July 3, 2024

Lakshay Talwar: My journey from being a social entrepreneur to becoming an ACT For Health Fellow

I’m someone who is very passionate about enabling livelihoods and at the time I applied for the ACT Fellowship Program, I was channelling my own social entrepreneurial energies as the co-founder of AeSha Foundation – a grassroots lab for increasing women’s proactive participation in public life through income-generating work, civic engagement, and meaningful social life in low-income settlements.

I was looking for perspective at the time; being a social entrepreneur is a challenging body of work and I felt the need to look at it from a different set of eyes in order to be able to build better, faster and stronger. During my time as an ACT For Health Fellow, I had the opportunity to spearhead the Implementer’s Network – a key strategic initiative that aims to facilitate the deployment of market ready health-tech innovations at the last mile through partnerships with grassroots NGOs, state governments and ecosystem partners. Simply put, it provides a testing ground for tech innovations to find product-market fit within some of India’s most rural, remote and underserved regions.

The network comprises over 20 organisations actively engaged in high-impact work at the last mile. Forging collaborations with these organisations helps achieve several objectives:
Generate evidence on the effectiveness of tech-solutions in improving critical health outcomes at the last mile
Provide startups with real world feedback and pathways to scale sustainably with government and NGO partners
Enable implementation partners to enhance programmatic outcomes by piloting and integrating innovative tech solutions

Working on the Implementer’s Network turned out to be a highly enriching experience for me. My responsibilities included onboarding partner organisations, fostering strategic collaborations between like-minded startups and partners, and co-designing and monitoring pilots to ensure sustained outcomes. My first task as part of this project was to organise a tech-showcase for two of our potential grantees and network partners. The tech-showcase is meant to introduce and demonstrate new, innovative solutions to all our network partners, gather feedback on the feasibility and relevance of the solution, and potentially explore collaborative opportunities for pilots. In this showcase, we demonstrated two innovations – one in mental health and an AI-based oral cancer screening solution – which garnered interest from 8 partners. By the end of the process, we were able to propose 3 pilots for the large-scale deployment of the oral cancer screening technology!

Over the following months, I saw the impact of these efforts firsthand as we successfully onboarded Atom360, an oral cancer screening innovation, as a grantee—something I had the privilege to lead and oversee. The opportunity to engage deeply in pilot design and monitoring was a highly enriching experience. In the last year, we activated a total of 9 pilots and committed close to 5 crores cumulatively for deployments. An illustrative example of this would be the cervical cancer screening pilots we had initiated with our grantee Periwinkle in collaboration with PATH, our implementation partner. I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in getting this initiative off the ground in 20+ primary health care centres across 3 states. My personal engagement spanned from co-designing the Monitoring and Evaluation framework to ensuring regular cadences to monitor progress, and of course, the occasional (or rather, more than just occasional) crisis calls are always the fun part of working on field deployment projects.

If I were to encapsulate my learnings as an ACT For Health Fellow, the following key takeaways come to mind:
Ensuring that we are “Partners” and not “Funders”: If I may take this opportunity to sprinkle some grains of honesty – for those who are tuned into the social sector, most funders tend to fall prey to the saviour complex. I genuinely believe this is one area where ACT truly distinguishes itself by being extremely founder-centric and grounded in its approach.

Holding the fort for the implementers as much as for innovators: This is a difficult one and requires a fine balance. While our core work demands us to be more startup and founder-centric, ACT as a platform requires us to display high-levels of empathy for the needs of the implementation partners. Ensuring that support is extended where needed, listening carefully to what they need to generate mutually beneficial outcomes and mobilising resources accordingly.

Patience (of all kinds) is the key: Can’t emphasise enough on how big a learning this has been for me. From patient capital to patience during setbacks and toward outcomes is a massive skill and value to embody in this journey.

Being close to the field: That’s where it all plays out and that’s from where one learns the most. A non-negotiable.

Finally, as I reflect on this journey, I take back immense learning moments with me, along with deep gratitude for all the wonderful organisations and people, including the team at ACT – for trusting me throughout, guiding my learning process, and letting me tag along in this journey filled with enrichment, challenges and tons of joy!

Applications for the 2024-25 cohort of the ACT Fellowship are now open! Click here to apply before the deadline of 13th August, 2024.

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