Q11. Which company released spectacles that capture 10 seconds video snippets and owns www.spectacles.com? (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Himadri Bora is a 40-year-old homemaker in Central Assam whose failing eyesight would have forced her to discontinue the ages-old household tradition of weaving, weren’t it for a pair of eyeglasses — a rarity in her part of the world.
“For many of us, buying a pair of eyeglasses only boils down to what kind of frame should we buy for the budget that we have. There is a large segment of the population that cannot even afford them,” said Parveez Ubed, founder of ERC, which provided the eyeglasses to Himadri at an affordable price.
Ubed is an opthamologist from Jorhat, a town which is a four-hour drive away from Assam. After completing his post graduation from Guwahati in 2007, he was excited to become a doctor, and started his career in a general hospital where he worked for 3 months.
He realised that this was not what he wanted to do and joined an NGO. One year and 10,000 patients later, he moved on to working in the government sector.
It was this experience that crystallised into the single principle on which he would base the operations of ERC.
“I realised that the base-level of the pyramid needs to be treated like a market and with dignity. I stress on that part,” he said.
Ubed believes that the poor are always at the losing end, as it is not their aspiration to get free eye care, and also not their choice. What they would like is eye care that they can afford. “They also want to sit there and ask questions, no one wants to sit there and let someone do whatever they want with their eyes,” says Ubed.
So Ubed decided a change was needed. He left his government job and opened up his clinic in 2011. Clients were first treated in his mother’s kitchen (Ubed prefers calling his patients clients). “Not quite the garage startup of silicon valley,” he jokes.
“Till 2015, I was the only ophthalmologist. I was also the driver of the van and the doctor. The first few people who joined me, now quite senior people in the organisation, used to sweep the office floors as well,” he said.
Today, ERC now has 25 optometrists and 100 people working full-time.
Not everything was a smooth sailing for the team. ERC needed substantial capital to carry out their ambitious plans. They plodded on for a couple of years treating patients. Fortunes changed in 2013 when ERC was nominated for the Sankalp awards.
According to the website, Sankalp is India’s most prestigious Social Enterprise awards, which have facilitated over USD 120 million of equity investments in more than 450 enterprises
“At that time we were not even a company. And investors wanted to invest in June 2013, and there was not any way to invest in a sole proprietorship firm, which is why we wanted to incorporate.”
Ubed says that the first round of funding put them on the map.
In 2014, ERC got USD 150,000 in their second round of funding. “It was a relatively good sum of money back then,” ERC opened up their first and subsequently their second and third hospital, and shows no sign of stopping.
Currently, ERC treats 5,000 patients a month. It states that they have treated close to 1.5 lakh patients between 2014 and 2017.
Throughout this journey, Ubed went about with a simple business model— he would ask the poorest client what can he pay for the treatment required. Ubed would then take this quote and hand it over to the experts and see whether it was a doable sum.
“I have people who have passed out from IIMs who help me build my financial models and good investment bankers from Singapore and India. So if they crunch their numbers and say, Rs 50 as the baseline fees for the medical intervention, they also provide me the numbers that I need to achieve to become EBITDA positive, and we work towards it.”
Ubed claims that out of the 100 persons who come to him for eye care, close to 43 of them can be cured with eyeglasses. He says that the system of operations is structured to be “simple, intensive and impactful.”
A typical day at ERC sees a mobile unit going to the interior places and on an average, close to half of these patients are given eyeglasses on the spot.
“If there is a cataract operation, we ensure that they are provided the transport to our hospitals, where they have a meal, pay the fee, carry on with the operation, have another meal and come back at the end of the day,” he says.
As qualified doctors are few and far ERC also trains young blood to give out basic eye care.
“We search for young men and women who are motivated, and do not know what to do with their lives and sponsor them for their training. We then ask them to serve the people in their community while being paid at par with anywhere in the rest of the country, ” says Ubed.
These assistants, known as ERC Vision Assistants, do household surveys, conduct vision camps for detecting basic eye problems and provide eyeglasses for a low cost.
The clients hear of ERC solely through the word of mouth, and through the exposure garnered by household surveys being conducted by the ERC.
"Going forward, we might spend on advertising to build a brand, but not to gather more footfall," says Ubed.
But this is just the beginning of the long road ahead for ERC as it looks to expand across the border as well.
“Countries such as Bhutan, Bangladesh, and even Myanmar are geographically nearby. We also share similar cultural roots, making it easier to set up a base and hand out eye care in these regions,” he said.
Ubed says that close to 18 percent of the cataract load in India is in the northeast, making it an ideal place to spread out ERC’s services in the region.
Ubed has taken the road less travelled but what keeps him motivated?
“The happiness of doing this work is what keeps me going every morning.”
Money cannot be the carrot at the end of the stick for him and his team at ERC as Ubed humourously notes, "Money in a startup is such a rare commodity."