I first heard the phrase ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in the Year 2000. At the time, I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and AI was the topic of choice in several research paper presentation contests (where semi-educated engineering students would suggest AI applications to solve critical problems) that I attended. As students, we didn’t care whether the opportunity in AI was real or not. For us, it was a weapon to include in our portfolio, when we applied for a Master’s Degree to American Universities. I then attended University of Texas at Austin, where within the first week (in Fall 2003) I witnessed a Robotic Soccer match, played in the lawn outside the engineering school. Two teams designed robots who’d battle against each other in a soccer game. It was magical to see. I told my friends and family, the future is here. By 2010, we’d have robots bring us our coffee, I had imagined.
It is now 2017 and, let me state the obvious, robots still don’t bring us our coffee. (I request my wife to bring it, and then go bring it myself). But I am hoping that’s not going to be the case for too long.
And, here’s why. The one critical component to commercialize next-generation technology is the availability of venture capital. Be it Google’s search engine or Netscape’s browser, the availability of risk capital – to take on technology risk, experiment, research and finally arrive at a mainstream model – is crucial. Generally speaking, India’s VC ecosystem largely bets on market risk businesses till date. Think e-commerce, SaaS, global data analytics and the like. These were companies with no technology risk, and the investors bet on entrepreneurs who could build processes, systems and sales models to mitigate market risk. But, now, Indian VCs are gearing up to bet on next-generation, frontier tech startups. Newer VCs like Ideaspring Capital and pi Ventures are focused on technology-centric companies, while older ones like IDG, Sequoia, Accel and several others don’t want to miss out on the frontier tech opportunity in several sectors.
If I may generalize a little bit, this is the first time in the history of the Indian startup ecosystem, that we’re seeing a reasonable number of venture capital investors back AI startups, medical devices, electric vehicles, industrial robotic ventures and drone technology. Of course, we had DFJ bet on Chetan Maini’s Reva, which was a reasonable success, but such examples are few and far between.
Thanks to venture capital availability, we’re now super excited about what India’s Frontier Tech Ecosystem can offer. In this edition, we chronicle the early-stage entrepreneurship journey of 12 exciting new ventures in India. These entrepreneurs are solving crucial, real world problems in healthcare, financial services and manufacturing, using cutting-edge tech. Here are a few examples:
- To detect breast cancer at an early stage, Niramai Health uses a cancer screening software that is non-contact, radiation-free and cost-effective by fusing thermal imaging technology with machine learning and data analytics.
- Flutura Decision Sciences and Analytics helps make critical decisions in industrial sectors, like oil & gas, by combining analytics and data from sensors placed on critical assets, by using its IoT Intelligence platform called Cerebra.
- Coimbatore-based Vishnu Engineering has designed a robot to be used at a retail branch of a bank. Its first robot is now functioning at City Union Bank in Chennai.
- Zenatix using AI and automation to monitor energy usage and save costs in manufacturing setups and large commercial complexes.
- in is building a technology stack to make it easy for developers to build augmented reality features into apps.
Yes, in each of these cases there is certainly an added layer of technology risk in addition to the market risk; But for the first time in history, India has the opportunity to bring new technology to the world. One or two major successes will result in a thriving hi-tech ecosystem in India, and that is what we’re rooting for.