The AUM Voice Prosthesis Saga

On the eve of a most heartening, truly ‘sunshine’ development – AUM Voice Prosthesis winning the National Start-up Award in the medical device category – few nostalgic notes, almost akin to a stream of consciousness, are in order.

When I embarked upon this journey of launching AUM back in 2015, the hearteningly inclusive medical device regulatory landscape in India worked in my favour since AUM fell under the non-notified medical device category. Shashank and I were hence able to deliver upon a promise made to India’s poorest of poor: a simple and sustainable AUM-at-one-dollar initiative, helping laryngectomy patients regain their voice and improve the quality of their lives.

Little did we know then that our unprecedented delight was cursed with a short life. To our utter dismay, the year 2018 ushered in a radical shift in the regulatory framework governing medical device category in India. Consequently, a truckload of compliances and conditions – for factory set-up, clean room facility, and machine capability and sustainability among others – now called for an investment of a whopping ₹ 3 crore. Could anything have been more incredible?

Having lost our bearings in one ruthless blow, we presumed we were going to fall by the wayside. Survival looked impossible as the selfless vision and mission of making this device accessible to the poorest of the poor faced the proverbial dead-end. Worse, devoid of the business acumen or expertise such situations call for, we sensed the jaws of defeat waiting to gobble our dream in one mouthful. But then, it is never over until it is over. We have survived to recount the difference between the gory and the glory, haven’t we?

By some inexplicable divine intervention, the Government of India, Department of Science and Technology and BIRAC came to our rescue out of nowhere. Acknowledging the acute social need for AUM Voice Prosthesis, these proverbial knights in shining armour helped us create a particular model that conquered all that seemed lost only a while ago. They helped us understand and balance out the social aspect of the cost effectiveness and long-term sustainability of this larger than life initiative. Thanks to the reassuring handholding of both the government of India and BIRAC, AUM Voice Prosthesis has taken several baby steps, keeping this initiative alive and kicking, as also striving hard to improve its global footprint.

The icing on the cake was a kind gesture of Government of India, of proactively acknowledging the handicap aspect of Laryngectomy through the ministry of social justice. The focus of this initiative is not only on the rehabilitation of patient’s voice but also to his / her quality of life.

Today at this crucial juncture – thanks to the Government of India – I have been able to touch the lives of scores of patients from the lowest strata of society. Under AUM-at-one-dollar initiative using the voice foundation, many Below Poverty Line (BPL) patients have availed of AUM free of cost. At the initial juncture, had I approached private investors, the demands on the returns on investments would have undoubtedly been sky high, and the noble vision of serving the poorest of the poor at minimal or no cost would have never seen the light of the day. The Government of India showed me the way to sustain this dream by becoming my partner in progress.

I have also created a mechanism through Ayushman Bharat Yojana programme that empowers and enables the state governments and the government of India to carry forward the initiative of giving the AUM voice prosthesis to the poorest of the poor free of cost including the ones holding BPL cards.

Further, I am working on a sustainable model – with the help of national pricing policy – that seeks to address a perilous challenge: how to safeguard the cocoon of cost effectiveness in the private sector – wherein hospitals, pharmacies and distributors and other channel partners collectively sustain the costing of this investment supported by the Government of India.

In this model, the innovators do not get royalties (fair enough since the whole thought process is to sustain the initiative that benefits the poorest of the poor) Patents are given away to the government of India and sustainable models are created with the active support and participation of government of India to make this a viable business model to serve the larger cause: of gifting voice to laryngectomy patients, complying with the regulatory norms while building a sustainable start up, a perfect blend of sustainability and purpose.

This voyage has provided me with rich actionable insights into Profit for Purpose, including how costs impact the distribution and overall feasibility of AUM Voice Prosthesis, launched with the sole vision to gift voice to the poor patients of Laryngectomy. This learning brought me face to face with the challenge of balancing as well as sustaining the AUM initiative. I am today continuing the AUM-at-one-dollar initiative through the voice foundation, and in keeping with other pricing policies by working alongside various state governments for the social and noble cause of voice programme. This has been an undoubtedly difficult journey. Today I understand as to why and how start-ups succumb to the myriad hardships that deny sustainability.

Today, we are the proud recipients of the National Award for the best start-up, which has also been recognised by Merico innovation. I humbly dedicate this award to the Government of India and BIRAC who showed us the way, guiding us through the maze of umpteen twists and turns.

On this joyous occasion, I reinforce my commitment to the core philosophy of gifting voice to the voiceless. I am a firm believer that speech and communication in our society forms not only a basic tenet to sustain life force. But also, a right for freedom, peace, justice and dignity.

I am grateful to my friends, philosophers and guides, my sounding boards, my comrades in arms, and above all my fellow pioneers at the epicentre of this dream come true. Thank you, Shashank and Madhukar!