If You Want To Do Something Disruptive In A Changing Industry, You Need New Blood

The co-founder of a million dollar, publicly-listed, mobile services company with an international footprint, and the founder of the premier low-cost eye care service in rural Karnataka are both the same person. It may be hard to believe, but there are more similarities than differences to shining in these two roles, and Kiran Anandampillai shows us exactly how it’s done with aplomb.

Kiran’s career began in Infosys in 1994, and was set to follow the trajectory of a typical engineer in Bangalore, the technology capital of India. But he chose to take a path less travelled, when he became part of Onmobile, an Infosys spin-off, that was one of the first successful consumer app company from India. He helped build the company from a 10 people start-up to over 1200 people strong with revenues over Rs. 550 crores (over $80 million). Kiran left in 2010, two years after the company went public, to turn his attention to solving one of India’s many social problems — affordable eye care for the underserved communities, through his own venture, Drishti Eye Hospitals.

Now, at 44, he has already spent 4 years in the social sector, and Drishti has quietly gone about making a difference. They have launched 6 hospitals in Karnataka, screened over 32,000 school children in government schools through Drishti’s School programs and raised over $2.5 Million in investment and grants. Kiran’s story is a great example of how a career in high technology prepared him to transform a vastly neglected sector and touch the lives of thousands, and we at AnuPartha wanted to understand how he navigated the path of working amidst a web of complex social challenges, managing varied interpersonal relationships and making difficult financial decisions.

If You Have a Good Idea, Don’t Give Up Till You Have Tried Everything

Kiran’s journey with OnMobile started in 2000, when the telecom value-added service was incubated within Infosys. As Head of Consumer Products, he launched Onmobile’s first product in the US markets in 2002, but as fate would have it, it coincided with the great telecom crash. The company was forced to shut down the US office in 2002 and move back to India. “We didn’t have a choice,” he reminisces, “we needed the money and we had less than $ 300,000 left in the bank when we came back.” It wasn’t the most cheerful of situations back home and many people had written them off saying that their start up wasn’t going anywhere. Amidst the general mood of gloom in the market, the most natural reaction would have been to abandon the idea as a pipe dream, cut his losses, and get back to his ‘day job.’

But the eternal optimists that he is, he saw the positives even in this despondent situation. He and his team had spent over two years re-developing the product for India. “We realised that if we can actually find a way to bring the cost down or make it really work for India, then we may stand a chance of making it.” This time, fortune ruled in their favour — in 1999, there was a new telecom policy passed by the Government that caused the market to start growing exponentially, so the conditions were ripe for the product to be launched in India.

As an entrepreneur, if you are trying to build or create something, you don’t want to give up easily. Even in the lowest of phases, you look for opportunities that are worth going after.” tweet

Looking at a problem with a new lens might reveal a solution that was there all along

Succeeding in India was a completely different challenge. It meant redefining goals, reassessing the market and also a complete overhaul of the product to suit the Indian market. They couldn’t merely relaunch the US product in the same form. They had to strip it down to just the basics. They had to forfeit their Oracle and Weblogic systems for more cost-effective boxes and open source software.

It was a huge gamble but it paid off for them in a big way. Very soon, they broke into their first operator in India. A second operator quickly followed suit. “We rode on the success of the operators themselves, and before we knew it, we were going back to the rest of the world and selling our products there as well.” By the time Kiran left OnMobile 2010, they were two years into their IPO and gaining strong ground internationally, with a customer network spread across 55 countries.

For our first product, we had to bring the cost down by more than a factor of 10 to make sure that it was even acceptable in India. It was a big deal!” tweet

Follow your passion and you will make a difference

After enjoying great success in the corporate sector, Kiran allowed himself to be drawn by the call of his heart. And his heart was slowly nudging him towards wanting to give back to India and serve the underserved communities. Talking about his inspiration, he says, “I was 38 when I exited OnMobile and still had many years of work ahead of me. I wanted to do something that was really meaningful. I am not someone who can sit idle for too long! So the question was, really, ‘What do you want to do?’”

Kiran was clear at the outset that he needed to do something disruptive if he wanted to make a noticeable impact or dent in any social issue that he was passionate about. He wanted to bring his corporate rigour and accountability to a sector where there was so much to do, and yet so little being done. “I knew that whatever I did, it had to have social impact, it had to be self -sustaining, and it had to be scalable. These were my three guiding principles.”

Kiran’s wife Anjali Joshi was equally keen, so they first dipped their toes in telemedicine in 2008, before realising that it was not yet ready for the mainstream. At around the same time, they happened to visit the Arvind Eye hospital in Madurai, a town in South India. Kiran recalls that he was fascinated by their model and their approach to eye care. “They are quite open with what they have done, and they are keen on other people replicating their model. When I looked at their numbers, I noticed that not only did they deliver great impact, but their model was actually profitable. I saw each of my three guiding principles in it, and was certain I had found the cause I wanted to back.”

Arvind Eye Hospital in Madurai is my benchmark. They are cost sensitive, sensitive to a patient’s needs, while also being aligned with the hospital’s larger goal. If they can do it, hopefully we can do it too, one day.” tweet

And so, along with Dr Rajesh Babu, and his wife Anjali, Kiran founded the Drishti Eye Hospitals (meaning sight) in 2011 to offer a full range of eye care services covering primary and secondary eye care to people living in the underserved areas. Their model is simple: Drishti sets up one hospital with surgical facilities in a district. Vision centres supported over tele-medicine are setup in smaller towns (talukas) of the district. A custom designed mobile vision centre is used to cover villages.

Social business has to be an investable idea

Kiran was adamant that the only way he could scale the initiative was if it was an investable idea. He pushed to have vision centres that would screen patients and send reports to the ophthalmologist in the secondary care centre, so that within minutes of receiving the data, the doctor responds with his assessment. The advantage of the Drishti model is that it does away with the initial cost-intensive approach to healthcare reform, of constructing a hospital from the ground up, and got straight into treatments. Of the initial days, he says, “We limited the initial investment but, at the same time, I started talking to the social impact communities to check the viability of the idea.” The real validation for Kiran was when Lok Capital, a VC and PE firm that specialises in investment in the development sector, decided to put in Rs. 2.5 crores (over $375,000) to fund Drishti. Most recently, in June 2016, Drishti also received an undisclosed amount in funding from former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani.

With the social impact sector, you need to have the patience and the understanding that it does take a longer time to make sure that all the elements and pieces work before you start replicating a model that works.” tweet

Kiran waited for almost two years before being sure that he was able to replicate his model, and launched his 2nd hospital only in January 2015. “I took almost 18 months to get the first hospital to being profitable. Thanks to those learnings that we got the second one quickly and it is profitable within 4 months.”

Adapting from the tech to the development sector

Making the transition from the high energy, competitive technology sector to the development sector meant that Kiran had to make a lot of adjustments in his own manner or working, and equally, in the way that he got his staff to achieve their goals. “For one, it is physically more demanding. We are so used to sitting at a desk all day, especially in AC offices,” he reflects, on his corporate days.

Kiran also faced all the challenges that come with working in a largely unorganised sector in India — lack of accountability and discipline from the workforce — simply because opportunities and exposure were scarce. His foremost challenge was to instil a sense of discipline, punctuality, and transparency in the way they worked. He admitted that it was difficult for him at first to grind down to minute details like streamlining leave of absence among staff and revising pay scales to reflect skills but he was able to learn and grow from those experiences quickly.

There is no dearth of people who want jobs in the development sector. If you nurture and mentor them, there is a lot of personal satisfaction from working with people whom you have brought into the system.” tweet

What is also radically different about Kiran’s approach is that he has left the medical professionals to focus on providing treatment, while not being bogged down by the day-to-day administration. Conventionally, in India, the doctor runs his own practice, so has to be an entrepreneur in the sense of promoting his or her own practice. With the daily hassles of managing eye care centres taken care of, the doctors are free to focus on what they know best — provide care and top quality treatment.

This has really helped to make an impact. He is now working on a revolutionary idea that would take the hospital to the people instead of the other way around through a mobile eye clinic. “I feel I am answerable to my investors, so I must show them results.” In the future, this model can extend beyond eye care to other aspects of healthcare as well.

Kiran admits that what fills him with the greatest sense of pride is the fact that in the Drishti model, every Drishti centre runs 2 key programs with the support of grants to screen all government school children in the taluk (administrative division) where children are provided free glasses, medicines and where required, surgery.

If you can solve their vision problem at their young age, the impact that you have on their life is much larger.” tweet

In the ophthalmology circles, Kiran Anandampillai confessed that he is known as “the software engineer doing healthcare.” Inadvertently, that is perhaps the most succinct and accurate description of Kiran’s career choices, his driving force and his courage to take the road less travelled. To anyone who is a witness to his journey, there is no doubt that, that has made the biggest impact.

Originally published at www.anupartha.com on December 15, 2016.

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