ACT-ing together against COVID-19

In March, a group of Indian founders and VCs launched ACT GRants to support the fight against COVID. Tejeswhi Sharma talks about how ACT came together, what they’ve accomplished so far, and what he’s learned from founders and grant recipients along the way.

Tejeshwi Sharma

Published June 16, 2020

It’s 20 March 2020. Coronavirus is insidiously spreading across India. News reports from different parts of the world sound ominous. Many of us in the start-up ecosystem — founders, venture capitalists, and others alike — are wondering what we can do to support India’s impending battle with COVID-19. But it needs a trigger, a clarion call that brings us all together and transforms the shared desire to help India into a concrete action.

Bejul Somaia, from Lightspeed, suggests a weekend call amongst folks from the venture capital industry. A few founders had a similar thread going in parallel. We decided to join forces. In a matter of hours, we had a volunteer team of leaders including Abhiraj Bhal (Urban Co), Vani Kola (Kalaari), Mohit Bhatnagar (Sequoia), Shekhar Kirani and Prashant Prakash (Accel), Nachiket Mor (ex-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Mukesh Bansal (Cure.fit).

After some deliberation on how best to help the founding team of this initiative, which subsequently came to be known as ACT (Action COVID Team), created six taskforces — including one to raise capital for giving grants. The idea was to identify high quality ideas to combat Covid-19 and arm the founding teams with resources to take it to fruition. It emanated from the belief that technology could provide a force multiplier to India’s fight against Covid-19. We wanted to enable ideas that are capital-efficient, scale ready and could have an immediate impact. Enablement began with a non-commercial grant (10L — 1 Cr.) and extended to helping founders work with the government, attract volunteers, procure working capital loans and forge other relevant partnerships.

A group of founders and VCs, including a number of folks at Sequoia India, pooled together 35 crores to anchor ACT Grants, a non-profit that would make grants to entrepreneurs fighting the pandemic. We then started fundraising to take it to 100 crores to provide the necessary ammunition to the initiative. All of us opened our rolodexes — countless calls were made by many including Vani (Kalaari), Prashanth (Accel), Mukesh (Cure.fit), Bejul (Lightspeed), Rajan Anandan (Sequoia), Sandeep Singhal (Nexus) and many others. We made several pitches to large foundations, industry consortiums and CSR funds. Of the dozens of calls I personally made, most agreed to support. We managed to surpass our goal of 100 cr. within 6 weeks of kickstarting the effort. Today, we have 100+ donors — individuals and institutions backing ACT Grants, which is managed by our invaluable partner, United Way Bangalore.

StepOne was among the first initiatives to receive a grant from ACT. My partners-in-crime Shekhar Kirani (Accel) and Tarun Davda (Matrix) caught wind of a team of volunteers from Qikwell, Times Internet, Pregbuddy and Recotap working on a product to power the state governments’ overwhelmed COVID-19 helplines with a scalable network of existing cloud telephony, queuing systems and a network of doctors on call.

Dr. Vaibhav (Lightspeed) and I hopped onto a call with Shubhadeep Mondal, Rahul Gupta, Raghavendra Prasad and Ganesh Chithambalam from StepOne on 26 March at 1am in the morning. It took us a mere 30 minutes to buy into their vision. We had an approval from the Grants Committee for a INR 25 lacs grant by 4pm the following day. Since inception, StepOne has powered over 1.3 million calls landing on govt. helpline numbers and triaged 80,000 patients, with over 6K doctors. They were quickly able to expand and build a large team of 100+ full-time and part-time volunteers from companies including PhonePe, Flipkart & more. It was heart-warming to see a team that has never worked together spring into action, driven by a strong purpose.

ACT has received 1,600+ applications online since March 31st. So far, ACT has partnered with 50+ companies / team to mount a concerted fight against this deadly virus. Over 100 ACT volunteers have spent countless hours matchmaking donors’ capital with the best ideas and teams. Today, ACT grant companies span 18 states in the country and their work has directly impacted an estimated 30 million people.

The first few days and weeks were intense and incredibly busy. We were trying to raise funds, set up a grant fund, make grant decisions and help grantee companies simultaneously. Every passing day was an opportunity lost and there was a deep sense of urgency among the ACT volunteers. Somewhere in there, we would squeeze in time for our day jobs. But I don’t think any of us would have had it any other way. It’s also been an incredible learning opportunity. We were drinking wisdom from the firehose.

Through the vantage point of ACT, I had the privilege of watching the war-time Indian entrepreneur in action. It’s been inspiring to see founders such as Prashant Tandon (1Mg), Mukesh (Cure.fit), Shashank ND (Practo) and many others come together to fight COVID-19, even while their own respective businesses were adapting to the “new normal”.

I learned that the hardest problems of humanity will be tackled through a combination of creativity, inspiration, optimism and relentless hard work. In challenging times, teams have to operate more efficiently, more accurately, more cohesively and more effectively. And the prototypical war-time founder is one that can inspire and enable her team to rise to the occasion.

Looking within the ACT volunteer team, I learned that a deep sense of purpose transcends all barriers — affiliations, ethos, culture and values. ACT was operating at full throttle without any friction. It’s been wonderful to see this varied and diverse team, some from competing firms, work together so effectively, united by a common purpose to move quickly and help save lives.

What’s been most inspiring, for all of us, is the passion and agile thinking of the entrepreneurs and innovators we’ve been privileged to meet through ACT Grants. There’s that saying, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. There’s a lot of necessity in India, and inventiveness is part of our DNA. Every grant application that ACT received is a living proof of the power of Indian ingenuity.

Clovia, a women’s innerwear company, magically re-purposed its factories to manufacture PPE (personal protective equipment) within weeks of receiving their grant.

Pune-based MyLab built out a local supply-chain in record time to produce India’ first domestic COVID-19 testing kit, which is cheaper and faster than many of its international peers. Today test kits from MyLab, Huwel, Molbio (all ACT grantees) have delivered more than 1.6 million test kits.

Bangalore-based Ethereal Machines, which makes 3D printers, has created an innovative differential two-way ventilator splitter that’s uniquely designed to allow two patients with varying needs use one ventilator machine.

Meanwhile Karkhana.io has deployed their expertise in 3D printing and tech-led manufacturing to produce PPEs and ICU equipment. They’ve supplied medical workers with over 1 million face shields so far.

Today ACT has made 50+ grants and the team is now focusing all its energy on working with Governments & Foundations across the country to ensure these solutions reach millions of Indians. The current focus is on solving immediate problems like managing the disease at home, matching patients to the available healthcare facilities and supporting various vaccines/drug treatment options.

Challenging times lay ahead of us. The situation may get worse before it gets better. But meeting so many innovators who are committed to finding solutions, I feel a strong sense of optimism. No matter how grave an adversity we are confronted with, the Indian spirit will prevail.

This column was originally published on Medium.