Suppose you are all decked up for a weekend outing with friends. Everything is going well, except the cabbie should have been at your pick-up point 20 minutes ago. It's touch-and-go whether you'll reach the club before entry closes. You are pulling your hair out.
When an everyday situation like that can be unnerving, imagine the helplessness of those who have had a medical emergency, say, a brain stroke or cardiac arrest, in the family, and the ambulance takes ages to arrive. Every passing minute can feel like eternity, but all one can do is pray and pull oneself together.
With traffic in India's metros moving at a snail's pace, it's a problem that begs an immediate solution.
Former advertising professional Jeetendra Lalwani faced similar delays whenever he called an ambulance for his frequently-ill father. It would arrive 30 minutes to an hour later than the time promised, by which time his father’s condition would worsen.
Realising this gap, Lalwani teamed up with Nilesh Mahambre, a former TCS executive and software veteran, to set up an ambulance services startup. “We used to work together for a social cause [and were involved in the] clean-up of four rivers in Bombay. He was ex-TCS, so he would help me with technology,” Lalwani explains.
But it wasn't a headlong dive without understanding the nitty-gritty of the segment. The duo met several hospitals and ambulance service providers in the course of their research. One thing was clear beyond doubt—there was a pressing need for agile ambulance response in crowded metropolises like Mumbai.
Lalwani, Mahambre and Himanshu Sharma launched Dial4242, an app-based ambulance aggregator, in November last year. Besides TCS, Mahambre spent seven years at Lionbridge Technologies, Inc., a provider of localisation solutions. At Dial4242, he oversees technology, product development and investments.
Lalwani has over a decade's experience as a marketer and has worked at agencies such as Leo Burnett, Bates 141, McCann, TBWA, and Cartwheel Creative. He has also founded digital marketing agency Heads or Tails. He steers marketing initiatives at Dial4242.
Sharma leads the backend and on-ground operations for the startup. An engineer and management graduate, he brings over 19 years of experience in the services industry and startups.
How it works
Operated by Health Wheels Pvt. Ltd, the Dial4242 app is currently available on Google Play. It allows users to book the nearest available ambulance and track its location in real time, a feature the startup claims sets it apart. Just as with cab-hailing apps, the customer can see the estimated fare before the trip starts and pay via a digital wallet. Dial4242 has four ambulance variants: basic; ICU or cardiac; paediatric; and transfer of dead bodies. A basic ambulance and dead body transfer cost Rs 800, ICU/cardiac costs Rs 2,000 while paediatric service comes for Rs 1,500. Lalwani said the company will launch more variants in coming months.
Dial4242 is also different in that it offers ambulances for medical appointments, hospital discharge as well as intercity travel. When it comes to taking the infirm and the elderly across the city, for example, such services can come in handy. “Government ambulance services, for example, only operate for emergencies. What happens to patients who want to visit the hospital for a regular check-up?” Lalwani asks.
The startup has so far on-boarded over 125 ambulances on its platform and tied up with Wockhardt Hospital, Mira Road. It is currently operational in South Mumbai, the city's western suburbs and the Virar-Thane belt. Plans are afoot to cover the entire city by June.
Dial4242 earns revenue from commissions charged to its ambulance service partners.
It has so far secured Rs 1 crore in seed funding from an undisclosed angel investor, and will use the funds for market research, product development and operations. The startup is also in talks with multiple investors to raise its next round of funding.
While Dial4242 claims its technology and real-time tracking set it apart, several startups have sprung up in the ambulance aggregation space in the past 2-3 years, namely Hyderabad-based Ambee and StanPlus, Kolkata-based Advatech, iRelief Services, Call Ambulance and San Francisco-based MUrgency Inc.
With so many players already in the fray and no clear market leader in sight, is there a case for aggregation in the space? Ajeet Khurana, an angel investor and mentor, says the low usage frequency, which can sometimes be several years, makes it iffy. “Being an infrequently used service, there is doubt about a case for aggregation itself,” he adds. That also means app downloads will not be easy for the company—users tend to download and retain only those apps they are likely to use often.
Besides, considering the critical nature of ambulance service, it's a zero-error and zero-downtime business. Ambulance startups need to ensure their services are available to customers round the clock. “Unless there is somewhat comprehensive coverage of the market, aggregation doesn’t work,” Khurana explains.
On the positive side, ambulance services are a non-discretionary spend, which means people are willing to shell out much more than what they would for a cab on a regular day.
“Currently, the ambulance network in India is highly fragmented. You don’t know where to go for an ambulance. The commission they [Dial4242] charge can be 15% or more. The economics support it,” he elaborates.
Can Dial4242 take the lead in a still-nascent market? Time alone will tell.