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Old Wisdom, New Avatar

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With a vision to make Ayurveda a standardised, evidence-based medical treatment, Delhi-based startup NirogStreet, a technology-enabled, doctor-led community and commerce platform, is trying to reach out to doctors to give them access to technology, quality learning, certifications and quality medicines

By Tarannum Rana

A few years back Ram N Kumar contracted Hepatitis C, and after going through all sorts of allopathic medicines and still finding no improvement in his condition, he was close to giving up hope, “I was unable to digest anything. I felt that there is no way out and I will succumb to the disease. Then one day, my father took me to an ayurvedic practitioner. I accepted his treatment as a last resort, and within six months I felt much better! It took me another three years to get completely cured. It was a slow treatment, but it worked. I wondered why is it so that not more and more people are availing this ancient healing knowledge of Ayurveda?” he says. There was clearly a gap somewhere, and Kumar set on a quest to understand why Ayurveda had lost its footing in the modern Indian healthcare setup.

Soon thereafter, Kumar, then a software engineer running another successful entrepreneurial venture, started curating the knowledge and resources needed to create a basic framework that would later become NirogStreet. Finally, in 2016, he launched NirogStreet, a community and commerce platform, to facilitate Ayurvedic practice in the country.

Taking a leap…
The more Kumar researched the modern-day Ayurvedic practices, the more he realised that the biggest problem that distanced people from this traditional medicinal practice was trust. “People trust Ayurved, but they don’t trust the doctors. They don’t trust the medicines. Also, India has a large number of Ayurvedic doctors, but the problem of quacks and non-qualified doctors is quite rampant. The fact is that people are ready for Ayurveda in this country but they don’t know which doctor to trust. This is basically the issue that NirogStreet aims to address. We are working towards bringing people’s trust back to the vaidyas,” he explains.

He further stated that it is important now more than ever that we understand the significance of traditional medicines. These medicines have survived for thousands of years all over the world – in China, in Africa.

In China, Kumar informs, patients are provided with the choice for opting for allopathic or traditional medicines during visits to clinics. Both the medical systems are given equal importance and are equally covered by insurances. Needless to say, such a system, Kumar believes, will go a long way in battling serious issues like AMR, aside from offering people more sustainable and cheaper modes of treatment. “Unfortunately, Ayurveda is one of the most unorganised segments,” he says. Well, no more. Kumar believes that in India too, traditional practices can be made the first line of treatment.
Striving to create an impact on the nation’s healthcare system, he states, “India is a country of billions. It can be intimidating – trying to fuel such a huge change. What encouraged the NirogStreet team was the fact that we were trying to solve a problem that most people are facing on a daily basis – lack of satisfactory healthcare facilities.”

With Ayurveda, things are even more tricky. Unlike the modern healthcare system, the Ayurveda practising community in India remains largely unconnected. Doctors mainly work solo, and there is practically no knowledge sharing platform which connects these practitioners.

“This is the first issue that we at NirogStreet started with – building a platform where doctors can exchange information, discuss case studies. How can we expect this community to grow if it is not well connected?” he mentions.

With the motto ’empower the doctors, empower Ayurveda’, Kumar and his teams spent the first few months after NirogStreet’s launch by visiting Ayurvedic doctors all over the country and bringing them together on their platform.

Kumar informs that India has over 6,00,000 ayurvedic doctors and over 240 Ayurveda medical colleges producing over 20,000 new graduates every year. Not many know that there are specialisations like paediatrics and gynaecology in Ayurveda as well. If there is one goal that NirogStreet relentlessly pursues, Kumar informs, it is to bring all those practitioners and experts and their knowledge to one common platform. Another vision that guides the founders at NirogStreet is to make Ayurveda standardised, evidence and knowledge-based medical system. In this respect, the startup started reaching out to doctors to give them access to technology, quality learning, certifications and access to quality medicines.

….to flying high
NirogStreet raised its first funding of half a million dollars from Spiral Ventures, a Japan-based venture capital firm, which as Kumar credits, has been instrumental in NirogStreet’s growth by assisting the startup not just financially but also by giving the Delhi NCR-based startup a global exposure. “Thanks to Spiral Ventures, we got the opportunity to be finalists at Hack Osaka Global Conference, 2019. They have been the best investors one could have asked for, lending unconditional support throughout our journey,” Kumar says. The startup also partnered with Technology 9 Labs in June 2017, a unique venture building studio that works with upcoming startups as a co-founder, to supplement their technological deficiencies.

All the hard work finally bore fruit in May 2017 when NirogStreet launched its first website. The next feat was launching the ‘NirogStreet for Ayurveda Doctors’ app in December 2017. Kumar adds, “It took me six months to get 100 doctors on our platform. Today, we have 50,000 doctors using our app and website daily. We have become the first to successfully introduce technology to Ayurveda practice.”

” I started out alone, but I was soon joined by two other co-founders, Abhishek Gupta, who was running a similar entrepreneurial venture Brahma Ayurveda which was taken over by NirogStreet, and Shrey Jain,” informs Kumar. Gupta and Jain hold the positions of CMO and COO at NirogStreet respectively. Now with three offices Delhi, Varanasi and Kolhapur, NirogStreet is a budding startup employing 60 strong.

The startup has also been working with the Ministry of AYUSH and CSIR (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research) to bring scientific back-up to traditional Indian knowledge since January 2018. “This has greatly helped us set up various standards for our venture,” Kumar claims.

The trust deficit conundrum
A major challenge that Kumar and his team faced when they started was language barriers, due to the extremely diverse demographical nature of India. It was a challenge to connect, for example, a doctor in Kerela who speaks Malayali with a doctor practising in rural Haryana who speaks Hindi. Another challenge that the team faced was that due to the unorganised nature of the medical segment, a lot of knowledge and information that Ayurveda dealt with was limited to a region or a specific local language.”

There are many schools of Ayurveda. We have the Kerala School of Ayurveda, the Benares School of Ayurveda, etc. Every part in India has developed its own practices. Also, unlike other medical practices, in Ayurveda, a doctor is also like a researcher. They have to grow herbs and examine every patient with a fresh eye because Ayurveda relies heavily on personalised medicine. Quality issues with Ayurvedic medicines was another concern that Kumar felt which created a trust gap between the masses and Ayurveda. Efficacy cannot be compromised upon. In this respect, May 2018 NirogStreet launched its e-commerce venture allowing doctors to buy medicines directly from manufacturers.

“The most effective way we help these doctors, however, is by bridging the trust gap between them and patients. In that direction we have started NirogStreet certifications for clinics, which are given out if a clinic meets our stringent standards: the doctor should have valid educational qualifications with a minimum of three years of work experience and they use our technological platforms for their treatment procedures. As of now, we have certified around 200 clinics up until now all over the country,” Kumar says.

“Once a clinic is NirogStreet certified, the onus of ensuring quality care is on us. The patient can go on our website and check out the details about the doctor,” he adds. The startup has also introduced an annual crediting system for all the doctor partners. Over 10,000 doctors earn credit from us, based on a system designed by top experts. It includes courses and tests and requires a thorough study on the doctor’s part. This again ensures that the doctors remain thoroughly up to date with the Ayurvedic studies. All this helps to solve the trust deficit problem that Kumar was talking about, and he claims that doctors practising in Gurugram, Haryana have reported up to a four times rise in their incomes.

Empowering the vaidya
From the data that NirogStreet has procured from 50,000 doctors that we have partnered with, they have been able to to create a data bank for 250 top diseases, and the medicines that work in their treatment. This data bank is another huge help for the doctors. This has all been accumulated in an app which we call the ‘Vaidya Tool’. In a world where the significance of precision medicine is just being realised, Vaidya Tool by NirogStreet is an impressive feat indeed. The app also helps the doctors with inventory management, further learning and training and even diagnosis and overall deliver a better patient care experience. It incorporates all the Ayurvedic principles, and its AI-based software can even help doctors understand the patients’ doshas and prakratis, and the combination of medicines that may be used in their treatment. But most importantly, the app helps doctors connect on one platform.

Kumar recalls, “A few months ago, a doctor in Punjab was struggling to find the right treatment for a patient suffering from a chronic disease even after six months. He put up the case on our app, and immediately got suggestions from at least 20 other doctors using the app. Three hours after posting his query, he restarted the treatment, and the patient started recovering after only 15 days.”

“We work very closely with our doctors. We work as partners- we provide them technology, training, access to quality medicines, patient management including making appointments and follow-ups using Vaidya Tool,” he adds.

Sustaining the venture
“We realised early on that in a country like India, a subscription-based revenue model will be hard to sustain. We learned that we will have to create value around our services,” Kumar says. India has over 2,00,000 ayurvedic clinics run by these doctors, who are like small/medium entrepreneurs, informs Kumar, and his startup saw potential in these numbers. However, revenue is primarily generated by its e-commerce platform for ayurvedic medicines.

“The supply chain of Ayurvedic medicines is completely broken and the segment is ruled by fake medicines. Our e-commerce platform is a step towards curbing this problem. Our doctors can order supplies directly from manufacturers through our site, where they get access to multi-brand medicines on demand. And this set up has actually pucked up really well,” he informs.

He also stated that they only allow pure medicine brands with proven quality standards to sell on their site and not FMCG companies. Furthermore, he disclosed that NirogStreet plans to partner with over 150 medicine brands by the end of the new year on our platform from the 18 that it is partnering with currently. Quality control is of utmost importance, he believes, as it is the only way to ensure trust back in Ayurveda.

In the last few decades, Ayurveda has seen a fundamental shift in terms of public perception: where there is an immediate threat to life, people rely on western medicines. But more and more people have started looking at alternative medicines to manage chronic and long term diseases like diabetes or liver diseases. This trend is even more common in cities.

According to a report on Indian Ayurvedic Products Market by imarc, the Indian ayurvedic products market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14 per cent during 2019-2024. “Ayurveda has become a major player in the treatment market for diseases like diabetes, liver problems, knee pain, migraine, etc. This significant growth is happening despite Ayurveda being an unorganised sector,” he says. Moreover, he adds that with no foreign component involved, the industry is purely Indian with the farmers and tribals as manufacturers.”

According to Kumar, on an average, a doctor spends around Rs 6 lacks per year on medicines. The startup aims to have 3.5 lacks doctors on its platform, of which 1.5 lack doctors use Vaidya Tool, 1.5 use NirogStreet e-commerce site, and 50,000 will be certified by the next two years.

More than just the money
Though the startup has proven to be a golden venture, it is the satisfaction that comes out of impacting millions of life that keeps Kumar and his team get going every day. Quotes Kumar, “Through our platform over 1.5 lack case studies have been discussed, and over 7 million patients have been treated by our partner doctors. This is helping us curate a wealth of knowledge that the doctors and researchers can use for better treatment options,” he adds. Constant positive feedback from doctors also strengthens their belief that they are on the right track.

He adds, “Ayurveda has the potential to touch the lives of millions of Indians in need. With NirogStreet, I found an opportunity to build something which was frankly larger than the scope of it being a mere business. Its an about a way of life- a better, healthier life strengthened by ancient wisdom.”

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