Accelerator programmes the new gold in assistive technology space

BY VICTOR ADAR

As business environment gets tough and technology introduces new dimensions, a majority of organizations are now wading into creative ways of financing to ensure that they remain afloat. Scale up funds is one of the options that some experts say might cut the main market challenges especially for start- ups. 

Business environment is open but for a few, being a winner in this game calls for a calculated approach. In the battle of the sharks, the terrain often turns unfavourable to millions of young disabled innovators who generally end up languishing in unemployment due to lack of assistive technology products. 

Led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDIH), which is building support system for entrepreneurs and start-ups in the assistive technology space to make a difference in the life of four million people living with disabilities by 2021, the dream of this disadvantaged lot will turn true. 

Project manager of GDIH who also works with Amref Health Africa, Zadock Okeno, says that when entrepreneurs are being dealt unfair cards and fail to flourish, it is important to engage in sustainable financing models. In a move towards ensuring sustainability, he says, getting creative might help innovators and enterprises especially in the assistive technology space overcome the so-called valley of death. 

To him, when donor funding is certainly shrinking, it is important to out think. The dynamics are changing so much that the current trend is that Non-Governmental Organizations look beyond donors to smoothly continue with development work. It is because of this gap that GDIH in collaboration with Amref Health Africa is running an accelerator programme dubbed “Innovate Now”, a move that aims at not only offering mentorship and expert support to techpreneurs but also links to investors and the Innovate Now innovation scale fund. 

“What we are trying to do is not an easy task,” says Okeno. “There are many expectations and hope from the people who have interacted with us but we will only be able to achieve big impact if we are able to work together. It is an ecosystem, which means we are working with anyone who can help us fill this gap. The program is not only looking at improving capacity of those innovators but also changing the way we perceive disability in our society.”

Bernard Chiira is the guy behind the powerful program that is now driving options that might help innovators and enterprises overcome the so-called valley of death – people in the tech world prefer to use the acronym VOD, which Chiira says has often made the dream to light up the industry tough to realise. He notes that assistive technology products experience a deeper and longer VOD due to substantive lack of research and development funding. 

Mr Chiira, who is the chair of ASSEK, the national association for start-up and SME enablers of Kenya and sits on the board of Afrilabs and serves as an advisor and mentor in accelerators and incubators in Kenya wants high growth tech firms to get what needs to be done faster. He argues that should entrepreneurs be well mentored, it would shorten the time it takes to get businesses up and running.

“It shouldn’t take you three years to succeed,” he notes. “If you get the mentorship from people who have been there before, and people who want to invest in your business, it would take you around six months. An accelerator programme is not about lectures; you are actually building your business… It takes you six months to get your business up and running”

Microsoft Corporation is one of America’s technology companies creating waves as Kenya gets into the accelerator programmes era.

Some individuals compare accelerator programmes to going for a compressed MBA – people go for an MBA and take more than three years to do a degree. Imagine now doing MBA in a very practical sense. “We need businesses to move faster, scale and go to the market,” says Chiira.

The GDIH director adds that search for the inaugural cohort of Innovate Now commenced in earnest on 1st October 2019 and will end in April 2020. The whole programme, though, will peak in 2021 when each venture will have a chance to win grant for investment of up to Sh13.4 million. 

The Kenyan and international start-ups with a commitment to setup and serve the African market by embracing assistive solutions, he says, will have access to test facilities with access to persons with disability, including expert support on human-centred design, markets, clinical trials, materials, manufacturing, procurement, growth hacking, business support and even marketing. 

Further, users and user-organisations through “live labs” network which enable rapid testing and feedback is a sure fire-way of ensuring that the target group are at the heart of product and service development. Nowadays doing business or building a successful one is not pegged on guesswork or talent but rather, a focus on solving a problem. 

“It has been proven that there is a science on how you build a business,” says Chiira. “For us to fully realise the impact of what we are doing right now we have to have a long term view, something like 10 years. But we still believe that acceleration is good in terms of launching new businesses.”

Growing up in a tiny village in Nyeri, the 34 year-old innovator believes that tomorrow must be greater than today. That is why, he says, an accelerator programme will go a long way in the sense that it offers a lot of learning opportunities within a very short period, usually a window of six months. He has committed to battle with the sharks to drive positive living, inclusive innovation, technology as well as start-up ecosystem building. He is the go to guy on issues venture capital. 

But what is an accelerator in the first place? Is it hype, or a game changer? 

Of giant companies

The roots of this term are from the business world but mostly in the technology space. It can be traced to the US where the first accelerator programme started in 1996, and the whole concept was born in a period when there was a boom in technology. 

During that period, a few successful entrepreneurs realised that they could support others because they had succeeded before. In fact, an area called Silicon Valley is well known for creativity and innovation. Giant companies like HP, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, Google, just to mention a few, are thriving because the people behind them appreciated the power of acceleration and evolution which is generally about not leaving anyone behind.

In May, during the Laikipia Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fair, a project (electric wheel chair made from recycled materials) by Lincoln Wamae was impressive, a clear indication that there are people who are really trying to bring solutions. From outside Kenya too, are people looking to bring technology to artificial limbs (prosthetics) besides bringing affordable eyeglasses to people. 

University College London, an institution which focuses on education, research and practical aspect of the “how do you have an impact through research and education”, designed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park in east London, the first fully-fledged stadia accessible by the disabled. Because of that, the institution was allowed to build an innovation hub in that part of the UK. The park boasts of athletes’ Olympic Village, various sporting venues including London Stadium and London Aquatics Centre.

According to Chiira, accelerator programmes are paying off mostly in the West. Its impact has been seen in the European and even some Asian countries. If founded well and focused on providing support that is needed to solve a real problem in a sustainable way, companies that go through such programmes might be big drivers of innovation. For example, a techpreneur ought to identify a problem that is a true pinpoint for a customer if his or her business is to work.

Acceleration programs are structured and done in cohorts where companies work in a group, and it is not one project that is supported. A lot of this learning is from peers who are also trying to do something, and it is not compulsory that the learning comes from people who have done it before. 

Its success is partly hinged on the fact that entrepreneurship, in a sense, can be quite lonely and can also be challenging. That is why it is a bit easier when peers are brought together to make things happen. But will all those high-tech solutions change the narrative, and put a stop to the stigma associated with disability? How do we prove that this kind of solution is the one that is needed?

“It is the only sector that has a very futuristic potential in terms of what human beings can achieve. We all know that human beings will never stop to achieve perfection. And that means that if there’s something that is a limitation in the body it means that in the near future there will be a solution to it. The future is really bright for disability,” says Chiira.  

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