Systemic issues with Indian startups unchanged, waters even muddier: Punit Soni
Punit Soni

Punit Soni, a former top executive at companies like Google and Flipkart, launched his artificial intelligence-powered health-tech venture Robin late last year. With the startup, which is currently in stealth mode, Soni aims to change the very contours of the segment, which he believes is rife with "e-commerce companies masquerading as healthcare ventures". Besides, he told VCCircle in a candid chat, fundamental issues around the sustainability of Indian startups are being skirted by pumping in more money. He also spoke about Robin, his strategy for India, and personal investments. Excerpts.

Tell us about Robin. How do you think it will disrupt the health-tech segment?

It is a pure tech healthcare startup. Robin’s primary vision is to reinvent the health stack using machine learning and voice by targeting a very specialised problem in the supply of health data.

We see an opportunity here because the commoditisation of the voice stack and machine learning enables us to rethink what the health stack looks like, across all its aspects. That is the key thing that Robin is attacking.

It’s looking at the health stack holistically, including how patients interact with doctors, physicians’ other interactions, and how health systems are actually run. It’s trying to establish that systems can self-learn over time, and you don’t have to treat doctors as people who use work-flow apps to function but use them (apps) as thoughtful, intelligent units to come up with interesting insights.

We have a specific entry point that we believe is clever and allows us to be in the doctor’s office. It involves a lot of factors including decision-making, workflow automation, and documentation.

We are a voice-first company that's trying to build a voice-based interaction model. Today, voice interaction is where touch and mobile interaction were in 2007-08. It is going to be a game-changer in enterprise settings more than in the business-to-consumer space.

Healthcare is a hard space to be in. We probably have the best global investors in the sector backing us. We have put together a carefully curated team comprising people from both clinical and technical sides. We are 13-member strong, and have former Salesforce, Apple, and Google executives working for us.

Who are your target customers?

Our target customers are healthcare systems and professionals. We are going to build a very consumer-oriented product that operates in the enterprise space. Over time, if we get it right, we will start doing a lot of consumer-focussed things.

Right now, our focus is - heads down, do the pilot, learn, and scale a bit to build confidence.

Do you think there is enough innovation happening in India's health-tech space?

As for pure tech healthcare startups in India, I haven’t found anything that goes beyond the e-commerce element of healthcare.

Anything related to decision support systems using modern techniques requires tonnes of data. The newcomers are unlikely to have that sort of data. The only company that can do this is Google, which has already tried its hand at healthcare, including glaucoma and a few other things. It's not a startup friendly space.

Then there’s chronic disease management, which a lot of startups from India as well as the Valley try to address. The fundamental problem here is unless one is really sick, one doesn't want to use anything to resolve the condition. The market becomes very narrow. Preventive healthcare, therefore, is a difficult space to be in.

Then you have a host of companies doing doctor discovery, doctor ratings, and medicine delivery. I feel those are e-commerce companies masquerading as healthcare ventures. So far, everything that has succeeded or achieved some sort of scale in India is e-commerce applied to healthcare. That said, there are a lot of early-stage startups in India that are thoughtful about the space.

Innovation is going to be at the cusp of the healthcare business. So, the bigger question is "who’s paying" and "why are they paying"? What’s the price point?

What would be your India strategy?

At some point, I will have to put services and support around the health-tech business, and there’s no better place than India for that. It would be more like a development centre for us. I have the advantage of access to the Indian startup and tech ecosystem, and I will leverage it.

I’m trying to figure out where that talent lies. It could be in Bangalore for its pure technical talent pool, or Pune where there’s a lot of healthcare processing companies. There, we might find some of the best people for healthcare data, HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliance, EMR (electronic medical records) integration etc. I’m on a mission to find out if there could be a healthcare tech hub in India.

There's plenty of such talent in the Valley, and there is some in Boston.

Do you feel India's startup ecosystem has seen some fundamental changes over the last one year?

It’s the same. More money being pumped in, and more discounted products. If anything, it has probably led to a noisier environment where people are unclear what a good or bad company is. That sort of instability is not good from the perspective of having strong role models.

I’m happy that Flipkart and other companies have raised huge amounts and have a lifeline, but where’s the sustainability? I think the enterprise side of the ecosystem is going to flourish a lot more in the long term than the consumer side.

The systemic trends are pretty obvious and remain unchanged because the underlying issues haven’t changed. I think the waters are even muddier than they were a year ago.

You seem to be making few angel investments here.

I haven’t made any investments in India of late. I have made a couple of investments in the US - one is an enterprise firm in the automobile sector, and the other has a fresh take on customer support. Most of my investments have been there [US].

I’m open to investing in India, but haven’t yet found what I want. Ultimately, I invest when I feel I have something to add to the company. Besides, I look for serious technical or product concepts that fundamentally distinguish a startup from others.

I’m doing my own startup now, and my bar for investment is higher than what it used to be in terms of both quality and clarity. Entrepreneurs wouldn’t want to spend time with me on insights on sales or marketing; it's not that I am not good at them, but these are things you functionally learn. I would like to spend time discussing a unique product problem that you face, for example, a new concept you want to explore, or there’s something in the Bay Area that you don’t have access to. Just putting money is not my game.

It’s true that I’m not as glued to the Indian startup ecosystem as I used to be. I only see what comes my way.

Do you plan to step up future investments in India?

I’m going to invest in an India-focussed fund. The fund is going to be based out of the Valley, and it's large, more like a mid-stage fund.

I feel this could be a way to plug myself a little more into the Indian startup ecosystem, beyond the one-off angel investments. I have identified the funnel issue and, moreover, I can’t meet so many startups personally due to my work and schedule. So, I think it’s another way of going about it.

I would typically look at sectors where I have something to offer. My experience is in mobile, e-commerce, and pure consumer products. It’s very unlikely that I will invest in pure enterprise SaaS products. It may happen - I have done that in the US. But I am naturally attracted to mobile, e-commerce, and consumer products. Healthcare, too, will be a key segment as we have to expand here at some point. And one way to expand is to identify and invest in companies here.

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