an "advanced stage" of discussion for building hospitals in India with Japanese collaboration, and is also helping Indian medical artificial intelligence companies with funding.

In an interview with NNA in June, Sinha said that his fund size initially was likely to be in the range of $200 million to $500 million.

Panasonic has also stepped in with its own solution to local demand for healthcare.

The firm, which opened its first innovation center in India last year to develop country-specific products, launched a mobile platform called JanAid in June offering healthcare services at affordable prices, mainly in rural parts of the large South Asian country.

"The idea is to connect the rural areas with the right medical services with the help of JapnAid," Manish Sherma, president and chief executive officer of Panasonic India Pvt. Ltd., told NNA last month on the sidelines of a launch event in New Delhi.

Individuals can connect with doctors available on the JanAid portal, and can also access nearby hospitals and all-around medicinal services via the application.

Angela Gagoi, an executive with a consultancy firm in Gurugram in the northern Indian state of Haryana, uses healthcare startup Practo's mobile phone app to book appointments and consultations with doctors.

"For a working professional like me, this app-based service for consulting with doctors online saves a lot of time as you don't have to travel to a hospital to meet the doctor," she said. "The other advantage is that the platform offers options for many specialist doctors to choose from, which helps in finding the right doctor."

Sanjay Swamy, managing partner in Prime Venture Partners, a VC firm that has also invested in local healthtech startups, said they have the potential to solve India's healthcare delivery problem.

"When you can solve India's own problem, you can solve it for the world...meaning you can further scale up your business. That's the reason investors and startups are betting big on India's healthcare sector," he told NNA.

"Just like e-commerce is gaining traction in India, digital healthcare solutions are also likely to see the same trend."

The company has invested in startups like mfine, an app-based on-demand healthcare service, and Affordplan, which is a combination health and fintech startup.

"We have raised a total of $5.7 million from VC firms. We may raise another fund in the beginning of next year," said Prasad Kompalli, CEO and cofounder of mfine, an artificial intelligence-enabled mobile phone-based platform that gives online access to doctors from well-known hospital networks and on-demand instant medical advice via chat.

"VC funds are helping improve healthcare access and quality as they are investing in our solutions including AI, which helps reduce a doctor's workload and boost his efficiency," he said. "Our real-time patient information solution enables doctors to attend more patients."

According to the Medical Council of India, a regulatory body, there is one doctor for every 1,596 people in India, compared with the World Health Organization norm of one doctor per 1,000. (NNA/Kyodo)

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