Global Economics

A Rural Health Clinic in a Box


Indian business Neurosynaptic Communications brings health care to the country's poorer citizens with a portable diagnostic kit

Nestled among residential homes on a quiet, leafy street just steps from Bangalore's busy BTM Ring Road stands the single-story office of Neurosynaptic Communications. The five-year-old company still has the feel of a startup: bare red and yellow walls, empty desks, and 20 or so young techies huddled over their PCs in the research and development lab.

The simplicity of the office is deceptive. Neurosynaptic's product is sophisticated and hugely ambitious. The company's bold aim is to transform, through technology, the cost and delivery of health care to India's villages. It's done through a portable medical diagnostic kit the size of a boom box. Priced at an estimated $300 the kit performs five key tests, including blood pressure, temperature, and even an electrocardiogram, and relays the information from rural settings to top city hospitals via computer. The cost per exam: anywhere from 38¢ to 63¢, compared with $5 for an electrocardiogram alone from a doctor in town.

The pioneer of this unique device and service is Sameer Sawarkar, a slight, soft-spoken, 35-year-old former signal processing and embedded systems expert at Motorola (MOT). His portable kit—which also contains a digital stethoscope and can check pulse rates—is specifically built for use by the village paramedic who goes door to door doing regular checkups and making emergency calls to locals.

Beyond India's Borders

The patients visit local multimedia kiosks—which are profliferating across Indian villages—where the tests are performed and the results transmitted to an affiliated doctor or a city hospital via a computer connected to the Internet. The doctor then diagnoses any problems and recommends medication via video conferencing, all at the kiosk. Sawarkar says "[It's] not mandated only for villages, and we see a huge untapped market" for the product in urban areas, and elsewhere around the world.

So far, 70 kits have been distributed globally, and the response has been heartening. In India, seven of the kits are already in use in villages in the south and west Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The kit has export value too. Recently, Sawarkar visited San Francisco to seek nonprofits willing to distribute the kit. And other developing markets like the Philippines, Tanzania and Latin America are natural cutomers for his "virtual clinic" kits.

It has been a hard slog for Sawarkar, who began his journey five years ago. After earning a master's degree in electrical communications from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Sawarkar landed a research job with Motorola.

Venture Capital Boost

But driven by his childhood experiences, he always wanted to start his own company. With scarce healthcare available in his childhood village of Amravati in Maharashtra, he decided to do something about it using his knowledge of technology. With a buddy and fellow engineer from Motorola, Rajeev Kumar, Sawarkar toiled to prove that by using technology, health care could be delivered to the poor at an affordable price.

Lacking focus at first, Sawarkar and Kumar burned through ambitious ideas such as creating new virtual limbs for the disabled and bringing sight to the blind with vision sensors. But in 2003, they received $177,000 in seed money from a local venture capital fund and the Telecommunications and Computing Networking Group (TeNeT), the innovation arm of the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. TeNeT advised Sawarkar to look for technology that was more down to earth, sustainable, and mass-produced.

That led to the idea of a portable diagnostic kit—and now that product could be the beginning of a breakthrough in health care around the world. Apart from providing much needed services to villagers, it helps city doctors manage remote virtual clinics.

Filling a Health Insurance Gap?

And the need is great: Two-thirds of India's 1.1 billion population live in the rural heartland, and the country has no national health insurance. Those in need typically walk miles to the nearest government clinic, which is more often than not unmanned and ill-equipped to take on more than minor ailments. For Sawarkar, the goal was simple: "Every individual should get the best quality health care at an accessible place and affordable price points."

So far, about 50,000 people from 20 villages have used Sawarkar's kits. By January, there will be 25 kiosks spread across many more villages. Now the entrepreneur is joining with pharmaceutical companies to sell subsidized medicines to the villagers. And over the next five years, he wants to add pathology, eye care, cardiovascular disease, and biochemical tests to the kit. "We want to solve the common man's problems—that's the core," says Sawarkar.

Lakshman covers India business for BusinessWeek.

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