A Playground for India’s Young Entrepreneurs

Kerala provides resources to help new businesses get started

20 February 2015

The state of Kerala is teeming with young engineers. On the southwestern coast of India, it has close to 150 engineering schools. Thousands of their graduates, however, leave not only Kerala but also India to work for high-tech companies elsewhere. The state wants these young engineers to do something they rarely consider: stay at home and start their own businesses. In the long run, Kerala wants to create an innovation-driven economy similar to California’s Silicon Valley.

India is 73rd out of 78 nations ranked in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, published by Imperial College Business School, George Mason University, and the University of Pecs. “Less than 1 percent of graduates from these [Indian] institutions think about entrepreneurship,” says IEEE Senior Member Srinivasan Ravindran, the 2014 chair of the IEEE Kerala Section. “But a majority of students are innovative, and when mentored to become entrepreneurs, they turn out to be more productive working for themselves than working for a traditional company.”

Kerala, in partnership with its universities and organizations like IEEE, has made it a priority to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among its talented professionals and engineering students by setting up an environment to help them flourish.

NURTURING ENVIRONMENT

To this end, the state has funded three so-called incubation hubs, located in the capital of Trivandrum and housed in three of the 10 buildings that make up India’s largest technology park, Technopark. The Technopark Technology Business Incubation Centre was started in 2002 by the government of Kerala, and based on its success, in 2006 the state’s Department of Science and Technology established the Technopark Technology Business Incubator. The National Centre for Innovation, Incubation, and Entrepreneurship (NCIIE) is where members of the incubators come for training on topics such as developing business plans, budgeting, and marketing.

Those who want to become members have to apply and go before a committee that judges them on such criteria as the soundness of their business plans, the potential to employ people, and the ability to generate revenue.

The business incubation center provides the office space for the startups, while the technology incubator is where they go to get help with identifying technologies to develop. At the center the entrepreneurs get access to technical experts, specialized equipment, and assistance with arranging for seed capital.

In a 2013 interview published in Rediff Business, K.C. Chandrasekharan Nair, managing director of the incubation center, said it had incubated 200 companies and more than 96 percent are successful, he said. “This is a world record, as the average success rate [for startups] is 50 percent.”

The wireless company MobMe and mobile search engine Innoz Technologies were among those incubated in Technopark.

PRIVATELY FUNDED INNOVATIONS

Separate from Technopark is India’s first technology business incubator funded jointly by the public and private sector, as well as the state. Startup Village, which launched in 2012, is located in Kochi, about 206 kilometers from the state capital, and focuses on technology product startups. While anyone can become a member, its aim is to foster entrepreneurship among students and recent grads. Its sponsors include Infosys cofounder Kris Gopalakrishnan, Cisco, ICICI Bank, KPMG, and the state’s department of science and technology.

So far Startup Village has helped more than 500 ventures. The fledgling businesses get perks either through the village or through partner organizations such as money from an angel fund, interest-free loans, technical support and legal services, and Web hosting services. Some of the village’s amenities include office space and Internet access. It also holds technology workshops, hackathons, and networking events.

Two successful ventures that have come from the incubator include Fin, a finger-mounted remote control, and Rico, which turns a smartphone into home security devices or a monitoring device for smart homes.

One of those the incubator helped is IEEE Member Arjun Pillai, the cofounder of Profoundis, which so far offers the Vibe app. The app is for salespeople who need additional information about sales leads and prospective customers. It searches the Web and social media to fetch information and builds a profile, which can be uploaded into a customer support system.

THE RIGHT MIND-SET

These hubs can exist only if there’s a steady supply of people wanting to launch their own businesses. The IEEE Kerala Section does its part by working with IEEE student branches to encourage innovation. The global IEEE Young Professionals group is doing the same, says Pillai who is vice chair.

More than half of the major engineering universities have student branches. The branches regularly organize talks by industry representatives and host networking events with successful startups. According to Ravindran, the Kerala government also offers special incentives to engineering students who want to launch their own companies.

The Kerala Section also formed the Promotion of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program, which aims to pair students with mentees who own their own companies. There’s also a new IEEE Consultants Network, which will match technical consultants with clients.

Realizing that the section could not continue to churn out entrepreneurs on its own, last October it brought together leaders from government, academia, industry, and startups to discuss how they could work better together to this same end. Recommendations included assigning students projects that would apply what they learned in class to solving real-life problems, creating awareness about the importance that patents have in developing new technologies, and encouraging industries to work with researchers on new products as a way to instill an entrepreneurial spirit, says Ravindran, who is now vice chair of the IEEE India Council’s Industry Relations group.

“It is important to ensure that our young professionals have the ability to create innovations from the technology they are exposed to,” he says.

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