This post was originally published on our partner website India.com.
For most of us, the word “entrepreneur” is a noun, meaning someone who starts or leads a company—like a boss or CEO.
However, the real meaning of an entrepreneur is hidden in a set of specific traits: innovation, creativity, self-motivation, growth-oriented mindset, people-centric attitude, and the ability to create value in society.
These traits can be implemented in many directions to reach various business goals, which is why we have startups of opposite natures not only surviving but also flourishing.
On one hand, there are startups with fierce policies that aggressively tout their products and services with the one-track goal of making money. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are endearing startups making a positive difference to the world unconditionally.
Sustainable startups may be fewer in number as compared to the profit-oriented ones, but the positive effect generated by startups with a business model to help society is enormous.
We live in a world filled with restrictions, yet social entrepreneurs have managed to break the mold to reach out to the have-nots of society, and, quite honestly, why not?
After all, entrepreneurship is about innovation, empathy, persistence and a vision to build a better future.
Entrepreneurs with a social eye who strive for change come from all over the world. From a small village in Kerala to Midtown, N.Y.—it seems like there is no shortage of the spirit to innovate in this world.
Let’s take a look at five such innovative startups that are striving to make a difference for the global community:
1. The innovative farmer from Kerala, who built a coconut tree climbing device.
Hope met reality when Kerala native, M. J. Thomas, created a tree climbing device for his hometown, a place where trade, culture and tradition, circulate about the production of coconuts.
The inventor, popularly known as Appachan, noticed that the number of tree climbers was beginning to reduce in his area of Kerala, and they started charging ten times the fees of what they would otherwise ask. The profession began to lose its luster.
Sensing the threat this scarcity could cause to the state and to the country, Appachan started working on a tree climbing device. With his homemade device, it took only 1-2 minutes to climb a 130-foot tree versus the 4-5 minutes usually required.
In 2006, his innovation received a patent and became certified as agricultural machinery for post harvest by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF).
Apart from Indian territories, this device has been traded to countries like U.S.A., Mexico, Maldives, Thailand, Australia and Brazil.
2. WaterWheel made by a social entrepreneur from New York
When Cynthia Koenig realized the daily grind millions of people go through to collect water from far away sources, the idea of a waterwheel began to churn in her mind.
Koenig’s WaterWheel allows people to roll their water into a 50-liter container versus carrying it in a 5-gallon jug.
It is estimated by Koenig that the WaterWheel can save 35 hours of water transport time per week per person, as well as prevent the physical strain that comes from balancing 40 pounds of water on their heads for hours daily.
There are plans of adding features like filtration, drip irrigation kits and a cell phone charger that uses energy created by the rotating wheel.
After receiving a $100,000 Grand Challenges Canada prize to develop the WaterWheel, Koenig founded a social enterprise company called Wello.
3. Resolving pollution and creating efficient commutes through an emerging public transport idea in India
Traffic jams and soaring fuel prices have incessantly bothered commuters in India. A few creative minds in Ahmedabad, Gujarat came up with the idea of cycle sharing.
The service is called MyByk, and with this service you can rent a bike at any bus station. For instance, you can take a bus, rent a bike at the station you where you get down, and cycle your way to your next destination.
On the way back, you have the option of dropping off the bike at any bus station in the city. It is a healthy transportation alternative that is accessible, convenient, affordable, time efficient, and, most importantly, helps to decrease pollution.
The concept of cycle sharing is growing in other Indian cities as well, such as Mumbai (Fremo and Cycle Chalao), Delhi (Delhi Cycles and Planet Green Bikes) and Bangalore (ATCAG and Namma Cycle).
4. Trying to decrease the common occurrence of iodine deficiencies in women living in India.
The bindi, which is an integral aspect of Indian culture and traditions, now has a broader significance.
The Neel Vasant Medical Foundation and Research center has partnered with Grey for Good, the philanthropic arm of the agency Grey Group Singapore, to create the “Life-Saving Dot.” Through the skin, each dot delivers a daily dose of iodine to the women who wear them. Deficiency of iodine has been a perennial problem in India.
There is not enough iodine in Indian soil, consequently vegetables and fruits also lack iodine content. Due to this, children are suffering from otherwise preventable brain damage and lower IQ levels. Pregnant women can face complications, and this deficiency can also cause diseases like breast cancer as well.
The group has distributed the dots in five villages so far and hopes the iodine bindi will spread across the country in the near future.
5. Creating a solar-powered solution for the hearing impaired.
Tendekayi Katsiga, an electronics technician, launched the company Deaftronics in Botswana, which is the first company in the world to manufacture solar-powered hearing aids.
The product, Solar Ear, charges 3 batteries at once, and each battery charge lasts for 5 days.
To date, Deaftronics has sold around 10,000 units of Solar Ear in 40 African countries and positively impacted the lives of 3,000 children.
Their efforts have been well recognized and rewarded by governments of many African countries. Deaftronics has also opened a branch in Aman, Jordan and is gradually penetrating into East and West Africa.
Going forward, Deaftronics wishes to create affordable products for the deaf, employ hearing impaired people, create awareness about the hearing impaired, and train them so that they can integrate with society.
Freelance web content writer and editor in San Diego, Calif, Poorvi Adavi is inspired by observing people around her. More so, she basically likes being aware of things happening in the world. She completed her Masters in Communication from Christ University and also has a Business Management Certificate from U.C. San Diego.
Just a hop away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple is the headquarters of a groundbreaking biotech company, started by a South Asian trailblazer named Nina Tandon. Tandon has been running her startup Epibone, for over a decade, with the mission to grow bone and cartilage for skeletal reconstruction — an endeavor that presents commercialization opportunities in the medical field. Prior to that, she was a PhD and MBA graduate from MIT and Columbia University, respectively. I met Nina Tandon at our alma mater, The Cooper Union, where she was a speaker at a TEDx event we hosted. She stayed in my mind for years after graduating; I was in awe of the grit paragon before me and all that she had achieved by deciding to pursue multiple technical degrees, and then channeling her enterprising spirit to start her own company. I finally sent an email asking her if we can chat about her journey and what eventually led her to start a biotechnology firm in New York City; an industry that has recently seen traction in areas such as Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park.
Nina Tandon grew up in a nuclear family with two sisters and one brother. Hailing from a family of engineers, almost all of the Tandon children went to the same unassuming college in the heart of the East Village — The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
“I guess I was from a little bit of a geeky family of four kids. All four of us eventually became engineers,” Tandon said, reflecting on her background. “I wasn’t that into sports as a kid. I was kind of told I was a little klutzy. I don’t know if I really was! I was interested in community theater. It was called the Main Street Theater, and I really enjoyed doing all these musicals and stuff. I think that was probably my most favorite hobby. I also liked sewing clothes for myself and my stuffed animals.”
The best part about Tandon’s response was the way her genuine passion for these creative subjects shone through. Her interests were like any other child’s. So how did she choose her major? What were the little decisions that led her to pursue the path that she is on today?
Both of Tandon’s grandfathers were engineers working on either canals or railroads. This played a key role in her parents decision to emphasize STEM education early on; Tandon even took college-level classes in high school. She was raised with parents who believed that sitting at the table was an earned opportunity, so they naturally coaxed their children onto the known and sturdy path of science and math.
As South Asian women, we talk a lot about generational trauma and not enough about how generational career paths steer us towards certain specialties. Tandon pointed out that one parent being an engineer is a big factor in determining if you’ll be an engineer.
“I felt like that [engineering] was a preordained destiny for me, and that I had to kind of fight for [keeping] humanities in my life. So I kept doing high school drama. I studied languages like Italian, Latin and French. I really wanted to have a broader education.”
Upon graduating from Cooper with a degree in electrical engineering, Tandon found herself at the nexus of both a historical and personal moment. The Human Genome Project, an international research project led by a team of scientists to define and sequence the base pairs of human DNA, had just wrapped up, establishing the significance of genes and how they can be modified to cure diseases. At the same time, Tandon’s brother was diagnosed with a genetic retinal disease which motivated her to join a retinal implant project at MIT.
“I felt it [his condition] could better be cured by genetic cures than by engineering approaches to neural prosthetics; it was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. I discovered the beauty and pervasiveness of electrical currents in the body. I was an electrical engineer, so I was really drawn to cardiac development, wound-healing, and how you can use traditional engineering techniques to modify, say, technical signals to quote cells into becoming new tissues. I was drawn to that for my PhD. I was growing electrically-active tissues like skin and cardiac, and I was really drawn to the wider world of healthcare as I moved into consulting after my PhD.”
Tandon pivoted back to academia because that’s where some of the most interesting companies were coming from. There were some companies developing skin in the early 2000s. And on the other side of the spectrum, there were those working on cardiac tissue that have multiple cell types, and electromechanical coupling which would not deliver results in the near term. But in the middle there was cartilage and it’s a tissue that affects millions every year.
“As a society, we’re replacing millions of joints per year, just because of a couple of millimeters of damaged cartilage. And growing cartilage and growing bone isn’t as hard as growing cardiac tissue. So I thought to myself, in the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to make an impact.”
Working at McKinsey after her PhD, Tandon got a 30,000 foot view of the healthcare industry and understood the nuances of healthcare policy on technologies.
“It’s about big companies buying little companies. That I don’t think is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to make a little company. I was thinking to myself; I’m growing all these things in the microscope, but they’re related to the politics and the economics of the world.”
Tandon followed her intrinsic passion and curiosity within the space, channeling her inner theater kid that brimmed with creativity and wonder. After identifying that building a company was what she wanted to do, Tandon thought the best way to really build it, while working on the idea, was to pursue an executive MBA at Columbia.There she was able to dive deep into the ethical issues that lay in the biomedical field, including understanding the repercussions of the Affordable Care Act, or the stem cell wars.
“If I want to transform technologies, and from benchtop to bedside, I’m going to probably need to transform myself from a PhD student and a scientist to an entrepreneur.”
And thus, Epibone was born.
Innovation in the biotechnology space can take years due to lengthy R&D times and process approvals. After years of hard work, Epibone received FDA approval for their osteochondral product (living cartilage affixed to a bone base) to go into clinical trials for indications in the knee.
“There was no singular ‘aha’ moment, but several. Biotechnology takes so long; it’s more gradual.”
An Alternate Career Path and Life Advice
If you ask almost any high-schooler, interested in the medical space, what they want to be, the answer is inevitably a healthcare worker (ie. doctor, nurse, physician’s assistant, etc.) In general, South Asians tend to have a one-dimensional focus when on the medical school track, since that is what the applications require: incessant and obsessive dedication to a career path that is emotionally, physically, and financially grueling.
However, Tandon’s career path is an important one to consider as it provides an alternative yet impactful option for those who want to make a difference in public health. You can have an impact on public health — an area that the pandemic proved to be important to each every person on this planet — without going to medical school at all. Some examples include working in medical policy, pharmaceutical engineering, biomedical devices, and bioinformatics.
“There’s a million ways to contribute to society, even if you’re more interested in helping to foster human health than just being the person who can implement society’s current best practices for medical care. I would just urge everyone, parents included, to take that broader view that entrepreneurship might be a better way to help the world.”
Tandon’s journey from engineering to entrepreneurship is one that isn’t usually explored in the context of the South Asian diaspora. Often South Asian Americans, or immigrants, remain in the middle management sector, even after racking up multiple technical and business degrees at amazing schools. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to determine where their happiness can stem from. Some that have gone through the immigration journey may be at their mental limits to pursue additional risk. For some, the immigration journey may have the countering effect: the “make the most of what you can” effect, despite the adversities faced. The capacity to take a risk and believe in building something without expecting immediate returns creates the necessary vacuum for advanced innovation.
Tandon ultimately chased her curiosity for electromechanical system design, biomedical politics, and the human condition around aging. Being raised in a family of engineers, and with the freedom to explore her artistic self, Tandon was allowed to be a “klutz” and deeply learn from her interests and her failures. Tandon was also well aware that the destination she desired was all about a long journey. With Silicon Valley, tech tycoons, and unicorn startups abundant in the news, it is easy to forget that every industry requires patience and dedication before immediate results…or revenue.
With resounding clarity, Tandon passionately stated that entrepreneurship isn’t entirely based on innate, creative talent. Much like any artist, it is important to hone the skill through hours of work; in the case of biotech entrepreneurship, this can look like hours of case studies and fervent discussions with professors and students. Doing her MBA gave her the chance to treat her time at Columbia as an accelerator program, giving her access to world-class professors and research facilities.
Tandon’s inspirational story is a reminder that our careers develop as we do. So often young adults are plagued with fear of what the future can and should hold. However, if we approach our careers with a growth mindset, there are opportunities that spur from internal curiosity and external support.
To learn more about Epibone, visit thewebsite. To learn more about Nina Tandon, clickhere.