Gitika Srivastava and Dr. Naresh Ramarajan had both lost loved ones in India to COVID-19, so when a devastating wave of the disease swept across the country last spring, they leapt into action. In a single whirlwind weekend, the Cambridge entrepreneurs tapped into their networks and raised $2 million in relief funds, which they used to deliver much-needed oxygen to India.
Little did they know it was just the beginning of their extraordinary, lifesaving work, which has energized the Indian-American community in Massachusetts and beyond to help a country where many still have family and friends.
Srivastava and Ramarajan, founders of Navya Network, a cancer informatics startup, initially focused on securing oxygen concentrators — portable machines that increase the oxygen level in the air and feed it to patients through tubes attached to their nostrils. Ramarajan, who is also an emergency room doctor, had seen firsthand how the concentrators, which can also be used at home, let hospitals free up beds for the sickest patients.
The two raised money from executives, doctors, and philanthropists, such as prominent Boston-area tech entrepreneur Desh Deshpande — part of a wave of donations for India from the Indian-American community including that of Vertex chief executive Dr. Reshma Kewalramani. Srivastava and Ramarajan then enlisted the help of nonprofit group Direct Relief to charter a FedEx cargo plane to Mumbai and deliver concentrators to hospitals, many of them in rural parts of India. The pair, through their startup, drew on a decade-long partnership with Tata Memorial Centre, India’s largest cancer hospital network. Over the course of seven flights with FedEx as well as Air India, Srivastava and Ramarajan were able to deliver some 5,700 concentrators.
By June, Srivastava and Ramarajan realized the demand for concentrators would soon decrease, and wondered what more they could do to better prepare the country for the next COVID wave. Working their networks again, they honed in on an idea to build oxygen plants at hospitals.
About the size of a garage, each plant separates oxygen from air and pipes it into hospital rooms. They cost up to $220,000 each, and can be set up in a matter of weeks. The difference in scale is enormous: While one concentrator can support 60 patients a month, a single plant supplies oxygen equal to the output of 120 concentrators a day.
With donations pouring in, they were able to set up nine plants at hospitals throughout India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated the first one of the group in a virtual ceremony in July.
All told, Srivastava and Ramarajan have raised $4.5 million. They are now using the remaining proceeds to support vaccinations in India.
Reflecting on all that has transpired this year, Srivastava says she is grateful for the opportunity to help, as well as the trust of donors who opened up their wallets without hesitation. ”We were extremely blessed to become the hands and feet of this movement,” she says. “I think God strengthened us with the way so many people just came together. The energy from these people keeps us going still.”
The biggest takeaway for Ramarajan: When you’re asked to do something good, just say yes.
“Before you know it, you’re soaring up in the air,” he says. “You’re doing a lot more and your impact is multiplied because you’ve had so many people join you in the work and lift you up.”
Correction: This story has been updated to more clearly characterize Dr. Reshma Kewalramani’s philanthropy.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.