Tuktu brings new tech to an old industry. Started in the Vancouver area, Rustam and his team have established a working model that has the potential to scale across the region, and elsewhere. Apart from generously sharing his experience and thoughts, Rustam believes in the importance of communities as stakeholders in Tuktu’s evolution.
Rustam, so glad we get to connect again a bit more formally. When our paths crossed more than a decade ago, you were setting up micro-grids and solar rooftops in rural India. Fast forward 2021, you founded Tuktu in Canada, to solve challenges faced by older adults. Tell us a bit of the Tuktu backstory and what it does.
Thanks, Mahesh, for reaching out to me. It’s always a pleasure speaking with you.
As you mentioned, my first entrepreneurial venture was Boond – one of India’s first solar mini-grid companies and that experience gave me the chance to make an impact firsthand and understand how we can create business that do good while making money. Today Boond has over 20MW under its belt and employs so many people that I feel proud and satisfied.
I moved to Canada in 2016 as my wife wanted to pursue her PhD at UBC. Being outside India, I think about my parents a lot, and also realized how sending money and planning those occasional trips to India were not enough. As any kid of my generation, I feel the urge to do more. My parents are super independent and have led a very active life, so watching them struggle for small things – like setting up the computer or zoom to talk to their grandkids, going to the hospital or the temple or helping with documents etc. was very painful for me. I realized they didn’t want full time physical care but more companionship – people who they can trust and who can help out on demand – just like family.
Healthcare, on a broader level, has seen amazing innovations (and increased access) and thus my focus was on building a support ecosystem, something than can make their life easy, convenient and joyful. I decided to jump in and explore if I can do anything about it. I looked at many companies and innovations in the west and in India and came up with Tuktu. In a way, it emerged out of trying to solve for something in my personal journey as an adult with aging parents.
Tuktu today is a reality, and I am proud that we are a mission-driven company and solving for a problem that matters today, and more so in the future.
At a basic level, we connect family and friends interested in supporting the needs of their aging loved ones to their neighbors for lifestyle support needs – like grocery runs, light housekeeping, rides, gardening, kitchen assistance, technology help and companionship. We emphasize security, and ease of use, and employ an intelligent matchmaking algorithm to ensure a smooth, safe, and happy engagement while providing families with a better understanding of our users’ needs and challenges. Our goal is to provide care and peace of mind with a support platform that allows care recipients to live in their own homes and lead a fulfilling life for as long as possible.
Recently Ratan Tata invested in a companionship-focused startup in India, and obviously the news received a lot of attention. I personally find Tuktu quite fascinating and unique as it solves for the care problem in a smart way – a combination of technology, local community participation and personalized services – with a model that can scale. Can you tell us about Tuktu’s services, and how they have evolved since you started?
Given our global and collective experience over the last two years, there are two core human elements that came to the forefront – one, social bonds, be it friends, family or community, are as important as any other; and two, there are some amazing folks willing to go the extra mile to make others’ lives better. Even with travel restrictions and such, there is a shared understanding among people across boundaries, and this reset in our otherwise busy and fast-paced lives, attracted people to Tuktu. While I hope humanity doesn’t go through such a crisis again, we have an opportunity to build new models of care and companionship.
We started with a few essential services that we got from our customer discovery. For example, driving and picking up people from the hospital or being with them during these visits is very high on the list. You can imagine the relief that a person like me or you would get if we knew that someone is present with our parents when they go to the doctor. Technology help was another big one as we realized that most people wanted to connect to their loved ones far away. Similarly, simple things like cooking together or housekeeping also came into the services we started offering. All these are things that you would do with a family member or a trusted companion assembled together bottom up.
We do a very good background check, train people on how to engage empathetically with older adults and take care of the whole process from booking the time to making the payment.
The matching problem is one many technology companies try to solve, be it college admissions, jobs or dating. In the case of Tuktu, how do you ensure you match the right people to provide such services? What are some lessons here?
We realized that the quality of the engagement or companionship was very linked to the match. You can appreciate how diverse we are and hence for older adults, finding someone who speaks the same language or has similar cultural traits or maybe went to the same college is a very big deal.
So at Tuktu, we have prioritized our technology and processes to ensure that the match is as close as possible. We identified 24 parameters that make a perfect match – ranging from demographic things like gender, language, culture, educational background etc. to character traits like preference for punctuality, reticence etc. that we can use.
Right now, we use a smaller subset but we are already seeing results. For example, we had an older gentleman here who worked in the army and spoke a particular language. We gave him a companion for his walks using our matchmaking who had a similar background and spoke the same language and we noticed a strong customer satisfaction. I guess this is quite obvious but for us it was a hypothesis that we proved technically and now have started to have data to support our claim. But its not enough.
Beyond (just) matching
“Since humans are so diverse – we really need a lot of data to make this intelligent or get an AI based model to do it adequately. Also, we realize that while the match can be made by a system, we still need people to get trained on empathy and care so that they can provide the best support. So with safety and familiarity – we need lots of empathy too. All three are necessary.”Rustam Sengupta, Tuktu Care
Would it be okay to say Tuktu is modeled like Shopify, for Companionship? For example, if I had a small outfit running services for older adults in my locality, could I use your platform to build out a smart way to fulfill those services? What would I need to ensure for that?
Absolutely! That is our goal. To overcome a big challenge like this – we need to think ‘ecosystem’ and not just one’s own company. Our platform is for anyone who wants to improve the care ecosystem of older adults. Wherever you may be, individual or company – you can use the Tuktu platform to bring in those you care for and also your network of companions. We will manage the scheduling, background checks, matchmaking and all the other support services – so that you can concentrate on what is most important – customer service and care.
We want to partner with anyone and just like Shopify, we can have you up and running within no time. For example, in Vancouver, we work with the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church who use the Tuktu platform to connect their parishioners to the community.
The seniorcare industry, if I were to call it, has been in existence for a long time with non-profits, religious institutions, social enterprises and public funded programs. How would you say your team at Tuktu is different from your previous ventures and associations? What part of the business challeges you personally?
The timing for Tuktu and other agetech players is just right. Technology has come to a point when we are really making a difference now. And the problem is also huge – by 2030, nearly a billion people will be over 65 and we don’t have the infrastructure to manage that. Also, the healthcare industry has done miracles so people are living longer – nearly 25-30 years post retirement. So its time.
Tuktu is very different for me since its solving my own problem and everyone associated with us – our customers, investors, advisors, friends – all face the same problem. The value proposition is clear.
The challenge that keeps me up at night is ‘quality’. How do we ensure that as we scale and reach more communities, the quality of the service stays high and continues to be safe. I think this will be where you will see us innovating and working hard over the next few years – building stronger training and smarter safety nets. We want older adults to not just make it through their silver journey but we want them to thrive and enjoy.
You have built a product ground-up, established product-market fit, raised capital to support the early journey, got a great bunch of folks together on the team, and most importantly, serve happy customers. What’s in store for the year ahead?
This is just the tip of the iceberg and we have so much more to do. We need to get to more people and expand our impact. And like every startup with an ambition, we need more capital.
This is an unconventional field so it may not be for the everyday investor and better suited to those who see the big picture and play the long game. We have a lot more building to do on the product side, for example, creating capabilities to support inter-city or inter-country networks. This will allow for people siting in one country to support their older loved ones across the globe without having to worry for safety, quality and convenience.
The current team is exceptional and we need more people…smart and committed people who want to change how we build for care. Its not going to be easy but every customer I serve, inspires me. Those aging right now have done so much for us so its imperative that we create institutions like Tuktu for them.
Quick question. When can we see Tuktu in India?
Next year. We will be launching our partner onboarding programs and an individual or entity, regardless of the size and type, can find in us a safe, simple and efficient platform to build on their care services. Having the building blocks in place to get there is definitely on top of my list.
You mentioned about community funding for your business, and that was quite interesting. What is it? Why is it important to you?
We are creating communities that care so its important that we include the community as co-owners and in strategic decision making as we evolve the company. This is important for me as I want to give back to the community and have decided to earmark 10% of our equity ownership to the crowdfunding campaign underway and allocate one board seat for that.
You see crowdfunding is for guys like us – our customers, our employees, friends, well wishers and those who are passionate to make the lives of our older adults better. We want everyone to have a part in this movement and as we grow, we want them to feel that they made a difference too, irrespective of how much they can invest.
I am lucky that I get to do this full time but for those who can’t – they can join our crowdfunding and become co-owners and guide me.
Tuktu Crowdfunding Campaign
The crowdfunding site link will be up in mid-September. However, if you would like more details, you can reach out to Rustam on his email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit www.tuktu.ca to know more and check out the video below.