Indian founders and VCs ACT against COVID-19: Q&A with Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital

ACT will also work with government organizations.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread globally, claiming over 72,000 lives, a group of Indian entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have come together to form the “Action COVID-19 Team” or the ACT to support innovative ideas that can solve the current global healthcare crisis.

ACT looks to fund entrepreneurs, NGOs (non-government organizations), and SMEs that are working on a solution to the pandemic. To this end, it’s seeking to raise a corpus of INR 100 crore (USD 13 million) from the pool of founders, VCs, and other prominent personalities from the Indian startup ecosystem.

It has backing from VC firms such as Sequoia Capital, Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners, among many others. In terms of its entrepreneur members, they include Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Swiggy co-founder Sriharsha Majety, Oyo’s Ritesh Agarwal, in addition to other local aspirational founders.

Apart from giving a grant, ACT members will provide guidance and resources to the selected startup founders and mentor their teams to create a large-scale impact in the fight against COVID-19.

ACT is currently seeking innovative ideas in areas such as preventing the spread of COVID-19, scaling of testing, disease management at home, enhanced support for healthcare workers & hospitals, management of critically-ill patients, and support for mental health. A team of 25 people would evaluate these ideas. It has partnered with the Bengaluru-based chapter of ‘United Way’, a global non-profit organization to help it in coordinating the project.

We recently got in touch with Vani Kola, founder and managing director of Kalaari Capital, also a part of ACT, for an interview to understand the corpus and its cause better. According to Kola, ACT has received over 500 proposals till now and has managed to raise INR 80 crore.

The following scripts have been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (KR): How did this idea come about?

Vani Kola (VK): Like all good ideas, this was also serendipitous. We a group of eight VCs were having a Saturday morning call on March 22nd. And we happened to discuss what we could collectively do in our capacity to alleviate this situation. Of course, you could solve it in many different ways. But, one of the ways that this group can contribute more effectively is to do what we do well, which is to find interesting initiatives and ideas and support them financially, see if the innovators can find truly interesting solutions that are cost-effective and can scale. We would then use our combined resources of access and knowledge to help them scale and reach the masses.

This corpus of INR 100 crore is a philanthropic effort put together by various individuals which include founders of technology startups from India, members from investment firms, both Indian and overseas funds who are donating in their personal capacity. We have all come together to focus and create this movement.

Kr: How did you manage to get all these people on one platform and make a decision at such a fast pace?

VK: I know it sounds hard, but it has been easier than you might believe. We are a group knows that if we work together something can happen. There were six to seven firms that came together, and then other folks also joined and said, “yes, together we can do more.”

I also believe that sometimes, the things that don’t happen during normal times can happen during unusual times. We are living in unprecedented times which required us to come together in a way that’s never done before. It’s an opportunity, and it’s important for us to not miss that opportunity.

Maybe it seems hard under normal circumstances, but we are not living under normal circumstances. It’s not like anyone person or party has something to gain. There is a greater need and hence, a greater cause. The current circumstance reinforces the fact that how each of us as humans can come together and join efforts for a greater purpose and cause. We just want to do something that can actually bring together the experience and expertise we collectively have to solve this problem in India.

Kr: Of the INR 100 crore pool, how much has been raised till now? And it seems you are going to raise more than INR 100 crore.

VK: About INR 80 crore has been raised until now. We are hoping that the remaining money will get raised very quickly. And I think we might raise more. But it’s important to take one step at a time. This is what we need as of now, so I don’t want to project anything beyond the amount that we are seeking.

Vani Kola, founder and managing director of Kalaari Capital. Picture courtesy: Kalaari Capital

Let me put it this way: We may not know where the journey takes us. We may not fully know where the destination is, but a good beginning always portends a great journey. So, let’s see where this journey takes us.

Everything is new, and none of us have all the information or the knowledge, or the data, as it is dynamically changing. We just know that we have to adapt and change dynamically to the need and contribute to that. And, I don’t mean to contribute in just a financial way.

Kr: How are you leveraging existing startup infrastructure to seek better ideas?

VK: We as a group are leveraging the experience of startup founders who have already succeeded in enforcing, evaluating, and mentoring several ideas and entrepreneurs in their field. We have high-profile people from the industry such as Mukesh (Bansal) who is the CEO of CureFit, Abhiraj (Bahl) who is the CEO of Urban Clap, and Nachiket Mor are just a few people in our task force. They’re actively involved in sponsoring ideas, mentoring entrepreneurs, and evaluate their ideas. And the idea need not come from an entrepreneur. It could come from an NGO, or anybody with ideas and initiatives and wants to make a difference.

Kr: What are the selection criteria for this?

VK: There are several guidelines. One is we want to see the commitment of the people with their idea. Then it should be capital efficient and be able to prove what they can do with this grant and if they can progress with this grant. Lastly, we want to see the large impact value in the idea.

We are looking at ideas that can stop or contain the spread of COVID-19, quick and accurate testing, disease management at home to reduce the load on the hospital system, and enhanced support and care for healthcare workers. We are also seeking ideas on expanding capacity for critically ill patients, and also support for mental health.

Kr: Of all the proposals that you have received so far, is there anything that stands out in particular?

VK: It’s very early to say that. But, I guess there are a few ideas I can briefly mention. One is in telemedicine that I think is definitely interesting. There is also one that aims to cost-effectively test the infection on a broad scale.

Kr: Would you also work with government agencies?

VK: Yes, absolutely. Ultimately, this has to work hand in hand with the government, hospitals, and large initiatives, but large initiatives need a feeder system of something that’s very rapidly validated. We need rapid prototyping, rapid proof of concept, and then a rapid way to bring the product to market. So that’s what we are trying to facilitate. With our collective help and support, this will feed into the broader government initiatives.

Kr: What is the average investment size that you’re looking at.

VK: On average, depending on the requirement of the company, we will provide the grant of anywhere between INR 10 lakh to a crore (USD 13,000 to USD 131,000).

Kr: How did you go through the process of assessment during the lockdown?

VK: We are working round the clock, using all the work collaboration technologies that exist today. Considering that we are very used to it already, that has not been a problem because we are very used to working in this mode. So, whether it’s due diligence, or anything else, there are a lot of collaborative technologies that can definitely make this possible. So that has been not a bottleneck at all. There are more than 100 people working on this together.

Kr: How do you see these companies shaping up in the long run after the crisis is over?

VK: It’s still early days. We’ll have to see. But our expectation is that they will give their dedicated time and effort to this because this is not a one-week or a three-week challenge. This is a long-term challenge. So, my understanding is that they will definitely be involved long term in this.

Kr: Do you think the industry needs a similar initiative where prominent entrepreneurs and VCs come together to support young companies that have been hit hard by this pandemic?

VK: I think for now, we should focus on this aspect because this is what has brought us together. This is purely non-commercial and done by individuals and VC firms. What we can do at a more commercial level, I honestly don’t know. But I think the focus today given the lockdown, economic stress, and people dying, ought to be on containing the disease and helping patients.

When we come out of this, we can think about other aspects of the business. But today, I just feel personally motivated and focussed on the crisis of the moment. When the crisis passes, we’ll see what else we can do.