After literacy, kerala now tackles student entrepreneurship

After literacy, kerala now tackles student entrepreneurship

Madhumita Prabhakar from The Smart CEO magazine chatted with Sijo Kuruvilla George, CEO, Startup Village, one of India’s most promising incubators, that has taken upon itself the grand mission of creating a US $ 1 billion student startup out of India

MADHUMITA PRABHAKAR

SIJO KURUVILLA GEORGE,CEO, STARTUP VILLAGE

Earlier this month Kerala-based Startup Village was in the news for SEBI, the market regulator, approving its US $10 million angel fund. According to an announcement from the incubator, the fund could go up to US $20 million with the ‘Green Issue’ (over-allotment) option. With this, Startup Village will become one of the first few incubators with its own fund, to invest in early-stage businesses in India.

This piece of news garnered a lot of attention, thanks to Startup Village’s goal of disrupting the student startup ecosystem in the country. Sijo Kuruvilla George, CEO, Startup Village, and his team at the incubator are thinking really big – they want to create 1000 product startups out of college campuses by 2020, build 100,000 square feet facility to host companies and possibly, catalyse the creation of a billion dollar student-founded company in India. We caught up with George to discuss the Startup Village journey till date and future plans.

Please take us through the early days. What was the thought behind establishing Startup Village? Why Kerala?

Startup Village was established with a vision to provide student startups with assistance to develop themselves into profitable companies, creating jobs and generating income by leveraging the resources of the public sector and the connectivity and funds of the private sector. Kerala, with its highest literacy rate and teledensity offered the best environment to setup a telecom/internet business incubator. While academic institutions around the country have their own public private partnership (PPP) incubators, the most successful PPP technology business incubator in India is the Technopark TBI, Trivandrum, that has incubated several companies, generating a total of 3000 jobs. One of their success stories is MobMe Wireless, which is poised to be the first student startup from Kerala to go public. Having the experience associated with a successful business incubator made Kerala more attractive for the setting up of Startup Village through a three-way PPP model between Department of Science and Technology, Technopark TBI and MobMe Wireless. We began with a grant from the Department of Science and Technology from the NSTEDB. The initial grant was half of the total sum of five crores that was to be given over a period of three years.

How did you approach the members of the advisory council? 

The members of the advisory council of Startup Village are industry stalwarts who have been instrumental in providing mentoring and advice to our host institute MobMe and its founders. The experience of the advisory council and their visionary thought leadership has been instrumental in our exponential momentum of growth and visibility.

What is the current employee strength and what are the different functional areas within the Startup Village? 

At present, Startup Village employees 12 full-time employees and one to three interns over each quarter of the year. Interns are given the opportunity to grow and experience first hand, the various functional areas of Startup Village. The core functional areas at Startup Village include academic relations aimed at evangelising Startup Village’s vision on entrepreneurship, knowledge repository aimed at creating a common resource pool of key technological skills, either through in house personnel or through seminars and workshops, incubation to provide regular and virtual incubation facilities to startups, strategy and operations to oversee the growth of Startup Village and develop a roadmap for the same and new initiatives aimed to explore new directions that Startup Village can contribute to and provide first level in house mentoring to startups.

How many startups have been incubated since its inception? How many colleges have been reached out to? 

At present, we have received 612 applications for incubations; out of which a total of 225 are incubated with us. We have 45 regular incubates and 180 virtual incubates. Our incubates also include 60 student startups. Startup Village has campus ambassadors in 40 different campuses in Kerala through our Campus Connect initiative. The aim is to reach 100 colleges in 2013.

The sheer volume of applications and potential investor interest in the products of our startups has shown that the PPP model is very relevant to the present entrepreneurial climate of Kerala. The model has shown itself to be very advantageous till date.

Why focus only on technology startups? 

We’re focusing on telecom and internet startups due to two simple reasons; our host institute, MobMe Wireless, works in the telecom sector, which makes access to that knowledge repository very easy. We can leverage their experience in the telecom sector and provide the relevant knowhow to startups in the same domain. The second reason why we are focussed on telecom and Internet businesses is their ease of infrastructure requirement. Unlike manufacturing industries, a telecom or Internet business can work out of a plug and play office with infrastructure like tables, chairs, Internet and air conditioning. However, we do have startups that are working on other fields such as healthcare, augmented reality, exploring alternative energy sources etc. At present, these are virtually incubated while sufficient infrastructure for their expansion is being set up.

Is the PPP model working? 

The sheer volume of applications and potential investor interest in the products of our startups has shown that the PPP model is very relevant to the present entrepreneurial climate of Kerala. The model has shown itself to be very advantageous till date.

What is the selection process adopted before incubating a startup? 

Potential applications are scrutinised based on the business plans submitted. The applicants are then asked to present their plan to our selection panel through a pitch session of three minutes, during which the panel will aim to understand how the startup founders aim to monetise their ideas. Companies are selected based on the team, the team’s and product’s potential, market competency against similar products and economic viability. On being accepted into the incubator, they are encouraged to apply for virtual incubation. Once space is available, they are moved to regular incubation.

What are some of the challenges you face today? 

The greatest challenge we faced was convincing established agencies that we are in this for the long haul and are not a one-startup hunter. Our aim is to incubate 1000 product startups over a decade and the sheer volume and performance of applicants has enabled us to overcome this, our greatest challenge. At present, our challenges include evangelising the vision of Startup Village across Kerala, India and the world and attracting viable product startups and potential angel fund contributors while at the same time trying to instill in our startups the need for social entrepreneurship.

What, according to you, are the primary challenges startups face in India and how is startup village addressing those concerns? 

Any startup anywhere in the world faces the same challenges; startups in India are no exception. A startup has limited funds, network and resources like manpower to work with. Incubators, and in particular, Startup Village addresses these challenges by providing plug and play offices that takes care of the space, internet connectivity and infrastructure for a startup while working to connect them to a large network of professionals who can mentor and guide the startups.

Tell us about how you brought companies like KPMG, Inolyst and Kinfra to offer their services to Startup Village at heavily subsidised rates.

Our advisory council members were gracious enough to evangelise the vision of Startup Village and companies like KPMG and Inolyst were only too happy to be of assistance to this revolution. MobMe is our host institute and has offered all their technical expertise to our startups while KINFRA has been very supportive with the provision of resources like space at subsidised rates.

We hear there is something known as an energy innovation zone at the Village. What is it all about? 

The energy innovation zone is still exploring theoretical avenues of alternate energy. This will help provide a realistic expectation of the infrastructure required for the setting up of the innovation zone. Once the zone is setup, our inventions are poised to revolutionise electrical energy; one such invention is the power saving inverter switch off.

Please take us through the startup school initiative at the Startup Village.

The startup school offers a three month residential program that imparts entrepreneurial skills training and on hand mentoring to aspiring entrepreneurs to provide a holistic approach to converting ideas into monetised avenues of revenue generation.

What are your future expansion plans in terms of space? 

We will be moving into our new 1000 sq. ft. facility in the next week while our one lakh sq. ft. facility is expected to be ready to move in by the second quarter of 2014. 25000 sq. ft. of the one lakh sq. ft. is expected to be ready by the end of 2013.


STARTUP VILLAGE – QUICK FACTS 

  • The most prominent technology incubator in the country that operates on a public-private partnership model.
  • The Village’s mission is to create 1000 product startups in India by 2020 and possibly, a one billion dollar startup founded by a student
  • Building a one lakh sq. ft. space to incubate companies
  • Startup Village has lined up a top-quality list of mentors and an advisory council to guide the incubate companies and Startup Village, respectively. Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys chairs the advisory board and the mentoring panel includes Krishnakumar Natrajan of Mindtree, Phanindra Sama of RedBus, among many others. 

10 non-negotiable factors that incubators need to keep in mind while identifying prospective student projects

  • Merit of Idea
  • Attempt to monetise
  • Market research on similar product
  • Innovation on existing product or technology
  • Homework in terms of business plan creation, idea progress etc.
  • Availability of key resources to provide to students
  • Provision of handholding and relevant mentoring to commercialise the idea
  • The creation of a definite product
  • The creation of an easy to use product
  • The creation of a product that can be upgraded