In Conversation: Raghu Dharmaraju, President at ARTPARK

January 13, 2022

Raghu Dharmaraju, President at ARTPARK, has spent the last two decades bridging innovations and societal impact. As a founding leader, he built the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a pioneering nonprofit in AI for social good, and launched innovations/ programs in global health and agriculture with partners such as the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, WHO, Better Cotton Initiative and several states. His team was the only winner of the global Google AI Impact Challenge from India and the only AI XPrize shortlisted entry from a developing country.

After a decade in the US focused on innovation management and technology commercialization at places like Xerox PARC and Corning, I returned to India to pursue my dream of societal impact through innovation. I entered the health care space as a med-tech social entrepreneur. Scaling the Embrace infant warmers from first users to over 300,000 babies, I experienced first-hand the challenges in bridging innovation and impact, both in public and private health systems. I had come to see many problems as consequences of a collaboration gap between implementers and innovators.

As a fellow in the technology workstream, I am lucky to be working closely with the co-chairs as their thought partner. To help cut through complex intertwined issues and create a common vision, I have turned to visual storytelling. Using comic strips(!), I am helping the technology stream, and now the other workstreams too, articulate reimagined health journeys as a way to communicate and brainstorm what success could look and feel like. In my day job as President at ARTPARK (AI & Robotics Technology Park) at IISc, I am interested in the question: Given India’s particular challenges, what kinds of technologies and devices should we deliberately invest in starting today, to enable citizen-centred universal healthcare 5-10 years from now? So my work with the commission is very synergistic.

There are many interlinked challenges and several mental model shifts required, so its difficult to say which are the main ones. However, there are a few things I find myself wondering about often.

The first: Without a shared understanding (between various stakeholders) of the goal – what ‘universal health care’ means and what success should look like – how do we ‘get there’?

The second: We have badly designed, entrenched incentives (and disincentives) of various kinds. How are we going to confront them?

The third: Do we even have the ability to question the validity of some fundamental constructs of the current system? Are we too burdened by our collective experience to try new things?

This Lancet commission is different from most commissions. There is a very energetic verb – reimagining – in its name, that sets an explicit goal. The implicit objective – that of sparking a movement to transform India’s health system – is even more worthy, ambitious and daunting. So I worry that scholarly publications and well-argued recommendations alone will not engage decision-makers and citizens sufficiently. Hence, I hope we will tell compelling stories and capture their hearts and minds. I hope we will catalyze a movement where we assess every system and idea from the angle of citizen-centricity. For the medical and digital technologies space, I hope we will outline the agenda for UHC-enabling policies, infrastructure, innovations and investments for the next decade.